Art Hightlights in Russia: 2015 - Part 1

by Cathy Locke

Still Life with Flowers and Jug
"Still Life with Flowers and Jug," by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881, oil on canvas

I've just returned from my most recent tour of the major museums in Russia and the 2015 art scene can be summed up as one of regeneration. In Moscow the great Tretyakov Gallery, home to the core collection of Russian masters’ works, was being remodeled. Oddly enough, “Western” art was the highlight of this year’s exhibitions in other museums. The small but intimate European Building over at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art had a retrospective exhibition of about fifty paintings by the Hungarian artist Mihály Munkácsy. This stunning collection contained paintings spanning the artist’s entire career. The work on display chronicles the artist’s journey from abject poverty to meteoric super stardom. In 1886, at the height of his career, Munkácsy was welcomed to America by billionaires, who treated him like royalty. By 1888 he was the highest paid painter in Europe. This exhibition included his first masterpiece, The Last Day of a Condemned Man (1869), which won a gold medal in the 1870 Paris Salon and established Munkácsy in the Paris art scene. Also on display were his early folk genre paintings of peasant life, contrasted by his later genre work in the Belle Époque style. There were also magnificent floral pieces and paintings from the Barbizon region. I have long admired the curators of the European collection at the Pushkin Museum for their talent in selecting some of the best and most important pieces of art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Sappho and Phaon
"Sappho and Phaon,"  by Jacques-Louis David, 1809 and (Right) "Morpheus and Iris," by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1811

In St. Petersburg the staff at the State Hermitage Museum have been very busy this past year filling up their new eight hundred rooms in the General Staff Building. Finally, the Hermitage can spread its elbows! The curators now have rooms dedicated to the major art movements and artists, successfully chronicling the work to tell a concise story. Some of the highlights included a large room dedicated to neoclassical art that featured Sappho and Phaon& (1809) by Jacques-Louis David, Innocence Preferring Love to Wealth (1804) by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, and Morpheus and Iris (1811) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. The painting by David is very unique because he seldom painted intimate scenes of private life. This painting probably would never have been painted had it not been commissioned by Russia’s Yusupov family. There is now an entire room comprising of about ten small but exquisite works by Henri Fantin-Latour. The majority of this work is from the former collection of Otto Krebs, a German manufacturer who purchased eighty-five percent of the Impressionists' paintings. When Krebs died in 1941 the Russian army set up a military base in his home. In 1945 the Russians seized seventy-four paintings from his collection, the majority of which are now on display at the General Staff Building.

"Naïade," by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1896

The collection of Henri Fantin-Latour’s work on display contains not only his wonderful floral pieces, but also a rare figurative piece titled Naïade (1896). Fantin-Latour was fascinated with the music of the German romantics and attempted to convey the impression of sound through the waves in this painting. The artist’s floral works, which made him famous, are always rendered with precise botanical accuracy and delicacy. Although he uses a traditional approach with his dark-brown backgrounds and realism, his work emits such a soul that it is difficult to believe there is no symbolism involved.

Story of Psyche
"Story of Psyche," by Maurice Denis, 1908

2015 marks the first time the Hermitage Museum has been able to dedicate large sections of the General Staff Building to individual artists. At long last Maurice Denis’ famous panels, Story of Psyche, are on display in a massive hall. Created for the home of Russia’s mega-collector, Ivan Morozov, these seven large panels showcase beautiful examples of art nouveau integrated with Gauguin’s synthetism. A major part of the General Staff Building is now devoted to Russia’s large collection of works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. One of Picasso’s most important cubist paintings now sits in a prominent position surrounded by more of his early cubist works. Picasso made about seventy sketches for Three Women, which became a landmark piece because of its use of form over color. A number of Picasso’s collage pieces are on display including Tenora and Violin (1913).

Three Women
"Three Women," by Pablo Picasso, 1908

The Matisse wing is just lovely. It does the heart good to see four stages of Matisse’s art on display: early still lifes, decorative-symbolic panels, Moroccan cycle and modernism. Matisse’s still life and breakthrough piece,Crockery on a Table (1900), was painted when he realized that color was the most important aspect of his work as he wrote, “color is the first element in painting.” In the decorative panel, Painter’s Family (1911), we see a world of whimsical patterns. The Hermitage collection includes Matisse’s famous paintings, Music and Dance (1909-1910), painted for another of Russia’s mega-collectors, Sergei Shchukin. When asked if Matisse would have painted the panels on such a scale without Shchukin, the artist's son, Pierre Matisse, who had become one of the major dealers of the age, replied “Why – for whom?” In the last room, and with great irony that I am sure was not lost on the curators, we see the portrait of Matisse’s wife, Portrait of the Artist’s Wife (1913), facing the portrait of a Russian art student, Lydia Delektorskaya (1947), who was his lover and secretary for the last twenty years of his life.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Portrait of Lydia Delektorskaya
Henri Matisse: (Left) "Portrait of the Artist’s Wife," 1913, and (Right) "Portrait of Lydia Delektorskaya," 1947