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From Russia: the art of engagement

Lesley Chamberlain
30 January 2008

The opening of the From Russia exhibition in London on time can only be a good thing, given the poor state of British political relations with Moscow; but let's not forget that the first point, and joy, of this show of work from 1870-1925 is artistic. Of the paintings on show, by Van Gogh and Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse and Picasso, and Repin, Malevich, Goncharova and Larionov, among others, many are epoch-making. With these borrowings from the four main Russian state galleries in Moscow and St Petersburg, of works not normally viewable side by side, the idea is to foment a new sense of connection.

Comparisons come to mind between the delicate and mournful Russian landscape painter Isaac Levitan, for instance, and Monet, who lived in a gentler and kinder world where roads tended to lead somewhere. Levitan is the visual poet of Russia's unending open spaces, as those who saw the wonderful Russian Landscape exhibition at London's National Gallery a few years ago well know. On this occasion try comparing Matisse's trademark Red Room with a burlesque Russian equivalent from Kustodiev; or his Dance figures with those of Petrov-Vodkin's monumental boys on horses. It's a game you can play, as you wander round this heartening exhibition. And yet two rather different features of the show stand out in my mind.

One is the enormous, almost incoherent range of styles of Russian painting over the period, as if there was a late nineteenth-century scramble to try anything and everything coming from abroad, and find, not a copy, but a Russian correlative. A few years on, when the new bourgeoisie was beginning to take shape, Altman's adorable cubist-inspired portrait of poet Anna Akhmatova radiated an authentic intelligent middle-class Russian chic. One feels from it how much the home culture, not the most radical, but one that a good number of people can feel at home with, has benefited in Altman from his study abroad.

The other indelible impression the best Russian work leaves is of energy and soaring originality. Repin painted the joyful crowd after the 1905 Revolution almost as Renoir might have, but with a dynamic and almost daemonic additional kick. This was the moment when the stranglehold of the tsarist autocracy on so many aspects of daily life was undone and the thrill is how these educated men and women feel it. They are overjoyed that censorship has been lifted from the press, the universities, the theatres, publishing, and so on, after so many dark years. It was that move, in fact, that fully unleashed the spiritual energy of Russia's pre-revolutionary Silver Age which in turn gave seekers after meaning like Kandinsky and Malevich their purpose. Repin's vast canvass is thus just the right painting to act as a gateway to the whole exhibition at the Royal Academy, hung high above the entrance between the first and second galleries.

It was one point of a triangle which for me defined the Russian aspect of the show. After the hedonism of the the room dominated by Matisse's La Danse, a subtly lit model of Tatlin's Monument to the Third International, the inclining wrought-iron spiral planned to outdo the Eiffel Tower by a third, was a gut-wrenching reminder of how powerful Russian art can be; and, when you read about what it planned to house by way of a new political religion, how extraordinarily alien it can turn out, if one is forced to take it for real. But then contrast the aesthetic ambition in Tatlin's project, never built, with Malevich's austere, mystical black square. There are two rather different, not quite incompatible Russias here, and they go on recurring.

The Russian connoisseurs of the turn of the 20th century, whose confiscated and nationalised collections form the basis of the current show, bought with passion and vision. Sergei Shchukin kept Matisse going when he was almost unrecognised and ended up owning 37 of his paintings, including Danse II, commissioned to decorate the staircase in his Moscow mansion. Add to that 50 Picassos. Ivan Morozov owned 18 Cezannes. If the grand gestures of the day seem to be repeating themselves among wealthy Russians today, it does well to remember that the early patrons were at least equally keen on quality, and also to revolutionise and support the art scene in Russia. Shchukin's museum, open from 1909, inspired a generation.

Are there any unpatriotic Russians out there? If so, they're thin on the ground, or don't shout about it for risk of unpopularity among their compatriots, I guess. News that the entire private art collection of those great, recently deceased musicians Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife Galina Vishnevskaya was snapped up by a Russian oligarch and sent back to Moscow before it went under the hammer at Sotheby's last autumn created in me at least the uneasy feeling that in art as in all else the first years of the twenty-first century for Russia have been an exercise in chauvinistic rebuilding. Officialdom wants its big and prestigious empire back and is quite prepared to resort to old Soviet bad manners to get its way.

The irony in the Rostropovich/Vishnevskaya case was the fact that husband and wife were stripped of their Soviet citizenship in 1974 and thrown out of the country for harbouring the novelist Solzhenitsyn. They formed their art collection, for which oligarch Alisher Usmanov paid well over the estimated £20m, to create a Russia Abroad to keep them company in exile. In a letter, Mikhail Shvydkoi, the head of the Russian Federal Agency of Culture and Cinematography (Roskultura), expressed his gratitude to Usmanov (who also owns a 14.58 per cent stake in Arsenal Football Club) for bringing the collection to Russia in its entirety. ‘For Russian culture and Russia as a whole, all things relating to the name of Mstislav Rostropovich are invaluable,' he said.

Looking back to the last-minute fuss that was generated over whether this show would happen or not, one is reminded of how alarmist the Russian state can be in its uncircumspect self-assertion. As of old, one sometimes feels one is dealing with a psychiatric patient. Threats on the Russian side to cancel the RA show within weeks of its opening sounded plausible. There were fears that valuable work would be impounded by long-standing claimants of reparations against the Russian state. But if there was any truth in the insistence that this manoeuvre was not political brinkmanship, then the whole issue could have been handled with less aggression and more aplomb.

One always thought diplomacy was about avoiding overt conflict, but apparently not in the Russian case. Their treatment of the British Council in the last weeks has been pitifully crude and only serves to remind anyone with a long enough memory of what underhand louts official Soviet Russians were, trumping up criminal charges against any foreigners who got in their way, or who could be used to make a point.

Russia is a land of great art, but one which has almost no recognisable politics in the positive sense. On the other hand, the great thing about Russian art, as this exhibition shows, is the way it can help us feel the power to which that vast untapped polity aspires.

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