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French and Russian master paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg
Reviewed by Matt Dobson
Henri Matisse's painting The Dance, 1910 adorns tube stations and advertising billboards across London. This striking masterpiece is just one of the 120 paintings that show the interaction between Russian and French art. This exhibition at the Royal Academy covers art from an historical period of explosive mass movements and wars, a political turning point when the power of Europe's ruling classes, the capitalists, landlords and aristocracy was threatened by revolutionary uprisings of the working class and poor.
Today's political conflict threw the viability of the exhibition itself into doubt. There were diplomatic tensions between the British and Russian governments over the Alexander Litvinenko affair. The Putin regime feared legal claims on the paintings by the descendants of wealthy collectors from whom the paintings were taken. They were put in state museums for public viewing after the October revolution. The British government had to enact special legislation to ensure the paintings would go back to Russia.
The show includes works by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Maurice Denis, Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin collected by Russian textile capitalists. Also displayed are works by Russian artists who were influenced by art in Europe and fused what they had studied in Paris with depictions of Russian life and landscape as well as adapting and using traditional folk art techniques. The result is a collection of the best in European art in the twentieth century; realism, impressionism, post impressionism, cubism, futurism, abstraction and constructivism plus innovative Russian works that are unique and wonderful to discover.
Leon Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution explained the backwardness and contradictions in Russian society and the weakness of the capitalist class with its links to tsarist landlordism and aristocracy, in being unable to develop Russia to the level of advanced capitalist countries.
Russia experienced 'combined and uneven development'; the latest in industrial technique, with the profits going to the western European powers, alongside feudal conditions and land relations in the countryside. It is interesting to note that French art and culture had such an influence on Russia. This parallels the links between Russia and France. The French bourgeoisie was one of the main investors in Russian capitalism.
The French impressionists inspired by the French Revolution broke with artistic conventions; political upheavals in Russia had a similar ideological impact on artists who moved away from depictions of religion and mythology towards realism.
The contradictions described by Trotsky are in paintings throughout the exhibition, the opulent portraits of the aristocracy and clergy, the harsh conditions experienced by the peasantry and the revolutionary movements of the working class.
The highlight of the exhibition for me is Ilya Repin's awe inspiring Manifesto of October 17 1905. A powerful red and grey tidal surge of demonstrating workers sweeps behind the bewildered and shocked tsarist elite. It's the 1905 revolution!
The seizure of power by the working class in 1917 opened up a period of liberated experimentation and innovation in art and culture as the chains of tsarism and capitalism were broken. Workers were given the space and time to be involved in artistic production; the exhibition shows the development of workers' art collectives in Moscow and Petrograd in the early years of soviet power. It concludes with constructivism, a revolutionary attempt to "take over the forms encountered in everyday life" and reject the decadence and highbrow nature of bourgeois painting, to make art accessible to the masses and for everyday industrial use.
A drawing of Vladimir Tatlin's tower forms a dramatic end to the exhibition. This proposed headquarters of the Third International was never built. It would have been a spiralling iron framework with rotating glass spaces that would have dominated the Moscow skyline with a radio apparatus broadcasting communiqués across the world. From Russia is well worth a visit despite the expensive ticket prices and the total inadequacy of the information about the paintings and artists in the galleries.
The blurb tends to concentrate on the wealthy collectors and their "fantastic contribution to art history". Unfortunately the political tone of the exhibition is much like the Breaking the Rules exhibition reviewed in March's Socialism Today which associates constructivism with crude Stalinist art.
In The Socialist 2 April 2008:
Socialist Party campaigns
Workplace news and analysis
Marxist analysis: history
International socialist news and analysis
Socialist Party review