Tag Archives: Russia

Two Masterpieces from Must-see Show in Moscow

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has put together a show of art collections of Schukin brothers, kings of the Russian textile industry at the beginning of the last century. Thanks to one of them Russia boasts a great collection of (post)impressionists, fauvists, and cubists. It was split between Moscow and The Hermitage in St.Petersburg in 1948 and is now reunited and exhibited to mimic the way Sergey Schukin hung his paintings.

IMG_20190618_210127 - копия

While critics applaud this decision, I can’t see real value here. Yes, most Russian avant-guarde artists got introduced to Western art when visiting Schukin’s home, and it might be interesting to see their “starting point” through “their eyes”, but something tells me it was not the hanging that inspired them, but the paintings themselves, and most likely, not as a group, but individually. Gauguin was striving to recreate a paradise lost, but I don’t think he would view his objective accomplished only after a buyer builds a wall out of his work.

All this travesty of Gauguin tapestry ended up with one of Van Gogh’s most amazing portraits, that of Dr.Felix Rey, being hung near the ceiling, where it can’t be seen properly. The portrait was rejected originally (being used to mend a chicken coop), and now it is pigeonholed as a painting which quality is somewhat below Gauguin’s works by hanging it to fill an empty spot above them.

This portrait is worth its own wall. Van Gogh painted it as a form of gratitude, immediately upon his release from Saint-Paul asylum. He portrayed the closest and most caring person in his life at the time. It is an icon of compassion and hope.

Look at the blue whites of his eyes! Look at the Monalisian smile created by his mustache! Look at the sensual lips an Instagram diva would kill for today! This young intern would become a world famous tuberculosis doctor…


I wrote a bit about the secret to Van Gogh’s portraiture, and I can write a lot more about Van Gogh’s portraits, but let’s get back to the show, and, specifically Matisse.

We all know, thanks to Picasso, that great artists don’t copy, they steal. What is left unsaid, I believe, is that the theft must me meaningful: the stolen stuff needs to be processed and transformed by the artist into something new (even if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst believe that out-of-court settlement would alone suffice, it would not). Matisse and Picasso were both thieves. They stole from Gauguin, from Cezanne, and from each other. Today, for the way they integrated African art into their own, they’d be facing cultural appropriation backlash on twitter. That thievery is well documented and appreciated. Yet, there was an artist in Italy from whom Matisse stole in broad daylight, and no one has noticed.


Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 15th c., the Battle of Ten Nude Men. The etching reflects the idea that men can’t but fight each other. Matisse’s Dance is about love and harmony that men can achieve if they stop fighting and include women into their circle. One can see some violent vibes in Matisse’s Satyr, of course, but it was painted a year before the Dance, so let’s not exclude the possibility that the man in this painting leans down to wake up and invite the sleeping nymph to a dance.


Matisse steals figures, alters them, and mirrors them, but his message is new and polar to that of Pollaiuolo.

Fortunately, the Dance is given its own – huge – space at the exhibition, but art appreciation is invariably spoiled by people queuing to have their photo taken in front of it:

IMG_20190618_204748 Matisse was a visionary, but he failed to foresee Facebook or Instagram. Were this painting a photograph or even a more realistic painting, it would be banned on both platforms, by the way.

Watching boring life can be exciting

If you love Russian literature, you will probably like this realistic painter whose oils give the viewer iconic scenery fit for any of Chekhov’s plays or Turgenev’s novels.

He is a typical Russian artist, whose work rarely shows any conflict, be it the one between colours or shapes, or lines. His palette is soft, pastel, and very predictable. His style is like that of an impressionist painter who’s been warned not to use pure colours unless he wants to end up with all his fingers broken.

Think of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for instance. Let’s walk inside it.

Reduced whole

The table, set for tea, might welcome you to step into the painting and take one of the chairs if the artist thought of putting tea cups on it. Let’s assume it was a servant’s oversight, so now you can vent out your frustration at Natasha or whatever was the name of that young housemaid, and then complain to your friends about servants being not as good as they were in the old days.


Otherwise, the setting is perfect. The red-backed sofa makes the table the centre of attention via its subtle contrast with the greens outside. The highlights on the table-cloth are the brightest spot in this painting, and the more detailed brushwork, with which it is painted, glue the eyes to the play of light on the pots standing on it (this can be easily seen on the picture with reduced brightness).


As your eye roams the table and appreciates the coziness of cushion on the chairs, the painter offers you a few more elements to help you walk through the scene: a carefully arranged bouquet of  flowers on the right side (at least the maid knows how to do that), and a row of potted plants on the left.


It is easy to imagine yourself on this terrace, waiting for your cup to be brought from the family china cabinet, and listening to the rustle of trees.

It is just as easy to imagine yourself bored to death with this life, and, following Chekhov’s sisters, crying passionately, “To Moscow!” meaning, please, get me the hell out of here, and don’t mention the rustling trees ever again.

This painting would probably fetch something like 1.5 or 2 thousand dollars from a buyer who has never had a country estate with a terrace, and won’t be complaining about servants because he has never had one:  a buyer who wants a dream of peaceful rural life to hang on his wall.

