Russia's Plains Make Plain Pictures; the National Gallery's Latest Exhibition Reveals Russian Landscapes to Be without Passion, or a Place in Art History

Article excerpt

Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

THERE are times when a man must cry "Enough!

Enough!", as now, with Russian landscapes at the National Gallery.

For half a century I have paid some attention to them, and - apart from taking the view (unfashionable in the Fifties) that Soviet propaganda paintings of collective farms were, in spite of their political messages, of some aesthetic merit - in the whole range of Russian landscape painting, I have seen no virtue that has not been better expressed elsewhere.

This has always been the problem: Russian paintings of peasant wretchedness have, by illustrating peculiarly Russian miseries and degradations, been distinct from kindred paintings by Western European painters. So, too, with political subjects, for Russian rebellions, assassinations, patricides, punishments and retributions are always that much more dramatically dreadful for being Russian and not merely French, German or preposterously English; but with landscapes, the Russians fall behind. Russian landscape painting is mundane.

The visitor's first impression of the National Gallery's exhibition must be that he has paid [pounds sterling]7 to be transported to some neglected municipal museum in the north of England, stuffed with paintings discarded in 1911 by Alderman Reginald Ackroyd and his ilk. We have all seen them, if not in galleries then languishing in the corridors of Victorian town halls in the shires of Lancaster and York, the gilding of their ugly and over-ornamented frames dulled by dust, their dreary subjects made drearier by English painters who thought it romantic to paint landscapes half an hour after dusk.

Only on moving deeper into the subterranean chambers of the dark Lubianka in which the National Gallery chooses to hang exhibitions do these landscapes, most of which would benefit from daylight, take on an international note - and then they seem less native Russian than borrowed from some French, German, Dutch or Austro-Hungarian tradition absorbed by Russian painters on their travels.

Then we recall that in the second half of the 19th century, Paris was the crucible of European painting to which would-be artists from all nations came, that in Dusseldorf and Munich there were art academics so famous for their teaching that even Picasso as an adolescent dreamed of education there, and that, long after Rome had lost its reputation as a city to which all art students must go, Russians were still urged to maintain this academic pilgrimage.

They absorbed inf luences, though without necessarily understanding them, so obviously that it is possible to wander through this exhibition seeing it simply as a reflection of how Frenchmen had painted the forests of Fontainebleau and Barbizon, or of Camille Pissarro's approach to Impressionism, or, very tentatively, of Monet's lakes and haystacks.

Those who have trawled through galleries as far apart as Holland and Hungary will recognise kinships with the discreet realism of national schools all over Europe, with Kobell and the Nazarenes in Germany, with Waldmuller and the so-called Impressionists of Austria, with Hodler and Bocklin in Switzerland, and even with English landscape painting from Constable to Leader. Here, too, are aspects of international Symbolism and Art Nouveau, echoes of Puvis de Chavannes and Bastien-Lepage.

IF THE Russians have contributed anything to European landscape painting, it is a sense of the vastness that descends on Europe beyond Berlin, the great plain that is not interrupted until we reach the Urals 2,000 miles away. The untilled land was vast, so, too, the estates, the forests and the marshes, and the rivers were unbridgeable.

Boundless views such as these proved pictorially illimitable; they defied the artist's will to impose a composition, and no matter how much, during his basic training, he had been urged to learn from Claude and Poussin, in what he saw before his nose there were no natural proscenium arches, no convenient stage-flats, no conventional linear perspectives, no repoussoirs and very little either real or artificial with which he could construct a picture. …