Exhibition review: Masters of modern art from the Hermitage AGNSW

With the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ new exhibition Masters of modern art from the Hermitage now open to the public, Dr Michael Adcock takes us through the magnificent selection of works that has been drawn from the unparalleled collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg…

A GLORIOUS CLUTCH OF IMPRESSIONISTS FROM THE HERMITAGE

The present exhibition of sixty-five masterpieces of modern art from the Hermitage offers a fresh and visually exhilarating perspective into the development of modernism in Europe. This is due to the fact that the original Russian collectors, such as Sergei Schchukin and Ivan Morozov, not only bought works of the first water, but did so with an insight and daring that exceeded those of even the most sophisticated collectors in France. They bought for themselves – and ultimately for Russia – the crème de la crème of European modernism, which we can now enjoy in the welcoming surrounds of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The first room opens with a glorious blaze of Impressionist works. Claude Monet’s The Poppy Field (1890-1891) provides an opportunity to view one of an interesting group of vistas of oat fields and poppy fields around Giverny. Typically, Monet sought out motifs to which he could get access quickly and easily: the fields shown here were in the valley near the town of Les Essarts, close to his house at Giverny. Historian Paul Hayes Tucker points out that Monet’s timetable would have been, realistically, dictated by the rhythms of the natural world and the cycles of agricultural production: the beautiful fields of hay, oats and poppies around Giverny would have been in their paintable prime from July onwards, but he would have had to wait until late August or early September of 1890 to paint grainstacks, because this was the time recommended by agricultural manuals to harvest the crop and to build stacks.[1]

Monet’s The Poppy Field (1890-1891)

Claude Monet in foggy, hivernal London

The second Monet canvas, Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903) is later in date, and belongs to a truly massive campaign of painting carried out in London at the turn of the 20th century. Art historian Grace Seiberling reminds us that Monet’s solid financial position was instrumental in making this vast series possible. By now, late in his life, he had the means to work on a large series of paintings over a number of years, without feeling any pressure to immediately recoup his expenditure by selling them. By the 1890s, he was an established artist, his paintings were selling for good prices, and he could be assured that, even if he produced numerous works, they would sell when exhibited commercially. Apart from the massive investment in paint and canvas, and the repeated trips between Paris and London, he could afford prolonged stays at the stylish new Savoy Hotel, recently opened in 1889.[2] Apart from its opulence, the hotel’s publicity brochures touted its sweeping views of the foggy Thames, and it is quite possible that it was this that first attracted Monet’s attention. He soon discovered that the open balconies on the façade of the hotel offered excellent vantage points from which to paint.

Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, Effect of Fog (1903)

Seen in photographic art book reproduction, this painting might give the impression of a gloomy, foggy scene; seen in the flesh, however, the painting is actually quite luminous, with a break in the fog in the upper left allowing a glimpse of sunlight. The palette has a delicate nacreous quality: like a mother-of-pearl shell, it has soft and quite lyrical tones of light pink, light mauve and light blues, unobtrusively warmed by warmer touches of brown. Monet’s notation of light is so nuanced that the light reflected on the surface of the river – and seen through each of the four arches – diminishes progressively in intensity from left to right, congruous with illumination from the upper left.

Camille Pissarro and the flickering life of the boulevard

During the early months of 1897, Camille Pissarro suffered a visual affliction that would, paradoxically, fundamentally change the course of his artistic development. He suffered a continuing eye infection, which forced him to abandon his beloved rural scenes for urban ones, and to work indoors more. Undeterred, he took an upstairs room at the Grand Hotel of Russia in Paris, at the corner of the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Place du Palais Royal, which provided a breathtaking view down onto the Boulevard Montmartre. Unexpectedly, Pissarro – the lover of quiet villages and hamlets – rather warmed to these new streets, sensing their modernity, their bustle and movement, and the special light in these new urban spaces. He wrote to his artist son Lucien that he found great beauty in the Boulevards: “It is very beautiful to paint! It is not very aesthetic, but I am delighted to be able to paint these Parisian streets that people have come to call ugly, but which are so silvery, so luminous and so vital. This is completely modern!”[3] Of the thirteen views of the boulevard he executed over eight weeks, two in a pair seem to have been of particular finish and importance. One of them may be well known to us: this is the Boulevard Montmartre, morning, cloudy weather in the National Gallery of Victoria. But its pendant, the Hermitage’s Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun has not to my knowledge been shown in Australia before, and so this is an incomparable opportunity to view the ‘lost cousin’. As in all these boulevard scenes, Pissarro’s notation of human figures is astoundingly deft. We must bear in mind that Pissarro had become used to representing human figures on a modest scale in the middle distance, such as a village path or field, and on a large scale, as monumental studies of single figures, but he has now learned how to reduce representation of them to telegrammatic dabs of paint, which nonetheless evoke hints of movement, posture and even costume.

Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Afternoon Sun (1897)

The ‘Post-Impressionists’

The term ‘post-impressionist’ has, lamentably, become an art history book commonplace, but some of our most eminent scholars – such as Dr. Gerard Vaughan – have questioned its adequacy. While all art terms are problematic, this one is particularly flabby, since it only designates a group of artists who allegedly came ‘after’ the Impressionists. Even this pseudo-chronology is not quite correct anyway. The term also flounders adequately to encapsulate the towering genius and sheer technical skill of the likes of Gauguin, Cézanne and the incomparable van Gogh. Perhaps this art historical term is well overdue for retirement. We need our art historians to frame a more useful designation for these artists, one that would recognize one important aspect of their work; needless to say, a term like ‘pre-modernists’ simply would not come anywhere near an accurate nomenclature. But each of these artists was given a retrospective exhibition – Cézanne in 1907, van Gogh several times, including 1905 – and some, like Gauguin, sold paintings to younger colleagues such as Matisse, and all had a profound impact on the emerging new generation of young modernists. Both Gauguin and van Gogh, for example, were a direct and powerful influence upon the development of the strong colours of the Fauve painters around André Dérain. This is clearly shown in this exhibition in Henri Matisse’s The Luxembourg Gardens (c. 1901), where the young Matisse has tried his hand at deploying Gauguin’s lyrical colours to transform the tame public gardens in Paris into a lush, Tahiti-like paradise. So much has been written – appropriately – about the impact of the discovery of ‘primitive’ (tribal) art upon the early modernists that it is easy to forget that another galvanizing discovery occurred in these seminal retrospective exhibitions.

Matisse’s The Luxembourg Gardens (c. 1901)

Paul Cézanne, the master of Aix

Cézanne is represented by an assured still life, Fruit, which belongs to a coherent cluster of some sixteen still life paintings done by Cézanne in the years 1879-1880. These represent a quite new stage in his development in this genre. A previous set of still-life paintings, done around 1877, had been rather more literal, in so far as they set the component objects in the context of more visible pieces of furniture, such as kitchen dressers and tables; at this early stage, they still looked like items in an actual room.  In the present, slightly later set, by contrast, Cézanne has reduced the contextual setting, and created a simple horizontal plane – admittedly still identifiable as a wooden plane, probably a chest – against a vertical background plane, which in most cases appears to be a wall with floral wallpaper. This constitutes a definitive step in the progression beyond a naturalistic still life, such as the Dutch masters might have painted, to the Cézannian still life, which is a geometric construct of forms, with a hidden logic comparable to that of pieces on a chessboard.

Detail of Cézanne’s Fruit (1879-80)

This version is unusual and striking primarily because of the relative darkness of the background, and its contrast with the well-illuminated napkin, bowl, fruit and bread roll. These objects seem to glow against the brown of the wood, which is a dark tone, and the blue-grey of the wallpaper, which is now much deeper than in other works. On the left, two further items – a glass carafe and a metal pitcher – are very dark, and sink into the sombre surroundings. In this arrangement, the napkin has been carefully crumpled and bunched to provide the powerful three-dimensional form similar to that of a mountain range in a landscape painting, with emphatic folds giving contrasting areas of fabric in light and fabric in shadow. Both the napkin and the bowl beside it are in cool tones of light blue and these, like the dark glass of the carafe, powerfully accentuate the warm, resonant colour – oranges, yellows, reds – of the six fruits and the bread roll. Here, the paint is thick and luscious, and the tones warm and glowing. What we cannot see is the small coins that Cézanne would have used to tilt each fruit into exactly the position he required. They are not arranged in any obvious or contrived traditional manner, such as a pyramid, and yet they are disposed across the canvas with great deliberation and with an harmonious sequencing of their own. Only one of these forms rises above the ‘horizon’ of this tabletop landscape provided by the back edge of the chest. The ceramic bowl at the far right is not truncated by the frame – as Cézanne so often did in other works – but it is arbitrarily placed impossibly far back: its base seems to be resting on the very edge of the chest, which is impossible because of its proximity to the wall.