Did you want to step into the painting when you saw it first time?

Do you like it? Do you like the style or the colours?

Do you think there is some potential here, if the artist is forcibly taken away from the confines of his Russian context and, say, taken to New York or Paris for a refreshment of themes and ideas?

Young Russian aritsts don’t want to stand out

This weekend I went to Moscow’s Central House of Artists, which is a huge building stuffed with dozens of shows of contemporary painters and sculptors. It was a sad experience, except for one sculptor (not, actually, young) about whom I’ll write next week, after I talk to him this Friday.

I never stop looking for new talent among young (below 35?) Russian artists, but the more the country is descending into a soft multi-religious tyranny, the less interesting its art tends to become. Young artists don’t want to stand out, except for Pavlensky whose work is impossible to collect, because it’s mostly about mutilating his own body, which, for better or worse, is soon going to be tucked away into one of the famously comfy Russian prisons anyway.

I am sure you are aware of Pavlensky’s latest performance when he set the main door of the FSB (former KGB) building on fire and stood in front of it until arrested. With all the media buzz it generated it appears as a powerful political statement, but… It’s a protest against a symptom of a disease, not the disease’s cause. It is a pity the FSB won’t be auctioning the door, even though they could get enough money for it to refit the whole building.


I had hoped that as the freedom of loud speech was getting restricted (because anyone can still whisper on Twitter or Facebook as much as they want), creativity would boil up to the surface. I expected that as Russia gravitates towards the Chinese level of freedom, a Russian Ai Weiwei will pop up. It doesn’t seem to be happening now, and I ask myself, why?

Quiet dissent is not banned in Russia (it is true that loud critics of the government or its policies risk a lot, including their freedom), and atheists are not branded terrorists like in Saudi Arabia so where are those clever artworks that would be delivering a subtle punch at society’s ills and pains?

Why does no one want to stand out? Come on, it is universally acknowledged that it is good to be a black sheep in a white community (no racial references here), a green apple in basket of red ones, or a urinal among works of classic art.

There are two answers to this question.

Some young artists believe it’s great to stand out, unless you are not crouching in a trench under fire, which is how they see the state of the arts in Russia nowadays, metaphorically.

You may say this is cowardice, but I say it is all about the habit.

Great works of art, rich in metaphor and deep in meaning, do not appear in tightly controlled societies on day one. It takes some time for artists to get used to the trench, so that their initial fear is replaced by a dream to get out of the ditch some day. Living in the trench must become a dull habit first. Then, as the dream grows and becomes stronger than fear, they start being creative.

Other young artists say standing out is great, of course, but obsequious crouching offers immediate benefits like participation in state-sponsored shows, sales to local rich customers, and getting on boards and panels of a variety of art groups, societies or events. They say they know they will not secure a place in art history by playing conformist, but putting bread on the table today is a far more attractive option than having their own bronze statue opened posthumously.

The good thing is that I don’t believe a great artist can remain a conformist for long, because creativity can rarely exist without ambition. Sooner or later creativity either dies out or takes over conformity.

So, my question is, how many more years I have to wait until creativity takes over acquiescence or crouching in the trenches grows into a nasty habit!? 

What would you do if a religious fanatic starts yelling at you?

I respect believers in gods, even if I have no respect for their deities. I do not disrespect people for the sole reason they believe in Allah, Christ, Buddha, Shiva, or the River God of Nile while I side up with Darwin.

I would never ridicule a niqab-wearing woman who sees her mission in life as an exemplary second wife busying herself with cleaning the house when her husband is out shagging his first wife. That’s her way of life, and if she’s happy, who am I to judge? I simply don’t travel to places where they have many wives.

I would never look down at someone kissing a cross because I myself sympathise with the Christian concept of free will and being nice to other people at least once in a while. If for some people sticking to these principles requires kissing a cross, I am all for it. I would never think of joining an Easter procession to provoke a discussion of how and why a surge in the speed of informational exchange is related to a drop in the number of registered miracles.

What I hate is when believers want me to start wearing a metaphorical niqab, or kissing a metaphorical cross, or hugging a very real Nile crocodile. I hate it when believers want me to adapt to their views, their way of thinking and their path to salvation.

That’s exactly what is happening right now across the globe. Sharia police in London, Orthodox Kazak patrols in Moscow, Charlie Hebdo murders,  religious activists breaking into galleries, etc. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote about it. And now they have come after me or rather one of my own.

There was no serious physical violence, only verbal abuse this time.

My son was riding the Tube (aka Underground, aka Metro). He was reading my post on Botero.

The one about the plump Christ.

The Flogging of Christ, Botero

The Flogging of Christ, Botero

An elderly lady sitting next to him forced his earphone out of his ear and started yelling at him. She went bananas because Botero’s painting insulted her religious feelings. She was traveling with a few similarly religious friends who joined in the chorus.

My son had to leave.

I wonder what would happen if there was a Charlie Hebdo caricature in his phone, and there was a similarly fanatical group of Muslims around him at the time. It’s not that I wonder, actually, I shudder.

