The Strozzi palace in Florence is a venue for some of the most thought-provoking exhibitions I have visited in Italy. The latest one on offer, which we visited this week, is no exception. Titled “The Russian avant-garde Siberia and the East”, and ending January 19th next year, it offers rare insights into the evolution of Russian art at the turn of the last century.
I’d been fascinated by the likes of Nicolas Roerich, Stravinsky’s chosen designer for his “Rite of Spring” for a long time. I’d visited the Kulu valley where there is a Roerich museum, and where the artist died, and also, more recently, Thiruvananthapuram in the state of Kerala where there is another wonderful museum dedicated to him.
To see Roerich placed in the context of other Russian artists whose names I’d never even heard of but whose works immediately astounded me was very revealing. Although I already admired Kandinsky’s works I’d never come across his contemporaries like Malevich or Goncharova or Larionov or Konenkov or Filonov or any of the other names presented to me through their works.
There is an awful lot to learn at these exhibitions which is the first international one to highlight the interaction between Russian art of the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth with two geographical areas, Siberia and the Far East, and the illustrative labels on the exhibits are, as ever, highly informative.
A section is devoted to the future Tsar Nicholas’ journey of a year via ocean liner to the Indies and the Far East and thence back to Saint Petersburg via the trans-Siberian railway. This journey not only produced a book and many newspaper articles but also must have opened the mind of Russia’s last czar, though clearly, not enough to have him murdered by the Bolsheviks. In the exhibition’s interactive section one can “browse” through Nicholas’ photographic album of his epic journey.
The Far East stimulated interest, first in a fanciful orientalism à la chinoiserie and japonerie but then, shedding its decorative intent, led into a deeper appreciation of what China and Japan could teach the Russian eagle. In political fact, Japan delivered a harsh lesson in the Russian-Japanese war of 1905 completely undermining the west’s belief in its own imperial supremacy. This episode is presented in the exhibition by fascinating lithographs from both sides showing not just the different sentiments but wholly different propaganda and printing techniques.
The Siberian factor was even more of an influence in the development of Russian art. A frontier land, one of ice and fire and deserts and interminable forests began to affect the cosmopolitan culture of European Russia. The primitive stone statues dotted on the empty steppes, dating back to the stone age and known as balbals, the ceremonies of the Buryat shamans contacting the other-world of spirits and gods, the sacrality of the trees of the taiga – all these influences and more, beautifully presented at the Palazzo Strozzi, fed the Russian artistic avant-garde and provided the stimulus and inspiration without which such works as le Sacre du Printemps and movements such as constructivism, symbolism, cubofuturism, and suprematism could not have germinated.
The exhibits are not too numerous but surprisingly well chosen. Below you can see Malevic’s constructivist “head” dating from 1928, Kandinsky’s “two ovals” from 1919, and Stepanov’s evocative “Wolves in the night” from 1912. These last sum up the uneasy meeting of the Siberian wilderness with western civilization signified by the cart tracks in the deep snow. Filonov’s “West and East” depicts that other meeting – between West and East in its ambiguous transformations of Samurai warriors and Russian Orthodox priests.
It is a major tragedy that this fermentation of ideas and art movements was largely murdered by the rise to power of Stalin. On at least two labels on the paintings we read “shot in 1937” or “died in Siberian concentration camp”. What an irony that that part of Russia that provided so much inspiration to creativity should also have been its grave!