Cézanne’s cool landscapes on the Marne River

This exhibition holds another visual delight for us. Cézanne’s group of Marne paintings of c.1888-1890 is perhaps less well known to visitors than the monumental Mont Sainte-Victoire set, but they are breathtakingly assured in their execution and most beautiful in their aspect when viewed. Gallery goers in Australia were delighted – and incredulous – when the Art Gallery of New South Wales itself purchased one of the acknowledged masterpieces of this series, Banks of the Marne (1888) at a cost of $16.2 million. Now, for the first time, Sydney’s stunning masterpiece can be viewed on a wall beside the Hermitage’s masterpiece, The Banks of the River Marne (1888).

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Banks of the Marne (1888) by Cézanne
The Hermitage’s The Banks of the River Marne (1888) by Cézanne

To situate this group in the development of the artist’s career, Cézanne had ‘disappeared’ from Paris and spent an extended period isolated in Provence from 1882 to 1888. From 1888 onwards, however, he began to explore the possibilities of the Paris region, all the while assiduously avoiding the Paris art world itself. He particularly favoured the valley of the River Marne near the Maisons-Alfort and Créteil, as well as Marlotte and Fontainebleau. Gilles Chazal, the curator of the 2011-2012 exhibition Cézanne et Paris (2011, Musée du Luxembourg) proposed that there was a very good reason for his preference: the gentle landscapes of the Ile-de-France, close to Paris, provided Cézanne with quieter, more intimate terrain, a gentler light, more secluded riverbanks and more restrained colours than he could find in the lambent landscapes of Provence: “In Paris, his palette settled into calm blues and greens while in Provence he worked on a symphony of golden colours around Mont Sainte-Victoire.”[4]

Henri Matisse and the landscape of contentment

We might best approach two remarkable early works by Matisse by situating them within the rapid development of his art that led up to their creation. Between 1908 and 1910, Matisse had been experimenting energetically in the genres of the portrait, the still life and the domestic interior, but his most dramatic advances were to be made in the subject of figures in a landscape; in this latter field, his progress was much facilitated by most lucrative commissions from the eminent Russian collector, Sergei Shchukin, a wealthy merchant in the cloth trade.

We can thus better understand the works before us by placing them in the context of a dramatic process of simplifying both figures and landscape, ultimately leading to the primal painting achieved by 1908. We may also usefully calibrate our visual impressions against Matisse’s own textual explanation of what he was trying to achieve here. It was at this very moment, when his experimental preoccupation with figures in a landscape was at its height, that he wrote his first and most important theoretical statement about his art, his Notes of a Painter (1908). In this work, he makes it clear that his depiction of figures in a landscape was not done to compose a ‘scene’, so much as to convey an overall emotion. He wrote:

“What I pursue above all is expression […] I do not think that it can be conveyed by passions fleeting across a face, or even by violent movements. It is to be found in my entire painting: the area occupied by figures, the empty spaces around them, the proportions, all these play their part. The art of composition consists in being able to arrange the different elements that the painter has at his disposal to express feelings in a decorative manner. In a picture, every section must be visible and play its own role, whether this is a principal or a secondary one. Everything that has no function in a painting is therefore detrimental to it. A work of art entails a harmony of the whole; any superfluous detail would thus take the place of an essential detail in the mind of the spectator.”[5]

This very much confirms the analysis of the eminent art historian Alfred Barr, who argues that Matisse’s compositions at this stage are not simply landscapes in a traditional sense, nor are they figural studies properly speaking – the minimalism is just too extreme for them to be either – but an essay in a more primal form of painting, in which lines, rhythms and compositions convey an essential feeling at a subliminal level.

Matisse is represented in the present exhibition by three major paintings from this period, Woman on a Terrace (1906), The Game of Bowls (Paris, autumn-winter 1908) and Nymph and Satyr.

Matisse’s The Game of Bowls (1908)

In The Game of Bowls three figures are so posed as to create a graceful arc suggestive of harmony and contentment. The figures are posed against three very flat strips of undifferentiated colour: a large band of light green suggestive of grass, a thin band of light blue suggestive perhaps of the sea, and a third narrow band of a darker blue, possibly intended to represent the sky. The figures are outlined in a thick line of a reddish tone, which resonates by complementary contrast against the dominant tone of green. The same powerful tonal contrast is, of course, achieved by the quite substantial area of red on the garment of the figure at left, one of the only figures in this sequence of painting to be clothed. Once again, Matisse likes to provide a point of concentration to the dominant colour of light green by the use of touches of a more intense emerald green, in this case associated with three bowling balls.

Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr (1908)

The mood is less arcadian in Nymph and Satyr. Matisse’s choice of subject is every bit as provocative as that of Manet at the time of Luncheon on the Grass, for he too has chosen a motif which had for centuries been solidly fixed in the language of western European iconography, and he has boldly divested it of its complex traditional literary and pictorial associations. Arcadia has disappeared, mythology no longer casts a discreet cocoon around the satyr and the faun, reverie and sentiment and nostalgia are all banished. Indeed, nothing but the title remains to tell us that this actually is a satyr and a faun. A potentially comfortable mythological scene, with its discreet sensuality and oblique sexuality, has been transformed into an erotic, slightly menacing, and even predatory scene. It is significant that this work’s first title was Satyr in Pursuit of a Bacchante, a description probably dropped because it does not accord with the fact that the female figure appears to be asleep and is not moving. The number of figures has been reduced to two, and Matisse again uses the harmony created by the inter-relationship of two arched figures, but now made more threatening by the approach of the intent male figure with large grasping hands outstretched, in contrast to the more gracile and passive body of the female figure. The paw-like hands of the male were in fact re-worked to make them the compositional centre of the painting.

A personal favourite: Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Orphism

One of the most exciting – even exhilarating – pieces of modern art in the exhibition is Sonia Delaunay-Terk’s and Blaise Cendrars’ La Prose du Trans-sibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France (Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of little Jehanne of France) of 1913.[6] More than any other work, this piece illustrates a crucial aspect of modernism, namely, that modernist literature and modernist art not only grew in parallel, but were in fact symbiotic, each enriching the other. It is no accident, for example, that the poet Guillaume Apollinaire was an influential art critic, and the theorist and advocate of Cubism. If you read one of his poems, such as his wonderful Zone (available in English), you will quickly perceive that his vision of a suburban street is as fragmented and as multi-facetted as any Cubist painting.

Dr Michael Adcock next to the collaborative work La prose du Transsiberien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913). The detail of the last section features the Eiffel Tower

The artist Sonia Delaunay-Terk was at this time associated with these contemporary avant-garde poets: Guillaume Apollinaire himself had lived with Sonia and her husband Robert for some time in 1912, in hiding because he had been accused of being involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa. Even more important was her meeting with Blaise Cendrars, which resulted in one of the most revolutionary examples of an artist-illustrated book.[7] One copy of this work is cyclically on display at the National Gallery of Canberra, and another was on display in Sonia Delaunay (Paris, 2015); this is, however, the first time the Hermitage’s version has been seen here.

By its very date, this work was a prompt and immediate response to Cendrars’ poem, which was published in 1912, and treated by Delaunay within the year. While Delaunay had already defined her theory of ‘simultaneity’, the very idea of a two-metre long fold-out poem would have appealed to her as an alternative to the more finite medium of the canvas, and might also have appealed to her command of decorative patterns over linear lengths of fabric. (As Sonia and Robert both developed the movement that would become known as Orphism, they were so poor that they sometimes had to use tablecloths and bed sheets instead of expensive canvas, to the considerable depletion of the household economy…). We may also speculate that, for the artist, the linearity was enhanced by speed and fragmentation: the poem is like a series of momentary glimpses of fragments of reality through the window of a speeding train. This said, it did not inspire her to merely explode forms into fragments, as the Cubists might, but to go further and to merely allude to them by fluid, curving sweeps of colour. The line of this (probably) fictive train journey is notionally from Moscow to Paris, passing through a Russia convulsed with the crisis of the Revolution of 1905, which is why the only two figurative elements – the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Ferris Wheel – are located at the bottom of the script. As with Apollinaire, Cendars’ poetry is a delight to read, a riotous headlong avalanche of shards and fragments of images in words:

“And yet, and yet,
I was as sad as a child
The rhythms of the train
The “railway marrow” of American psychiatrists
The noise of the doors the voices the axles screeching on the frozen rails
The golden railing of my future
My browning the piano and the cursing of the card players in the next-door compartment
The splendid presence of Jeanne
The man in the blue glasses who nervously paced the hallway and who would look at me as he passed by
Rustling of women
And whistling of steam
And the eternal sound of wheels whirling in madness in the furrows of the sky
The windows frosted over
No nature!
And behind, the Siberian plains the low sky and the great shadows of the Taciturn Ones rising and falling.”[8]

It is to be noted that Delaunay’s ‘parallel’ text is not in fact strictly parallel, but actually exceeds its allocated space and spills over to lyrically fill spaces between Cendrars’ stanzas. She has chosen to use both watercolour and gouache to achieve subtle variations on texture, enhanced by a lyrical, high-keyed palette including light blues, greens, vermillion, yellow and purple. She does not rely on her more typical optical disks so much as upon curved semi-circular forms, with a few triangular forms added.