What would you do in this situation?

Before you choose an answer, please note that a fanatically religious Russian woman is very likely to appear like this:


PS Please note I am talking about religious fanatics, not religious people as a whole.

Art as hostage


A couple of decades ago, a petty communist bureaucrat managed to carve himself a hefty helping of the Russian oil industry. People who say he stole it are instantly reminded that any great fortune has a similarly disputed origin, “and see how noble it came out in the end for the Rockefellers”.

Many years later, or, to be more specific, yesterday, a long-awaited Chagall exhibition in Sweden was cancelled a week before its scheduled opening.


You may wonder how Chagall’s getting the finger and the young communist’s turning oligarch are related. What’s the connection?

The bureaucrat, you see, was none other than Khodorkovsky, who, after a brief confrontation with another ex-communist, then (and now) the President of Russia, lost his assets, his freedom, and ultimately became a man of the world with liberal views and a villa in Switzerland.

It’s the doubly stolen oil assets that are the problem now. While anyone can have their own opinion about the original theft two decades ago without so much as a thread of evidence, the late confiscation is there for everyone to see as a bank robber’s face after a dye pack explosion.


So, international courts say Russia owes Khodorkovsy’s partners some USD 50bn, and if the money’s not paid, Russian assets will be arrested.

And this is why Chagall can’t travel anymore. Obviously, the State Russian Museum that was planning to loan the paintings fears they may not come back.


This is Chagall’s Promenade of 1918, but in its modified form it explains the connection.

Now, my question is, why has no one thought to exclude art from court decisions on state asset seizure? Yeah, I know, lawyers don’t care about anything except their share of the winnings, but still. Should state-owned art be hostage to claims made against the respective state and lead to cultural cut-offs?

Can religious fanatics be blamed for art destruction?

The other day, a group of Orthodox Christian activists burst into a sculpture show in the centre of Moscow to protest against supposedly blasphemous representations of Christ among dozens of artworks from three non-conformist Soviet sculptors exhibited there. They harmed a few graphic works but no damage has been done to the sculptures.

The protest outraged a number of Russian intellectuals who as one spoke against this mediaeval ISIS-style vandalism, expressing hopes the law would not dismiss the protesters unpunished.

Come on.

It is not the first time that it happens, and it will be happening more and more often in Russia. Don’t look so surprised and indignant. The rise of art vandalism in Russia is as obvious and predictable as Putin’s next presidential term.

Whenever a big idea takes hold of a collective mind, art that contradicts this idea gets destroyed. It happened when Christianity became the official state religion in the Roman Empire; it happened in the wake of the French Revolution; it happens today in the Muslim Caliphate of the ISIS; and it takes place in Russia, dizzy from its illusions of grandeur amid bulldozed geese and incinerated peaches.

As any religion is, ultimately, just a therapeutic practice to fight the fear of death, destruction of art is its unavoidable consequence. It’s like a lease of premises which is the fixed cost of running a shop. The more people believe in your version of god, the safer you feel about your own choice of religion, the more purpose and sense you find in life and the less you fear death. Anything that contradicts your version represents doubt, and doubt equals a renewed fear of death, and people most afraid their beliefs are in danger start crushing statues and burning books. This also explains why fresh converts are often more violent than established believers, and why religious fanatics are most dangerous immediately after they’ve won a war or went legal.

It practical terms, it means that artworks should be better guarded, removed to safe heavens, and not exhibited in places with a high concentration of religious activists (not religious people!), because you never know what their god may whisper into their activist ear tomorrow.

There are and can be no religions of peace, because a peaceful religion has a zero chance to survive.

It doesn’t mean, of course, that all Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists are intolerant of artworks created by people with a different worldview. It just means there will always be a varying share of people within these (or any other) religions who believe destroying art and killing unbelievers is their duty and a path to salvation and life eternal.

It is the reality, and artists need to adapt to it, just like European couples visiting Dubai learn not to kiss in public, albeit sometimes in the hard way. Leaving a country with a lot of religious activists for a country with a few of them is also an option.

In the very distant future, when the human life expectancy climbs up to 250 years, there would be less fear and more tolerance. What’s important is that we find practical ways to protect controversial art until then.

I welcome alternative opinions, unless they are accompanied by death threats, of course.

In the meantime, here are Vadim Sidur’s sculptures that made the Christian vandals go bananas:

Does any one of them seem blasphemous to you?

Once, I seriously contemplated buying a sculpture by one of the three artists (Nikolai Silis), but didn’t go for it because of value concerns (the price seemed too high given that uncountable copies of the original version had been made by the sculptor).

This is Don Quixote. The daisy in his hand can be replaced by a live flower. In fact, you can change flowers in his hand as often as you want. It is an interactive artwork that can be an icon of curiosity and interest in life in all its forms.



Deluge and delusion

The idea of a deluge has always fascinated people. Leonadro da Vinci wanted to paint it, and even wrote a story of the planned painting. A currently running exhibition of British history paintings at Tate Britain dedicates a whole room to the deluge theme. Why? Continue reading