Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as a “window to the West”, St Petersburg quickly became, according to Alexander Pushkin, “the jewel of the North”. Fyodor Dostoyevsky would later call it “that most abstract and intentional of cities”. By the early 20th century, at the divided heart of Romanov power and emergent revolutionary energies, the place was exploding like a nihilist cocktail in a stagecoach. There remains, though, no plausible aesthetic, historical, political or cultural link between the sun, surf and sex of Perth and the wintry ideals of revolutionary Russia.
So there is something gutsy and improbable about “St Petersburg 1900”, the exhibition currently scattered across two floors of the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Among 230 works collected from the crazy days of 1870 to 1917 are post-realist landscapes, symbolist portraits and ethno-sentimentalist allegories. Some are masterpieces, some are not. There are ornamented distaffs, World War I propaganda artefacts, opera set-designs in watercolours. Artists such as Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich are represented. The show, though, is largely the result of one man’s enthusiasm – that of Alan Dodge, the gallery’s director.
“You’ll love Alan,” the marketing manager had assured me beforehand, “he’s a real character.” This description conjured unfortunate images of cultivated eccentricities and lilac shirts open to the waist in “the Russian fashion”. I wasn’t prepared for a quiet middle-aged American in a modest suit, who was introduced as “Alan” and proposed to take me through the entire exhibition. Though he had clearly done this many times before he never flagged, despite repeated interruptions from people wanting to introduce their wives, or to tell him how much they were enjoying it all, or to discuss some obscure detail in La Traviata. At one point a security guard, hounded by the public, needed to know where one particular piece was going to end up when the show finished. I began to wonder if Dodge could cure scrofula and bless babies too. He walked me past every work, bombarding me with salient details, not just names and dates but strange connections between the works, notable technical features, memorable anecdotes. Hours later, clutching my notepad and full-colour catalogue, I stumbled out into the cool evening air of Perth, overwhelmed.
Originally from Maine, Dodge got to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. by turning up twice a week until they finally offered him a job as education curator. He arrived in Australia in the mid-1970s, working under James Mollison and Betty Churcher at the National Gallery in Canberra before coming to WA in 1997. His dedication to this show is unbounded. “It’s Alan’s baby,” gallery staff members say over and over. “A labour of love.” As the critic Fredric Jameson points out, the fan is a larval form of the intellectual: there’s always a chance that a teenage admirer of Britney Spears might mutate into a dazzling musicologist. Yet a fan isn’t an intellectual. So someone who can grab hold of an artistic epoch, blow it out of the confusions of history, then make it matter in a foreign context should be listened to carefully. Dodge has done all that and more: “St Petersburg 1900”, which runs until October 23, is one of the most popular art shows ever seen in Perth.
It may never have worked had it been called “Russian Art 1900”. The restriction to St Petersburg – the place, the people, the cultural milieu –is crucial. Isolating the city in this way is like isolating the behaviour of rats in a laboratory. They don’t do what comes naturally but you can expose traits that the confusions of life would normally occlude; and if the traits are striking enough in their own right, they are all the more interesting given that these rats were just about to take over the laboratory.
It’s miraculous that some of the works survive at all. Perhaps most startling are the photographs of a performance of Tchaikovsky’s opera Yevgeny Onegin, with Nikolai Alexandrovich – later the ill-fated Tsar Nikolai II – featuring as Onegin himself, “the superfluous man”. Other works were hidden, deliberately miscatalogued by their curators in libraries, museums and galleries, or presented in ways that kept them off the Communists’ erratic ideological radar. At one Soviet museum opening in the 1970s a Malevich was hung without a label; the politburo milled about, then left without causing any trouble. You pretend not to do it, and we’ll pretend not to notice.
Other than Vienna 1900, it’s hard to think of another place in modernity where so many creative types went so crazy so quickly. Even Paris can end up looking like a disorganised showroom of provincial, Latin and Germanic imports when compared to the rigorous antagonisms evinced by these Russians. Foremost among the St Petersburgers were the Peredvizhniki, or the Wanderers. Sick of having to submit to studying the compulsory biblical and historical subjects at the Imperial Academy of Arts, these students formed a counter-society and turned their skills to becoming painters of daily life. One of the movement’s major figures is Ivan Shishkin, represented here by oil paintings and three drawings of forest landscapes. The earliest, “Relaxation in the Forest”(1865), depicts a sunlit couple enjoying themselves before the welcoming shelter of non-threatening oaks. The next, “Brook in a Forest”, is also sun-dappled and open. The last, “Forest Landscape” (1885), is the most powerful. The forest is no longer a stage for human delectation but a warping of branches that wrench the viewer into the composition without a path. Shiskin’s oils don’t generate this sort of heat. Even “Winter”, with its swathe of menacing trees, slams your eye towards a small perched bird, a distant clearing, sunlight.
Arkhip Kuindzhi’s “Autumn Quagmire” shows horses straining with their cart through a world of mud, a mother and her child curved over in the murky atmosphere. In Nikolai Yaroshenko’s “On a Swing” a lascivious red-nosed soldier leans over a vacant peasant girl who is nibbling some kind of sweetmeat. In Nikolai Bogdanov–Belsky’s pedagogical fantasy, “At the Doors of a School”, a young arrival, clad in rags after a long and difficult journey, peers hesitantly at the studious sunlit heads of boys toiling at their desks. In a different vein is Valentin Serov’s “Portrait of Prince Felix Yusupov”: a stern, stuck-up fellow in military uniform astride his charger. Yusupov’s son would later help murder Rasputin, and the horse looks mad as a snake – or, more pertinently, mad as Rasputin – with its lopsided ears, wild eyes and a muzzle melting into pale fire.
