Issue Number: 97
Never before have we struggled so much in choosing a cover. The RA’s From Russia exhibition of masterpieces from the four great Russian museums presented us with an embarrassment of riches: why not choose a Van Gogh, a Cézanne or Matisse’s famous Dance which has never before visited Britain? Why not a Malevich to show the avant-garde face of the exhibition?
In the end, however, we chose the portrait of the poet Anna Akhmatova by Natan Altman because its story encapsulates that of the exhibition – namely, that the cultural cross-currents between France and Russia from the late nineteenth century through the 1920s helped to create a revolution in art.
Few people outside Russia have heard of Altman, who, like Akhmatova, was 25 in 1914 when he painted her portrait. Both seemed to have flowering careers ahead of them. She had recently published an acclaimed volume of poetry. He had returned from a sojourn in Paris, where, with other Russian artists, he had felt the fresh wind of Cubism, so visible in this painting. But, despite its veneer of modernity, his portrait’s real character comes from the wintry blue tones and Akhmatova’s inward gaze, away from the viewer, conjuring the spirit of a poet celebrated for the purity and restraint of her verse.
Within three years, their worlds would be turned upside down. After the October Revolution, Altman painted revolutionary propaganda, of the kind discussed by Eric Hobsbawm in his article on the avant-garde , ultimately rising to become director of Russia’s first museum of contemporary art in the 1920s. Akhmatova, on the other hand, was accused of links with counter-revolutionaries and her poetry – today ranked among the finest of the twentieth century – became unpublishable.
While Akhmatova famously stayed in Russia, others emigrated when faced with the prospect of becoming ‘non-persons’. Among them were the pioneering collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, early patrons of Matisse and Picasso. Hilary Spurling brings to life this pair of Moscow merchant princes, whose nationalised palaces of art have endowed Russia with some of the greatest modern art in the world. While she was researching her award-winning biography of Matisse, Spurling uncovered the astonishing story of how their art was sent to Siberia by Stalin and only gradually came out of exile in Soviet Russia.
A witness to those days is Irina Antonova, the indomitable director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow for over four decades. In a telephone interview , she told me about how the Shchukin and Morosov paintings were divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage museums after the War. Since such modern art was then ‘out of fashion’, she was only able to display all of the Pushkin’s holdings in 1974.
Today Russia’s art scene is rising in prominence, with super-rich collectors buying back their scattered heritage – at record prices – and inflating the market for contemporary Russian art, as Helen Kirwan-Taylor describes . But is there a Shchukin or Morosov among them? So far, such collectors appear thin on the ground, and not only in Russia. As Madame Antonova notes, Shchukin and Morosov ‘were true phenomena’. Without their vision this exhibition, and much of modern art, would not be possible. We salute them.