Coda

The exhibition contains many more masterpieces, but I would like to leave our readers some joyful discoveries and encounters to make for themselves. Some might well relish the opportunity to see a superb clutch of works by Wassily Kandinsky, and to trace his progression from figurative art to the lyrical abstraction for which he is famous. We might recall that he was converted by the strangest accident in art history: upon leaving a room, he glanced back and saw a figurative painting propped up, upside down, on a chair. Because the subject made no sense, the arrangement of shapes and colours suddenly struck him as having a logic in itself, independent of what the painting notionally represented. In a flash, he perceived his theory of abstraction. Then there is the even greater enigma of the Kasimir Malevich and his black painting to ponder …

 

– PRACTICALITIES

The Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition is open from October 13, 2018, to March 3, 2019, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Single tickets are at a cost of $28 adult, $24 concession and $20 member. More details on the exhibition are available at https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/hermitage/

I spent two days in the exhibition from opening time to close of day, and noted that at all times the exhibition space coped well with the volume of people who attended. At no time, on these occasions, did I feel jostled, nor did I struggle to see the works. (One might reasonably expect, however, to see larger crowds during holidays and also during the closing weeks of the exhibition). There are comfortable seats in some rooms, providing respite and rest, as well as contemplation. It is also worth noting that the Art Gallery of New South Wales possesses excellent light-weight folding stools, which it will willingly lend upon request. For those who find long visits challenging, or even who just want to sit and ponder, these are a godsend. I noticed that many people appeared to be unaware that these seats were available, since they stopped to ask me how and where I obtained it. A simple request to the attendants at the entry to the exhibition will suffice.

– RECOMMENDED READING

  • SEBASTIAN SMEE, The Art of Rivalry: Matisse/Picasso, Manet/Degas, Bacon/Freud, De Kooning/Pollock. (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2016).
    Smee’s study is not a survey of modern art, but an examination of how some modern artists become locked into a dual dynamic of rivalry and emulation, which actually drives and informs their artistic development. To see an example of this, just have a look at the Picasso’s Nude in a Rocking chair, in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where Picasso tries to out-Matisse Matisse!

– RECOMMENDED VIEWING: DOCUMENTARIES

  • Documentary: Paris: The Luminous Years, Madman films, Special Broadcasting Corporation 2011, two episodes, 106 minutes total.
  • Director Pery Miller Adato has done a superb job in evoking “the storm of modernism which swept through Paris between 1905 and 1930”. This is an intelligent and engaging overview of the early modernist movement.
  • Documentary: The Impressionists, ABC DVD Entertain Me 2014, two episodes, 106 minutes total.

– REFERENCES

[1] Paul Hayes Tucker, Monet in the 1890s. The Series Paintings (New Haven and London, in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Yale University Press, 1999), p. 75.

[2] Exhibition catalogue, Monet in London (Atlanta, USA: High Museum of Art, 1988), p. 19.

[3] Christoph Becker, Camille Pissarro, (n.p.. Hatje Cantz, n.d.), p. 127.

[4] Reference: https://en.museeduluxembourg.fr/cezanne-and-paris

[5] Cited in: Jean Guichard-Meili, Matisse, pp. 60-61. For the whole text of this crucial document, see Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art, pp. 32-40.

[6] Exhibition catalogue: A Century of Artist’s Books (New York: Museum of Modern Art, October 23, 1994–January 24, 1995).

[7] Exhibition catalogue: Sonia Delaunay. Les couleurs de l’abstraction. (Paris: Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris, 17 October 2014 to 22 February 2015). Exhibition catalogue: Anne Montfort and Cécile Godefroy (eds.), Sonia Delaunay, (London: Tate Modern, 2015).

[8] https://lyricstranslate.com/en/prose-du-transsib%C3%A9rien-et-de-la-petite-jehanne-de-france-trans-siberian-prose-and-little-jeann.html

Dr Michael Adcock

Dr Michael Adcock

Dr Michael Adcock is social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.

Upcoming tours led by Dr Michael Adcock

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