The Other Russian Revolution

Years before the real Russian Revolution, there had been a revolution on canvas. It had endured for a decade, even through much of World War I, lasting until 1917, whereupon the Bolsheviks came to power and later murdered Tsar Nicholas and his family. But prior to those actual acts of violence, a close consortium of Russian artists—Natalia Goncharova, Alexei von Jawlensky, Vasily Kandinsky, Mikhail Larionov, Aristarkh Lentulov, Ilya Mashkov and Kazimir Malevich, among them—were committing, to both their critics and admirers, a violence of color and form on canvas. The results are on display at New York’s Neue Galerie through August 31. The show, “Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of German and Russian Art, 1907–1917,” is the first in this country to highlight not only the exuberant, vibrantly colorful, truly revolutionary works coming out of Russia at the time, but also the cultural links that once existed between the two nations.

For many Americans, Russian art of the early twentieth century might conjure up images of jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs—lovely, glittering objects, certainly. But their gem-like quality is mere paste compared to the ninety canvases that fill four galleries at the Neue Galerie. There is so much pure, deep color on view in this show that it seems almost as if melted crown jewels were used for paint—opals, rubies, emeralds, amethysts, diamonds.

One of the most startling revelations is the work of Natalia Goncharova (1881–1962), a key member of the so-called Jack of Diamonds (her husband Larionov chose the name, not only for the way it sounded but because it invoked the idea of a wild card). The stated mission of this avant-garde group of young Russian painters was to redefine the art of the country. Goncharova’s Pond (1908–09) is a perfect example of their success, for here is an immediately arresting dense canvas showing turbulently spinning waters and unspooling fishing nets, countered by figures calmly astride the banks, with geese and a reclining pet dog in the foreground. Her Sunflowers (1908–09) renders close-ups of the namesake flowers that are so detailed the blooms appear to be in zoom focus, as if seen beneath an electron microscope.

Natalia Goncharova, <i>Pond</i>, 1908-09<br/>PETR AVEN COLLECTION

As the show emphasizes, Goncharova was adamant about creating something wholly apart from classic Western traditions—and part of her strategy for doing so involved visiting rural villages throughout the country, as did some of her colleagues. There, she saw common laborers and folk artists at work, while also viewing, almost as an anthropologist, the daily life in these locales. While her style and those of her fellow Jacks of Diamonds were, indeed, decidedly different than what had been seen in Russia, their brushstrokes and forms on canvas still echoed those of Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, French Fauvists and other artists of the time. Yet, what the Russians created was distinctive—and still, today, thrilling to see.

But those with radical agendas, political or artistic, are rarely content, even if their cause is realized. Goncharova and Larionov, in particular, recognizing that some of their work was still too evocative, even derivative, of Western traditions, decided to forge yet another group. They and their followers called themselves the Donkey’s Tail. According to the exhibition organizer, Konstantin Akinsha, the playful name refers to a prank committed by French artists who reputedly had tied a paintbrush to the tail of a donkey, the inference being that even an animal could paint in revolutionary ways, so why not actual artists.

Mikhail Larionov<i>, Self-Portrait</i>, 1911-12Some of the most beautiful and arresting works in the show are the portraits and nudes, one of the four categories in which the works are grouped at the Neue Galerie (the others being Urban Scenes and Still Lifes, Landscapes, Abstraction). Valentina Khodasevich’s Portrait of a Man in an Orange Blouse (Portrait of Vergenev), 1910s, reveals a dashingly handsome, albeit rather androgynous, figure posed on a red bench amid a celestial blue sky. Her 1916 Persian Boy (Portrait of the Poet K. Lipekerov) (1916) presents a dark-skinned, kneeling youth, backdropped by an elaborate overlapping of Arabic archways and decorative motifs. Mikhail Larionov’s Portrait of Veliner Khlebnikov (1910) shows a looming figure, holding an open volume, bracketed by large palm fronds—a figure that is sensual, overt, suggestive. These are faces and figures and poses that are unforgettable. Both the Russian and German artists depicted their sitters in a disproportionately large scale, making them figures that cannot be ignored or forgotten.

That is yet another punchline to this show: the close cultural bond shared by Russia and Germany just years prior to World War I, whereupon each country engaged in a bewildering scale of conflict and carnage (though no one can blame the artists for that). Concurrent with the work of the Jack of Diamonds and the Donkey’s Tail, other groups of artists in Germany formed their own such avant-garde groups—the Brucke (Bridge) and the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider). As the show emphasizes, Russian and German artists were regularly visiting each other’s nations and big cities—virtual mutual admiration societies of painters. The painter Petr Konchalovsky is quoted in the show as saying in 1910, “…we were united by the necessity to attack old art.”

The Germans in these offshoot groups included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Pechstein, whose works are featured in the exhibition, particularly in the grouping of abstract paintings and drawings. While the show emphasizes the work by the Russians, its organizer stresses that the “Russian and German modern artists shared an interest in the directness and simplicity of urban and rural folk traditions.” The Russian artists typically derived inspiration largely from France (Cézanne, Matisse, the spanish-born Picasso), while the German painters “looked outside of Germany for their neo-primitivist influences, much of which emerged from engagement with ethnographic arts” (read: Africa and Polynesia).

It is ironic that the Russian artists, many of whom were women at a time when there were few active women artists in the canon, and all of whom, men and women, were urbane and culturally attuned, chose to focus, in large part, on the rural landscape and its inhabitants. But as the exhibition points out: “In Russia at this time, there were laws that restricted activities for people of Jewish descent. Many were confined to rural areas and were not permitted to live or study in Moscow or St. Petersburg. Some coped by moving to France or Germany and by spending time in rural areas studying local folk traditions.”

This show is a revolutionary one, not just in its theme, but for the sheer aesthetic joy it brings to our city.

Neue Galerie, Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street, New York 10028. Telephone (212) 628-6200. neuegalerie.org