December 2018 – January 2019

Noted

‘Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage’ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

By Julie Ewington

Henri Matisse, A Game of Bowls, 1908, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. © Succession H. Matisse / Copyright Agency, 2018; photo by Vladimir Terebenin

From Matisse to Malevich: a considered snapshot of adventurous Russian collecting

Despite its grand title, this exhibition (until March 3, 2019) is a study in cultural patronage – a contained and considered snapshot of adventurous Russian thinking about art at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were the most important collectors, anywhere, of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. Thanks to the 1917 revolution, and subsequent turns of fate, these works were acquired by the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg; its great holdings of modern European art are the two men’s legacy.

The Russian collectors started, predictably, with the kinds of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings that are still blockbuster staples: Monet’s Poppy Field (c.1890), Cézanne’s views of his beloved country near Aix-en-Provence in southern France. The colours are vibrant, the painterly vigour challenging for careful, grey Imperial Moscow. But Russian taste soon became far bolder. Among eight paintings by Matisse are the lovely, limpid Bouquet – Arum Lilies (1912), painted in Morocco – the scent of summer wafts through the window – and the radical, simplified A Game of Bowls (1908), which shows pétanque, the game’s modern version.

How unusual were those acquisitions? Just one work, Pissarro’s sprightly Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun (1897), reminds us that Australian art museums mostly looked to British art, only rarely acquiring avant-garde French works; proof of this exception is the National Gallery of Victoria’s 1905 purchase of Boulevard Montmartre, Morning, Cloudy Weather (also 1897), the same-size sister of the Hermitage work. As for the Russian collectors, they took considerable risks, not only financially but also as cultural leaders under a repressive government resisting modernisation. This story is underscored in Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke’s video installation about the dialogue between Shchukin and Matisse, and the telling story of Matisse’s nude figures being over-painted by a local artist.

The Russians collected widely: look at Vuillard’s fugitive interiors, and a group of early Picassos, including an astonishing pink Cubist painting from 1912. Among later acquisitions by the Hermitage, there’s a savage Rouault and a fine brace of Kandinskys, but my favourite is Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars’ incomparable poetry scroll Trans-Siberian Express (1913), a running mate for another in the National Gallery of Australia. It’s a rich palette.

All museums memorialise their histories, and the Hermitage has a complex set of stories to tell, from its beginnings as an imperial project to its various post-revolutionary fortunes. With this and other recent exhibitions – Royal Academy, London (2008), Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2016–17) – the canny Hermitage supremo Mikhail Piotrovsky dispatches several birds: he promotes his museum, justifies the 2014 expansion into premises dedicated to the modern art collections, earns foreign exchange, exports the history of modern Russian internationalism. Yet a cautionary note rumbles subterranean. Intellectual and cultural freedom have been precarious in Russia under every regime. The exhibition catalogue’s dogged account of the history of these works over a century shows how dramatically fortunes can change: Shchukin’s and Morozov’s collections were first celebrated, then repressed, and now are restored to prominence, when their content no longer offends. The exit work is sobering: Malevich’s Black Square (1913–31), acquired long after his death, when it was safe to rehabilitate him. The painting’s flat refusal is the harbinger of everything to come: exuberant pre-revolutionary experimentation, savage post-revolutionary repression. Beware cultural commissars – of any persuasion.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

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