Melissa Harpley, the gallery’s curator of historical art, notes that the early part of this show coincides with the era of the Australians Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin. You can discern a certain consonance in style and even subject matter, particularly in some of the nationalistic bush scenes; take Alexei Savrasov’s “Opening in a Pine Forest”, with its severed stumps and sky, etiolated tree-tops mirrored in muddy pools trampled by human labourers. That is where the similarities end. Russia was not a minor imperial province but the head of a great empire. The stumps and logs are not indexing the heroic taming of the soil. They are the raw materials for survival: winter heating.
Sometimes Russia’s elemental extremity is aestheticised, as in Anna Ostroumova–Lebedeva’s lovely “Summer Garden in Winter”. Sometimes it becomes a loaded backdrop for dramatic literary depictions, as in Repin’s “The Duel Between Onegin and Lensky”. Sometimes it is given an art nouveau freighting, as in Maria Yakunchikova’s “Cemetery in Winter”. And sometimes it provides an excuse for experimental disruptions, as in Goncharova’s “Hoar Frost”. You will see things here you have never seen before. Malevich’s “Relaxation (Society in Top Hats)” shows elegant black- and white-clad figures amusing themselves on dark green ground. Towards the upper left of the composition, a white-hatted gentleman urinates into the void.
The show’s signature work, appearing everywhere in the publicity, is Vasily Surikov’s “St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Bronze Horseman in the Moonlight”(1870). Moonlight glints off the cathedral’s dome and bell-towers, the sparse clouds receding, the snow marked by ragtag groups of passers-by. A gargantuan Peter the Great rears on his monumental horse, ringed by a low spiked fence and gas lamps. I really like this painting, done while Surikov was still a student – although I suspect I have thereby succumbed to the lure of kitsch.
Most popular images are kitschy, which suggests tyrants and hoi polloi have similar tastes. You might be a tsarina or a suburban bank-teller, but you’ll probably both find yourselves drooling over the same winsome porcelain shepherdess or ridiculous diamond-encrusted bibelot. To adapt Celeste Olalquiaga’s thesis: kitsch is forever, art’s just for Christmas. But unlike kitsch, which is self-sustaining, art usually requires an elaborate explanatory scaffolding to stand up. You might not get an immediate hit from the suprematist Malevich if you didn’t already know a great deal about the history of art. As the journalistic cliche puts it: who in their right mind would pay squillions of dollars for a painting of a small red square (which isn’t, by the way, quite square)?
People are happy to pay for kitsch though. The gallery’s shop tables groan under gaggles of factory-painted matrioshka dolls, Beatles dolls, Lenin dolls, Shrek dolls, all going faster than toilet paper in the former Soviet Union. But you can also find, recommended by the director, Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Notable examples of kitsch in the show itself include Serov’s horrible “The Rape of Europa”, of which there’s an even yuckier porcelain version on display. If you peer closely at “The Lovers”, one of Konstantin Somov’s incredibly detailed porcelains, you can make out a tiny pink nipple blazing through the spotted black lace of a reclining woman’s dress. The nipple is the same colour as her ears. Pavel Kamensky’s porcelain series, “Figures from the ‘Peoples of Russia’”, consists of women in traditional regional dress and underlines the Disneyland feel of the late empire. “Though these look like kitsch,” says Dodge, “they’re not.” I find it hard to agree but take his point: Kunst and kitsch are often closer than you’d like to think, particularly in St Petersburg circa 1900.
The difficulty in telling the difference between art and kitsch is here a consequence of the promiscuity of the Russian avant-garde – its omnivorous and voracious appetite for images. There is nowhere the Russian artists weren’t prepared to go. They drew from street images, graffiti, cabaret, the
circus, cafe culture, cinema, ancient scholarship, rural life, folk tales, novels, poetry, religious iconography, nature, the latest developments in Europe, entertainment tricks, special effects. They worked with dancers, choreographers, impresarios, philosophers, aristocrats and priests. They took on the centre of European civilisation itself. The most striking example is Sergei Diaghilev’s Saisons Russes in Paris, culminating in The Rite of Spring. Composed by Stravinsky, choreographed by Nijinsky and designed by Roerich, the show drove Parisians bonkers when it opened in May 1913. Patrons began to beat out the rhythms on the heads of those in front of them. The way this Perth show mixes painting, theatre, decorative and folk arts, dance, stage and costume design is a reminder that the arts are most innovative when feeding off each other.
After Stalin, none of the great Russian artists could express themselves openly. Many of their ideas, if they weren’t obliterated or sent underground, migrated elsewhere. Stalin’s chief henchman Andrei Zhdanov denounced the poet Anna Akhmatova as “half-nun, half-harlot”. Many of Akhmatova’s friends and family were executed or imprisoned in one purge or another. This sort of trauma burns itself into souls, the same way people had to burn poems into memory so that the words of their friends might survive. But you can’t do the same thing with art. A poem recited is the poem; a painting described is not a painting. Osip Mandelstam’s visionary poem “The Century” envisioned the epoch as a great beast – with its spine snapped.
This dynamic show presents residues of radiance before the disaster. More importantly, it implies that the radiance and the disaster cannot be so easily separated. The last work you see before walking outside is Kuzma Petrov–Vodkin’s “Mother” (1915), a serene Madonna proffering her breast to her tiny child. Yet already things are awry. The icon corner of the room they are in has been filled with junk. The unnaturally bluish world outside the window is twisting and tilting. If traces of cubism and other radical innovations are still legible in the handling of the work, it is also a prefiguration of the worst of the socialist realism to come. Think of Nikita Kruschev’s 1963 speech: “The Communist Party is combating and will continue to fight against abstractionism and all other formalistic distortions in art.” Which suggests the Communists did like art after all – so long as it had a broken spine.
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