Magazine article The Spectator

Russian Response

Magazine article The Spectator

Russian Response

Article excerpt

New Art For A New Era: Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant-Garde (Barbican Art Gallery, till 27 June)

A couple of weeks ago, while reviewing the Kandinsky exhibition at the Royal Academy, I lamented the lack of attention given to Central and Eastern European art in this country. I also deplored the fact that the show in question was unlikely to do much to change the position (indeed, it merely caused a number of commentators to announce that Kandinsky was overrated). Now, within a fortnight, along comes another big exhibition, this time of Russian modernist art from the early 20th century: New Art For A New Era: Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant-Garde. And, sadly, this is also unlikely to set London on fire.

There is a distinction to be drawn between an exhibition and the artist or artists whose work is on display. Many people seeing an uninspiring show conclude that the creator of the exhibits is at fault. But it is possible, by choice of dud exampies, to make even the best of painters and periods look dull; and, conversely, by wise selection it is possible to make any figure of the slightest merit look relatively good.

Thus it is possible to conclude that Russian modernism is a very exciting subject, this an unenthusing display of it. How come? Generally, the curator is responsible - or possibly the lack of funds at their disposal. In this case, however, it was those very Russian avant-gardists who put this collection together around 70 years ago.

The exhibition at the Barbican hails in its entirety from the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg (it is part of a current St Petersburg festival). That institution in turn had in 1926 absorbed the entire Petrograd Museum of Artistic Culture, a pioneering museum of modern art organised by the avant-garde Russian artists themselves the great painter Kasimir Malevich prominent among them. It was intended as a historical representation of the development of art from Cezanne-influenced painting to total, geometric abstraction - a development which, in that explosively experimental period, took barely a decade.

But, for some reason -- perhaps tact, perhaps art politics, which were especially embattled in the period of the Revolution and first phase of the Bolshevik regimen - they came up with a rather cautious, 'inclusive' collection. Malevich, for example, was the genius of the period - his name used as a come-on in the title of the show. But out of some 130 exhibits at the Barbican, only seven are by Malevich, and not all of those are of top quality. (In addition, there are two beguiling avant-garde cups, with saucers, designed by Malevich and Ilya Chashnik, which, with their flat hole-less handles, so apt to slip from the fingers, are emblematic in a small way of the combination of audacity and utter impracticality characteristic of the movement.)

Thus this exhibition is not exactly Hamlet without the Prince, but the main characters get only walk-on appearances, while there is plenty of space for the artistic equivalents of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Kandinsky, resident in Russia during the first world war and for a few years afterwards, got three paintings into the collection - which was generous, considering he was an embattled figure in those years, under attack for being too individualistic and romantic, insufficiently utilitarian and revolutionary. Unfortunately, all the Kandinskys are muddy and muddled.

There are perhaps ten or so really outstanding paintings in the exhibition. …

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