Magazine article The Spectator

Be Selective

Magazine article The Spectator

Be Selective

Article excerpt

From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870 - 1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg Royal Academy, until 18 April Sponsored by E.ON

It is a salutary and instructive experience to forego the relatively civilised Press View of an exhibition, when only the denizens of the world's press and assorted successful liggers are allowed in, and attempt to review a show amid the hurly-burly of an average open-to-the-public day. Especially when the exhibition has been talked up to the skies and punters are queuing to get in. Column inches had helped to create the unsatisfactory and uncomfortable viewing conditions in which I found myself last week, and here I am adding to them.

While commending the contemporary appetite for culture, I do wish there were fewer people in the world. As usual these days we're in danger of stifling the thing we love. Although I can't quite agree with my esteemed colleague who called for his readers to boycott the Academy, I should warn you that this is a large exhibition but very uneven in quality: care has to be exercised in what you linger over, or exhaustion may set in halfway round and some of the best exhibits be missed.

The problem lies in the fact that this is not really a 'curated' exhibition, in the sense that it has not been rigorously selected to show only the best. In order to ensure the loan of a handful of famous and mostly French paintings, the Academy has had to accept a huge counterweight of less-than-excellent Russian art, on the basis of 'you can only have that if you take this as well'. The high diplomacy of exhibition management is a complex art which in this case does not seem to have achieved the best possible outcome.

The Academy show is not stuffed with great paintings, and it is essential to recognise this from the start. Even big names are no guarantee of quality. Here follows a radical selection of exhibits, a few pointers to the strengths and weaknesses of this peculiar but by no means uninteresting show.

In the first room is a splendid painting by one of my favourite 19th-century Russian painters, Isaac Levitan (1860-1900). Called 'Summer Evening', it's an ordinary-looking landscape of fields with a trim of forest, but so energetically and boldly painted and so filled with light that it's quite compelling. Next to it, for comparison, is hung Daubigny's equally light-drenched 'Banks of the River Loing'. They look very good together, an inspired and inspiring juxtaposition. Better than the more commonplace meeting of Corot and Théodore Rousseau nearby, for the comparison of the Russian Levitan with the Frenchman Daubigny may raise all sorts of wider issues of national style and temperament. In Room 2, the French Impressionists make their by now instinctual appeal to the mob, though a rather oatmealy Pissarro and Monet's dayglo 'Poppy Field' are not the best examples of their kind. A Monet 'Haystack' has more strength and subtlety, but the real interest in this room is the group of five Cézannes, the best of which is a Mont St Victoire which has been rather badly damaged at top and bottom. This horizontal scrumpling probably occurred when the painting was stored rolled up, but it doesn't affect its magnetism.

The main gallery is inevitably dominated by Matisse's great painting 'The Dance', the much-trumpeted centrepiece of the show, a work commissioned by the collector Sergei Shchukin, and an image familiar from arthistory books. However important it is considered to be, I have to say that I prefer 'Nasturtiums with Dance II', altogether more demanding compositionally and colouristically, and infinitely more intriguing. …

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