Set against the background of a poisoned spy, expelled diplomats and the kind of political stand-off that brought back memories of the Cold War, the groundbreaking new exhibition From Russia, finally made it to London seemingly against all odds.
The fact is this long-awaited show – even its title is borrowed from a James Bond adventure – enjoyed the kind of pre-publicity that money simply couldn’t buy.
Add to that the fact that it is being staged at the Royal Academy, just across the road from the Piccadilly Sushi bar where Alexander Litvinenko unwittingly ingested deadly Polonium 210, and one is almost tempted start believing in some kind of marketing conspiracy.
Such thoughts however pale into insignificance when you actually visit this stunning exhibition -– full title, From Russia: French and Russian Art Masterpieces of 1870-1925 – and realise that you are experiencing something absolutely sensational.
It’s purpose is to show how the radical paintings of the French avant-garde inspired the artists of pre and immediate post-revolutionary Russia to produce works of astonishing insight and imagination. It is a striking testimony to the history of Russian collecting and Russia’s influence on the development of modern art.
The paintings on show are drawn from Russia's four principal public collections – the Pushkin Museum and State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Hermitage and State Russian Museums in St Petersburg. They show something how something remarkable happened in a few short decades during which ideas were bouncing in a dizzying number of directions and art travelled at breakneck speed from the out and out traditional to pure abstraction. This period of cross-fertilisation absorbed the lessons of post-impressionism, cubism and much more.
The Stalinist purges attempted to stamp out the avant-garde. Great paintings were confiscated, ridiculed, dumped in the dark depths of state store-rooms and lost to the world until the 1960s. Until now though you had to travel to Russia to see them.
At the core of this exhibition are the private collections of two great Russian art collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Both were wealthy textile merchants whose regular business trips to Paris brought them into direct contact with the latest works of Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Cezanne and Gauguin.
A combination of self-confidence and impeccable taste saw them invest in an impressive number of classic examples of early French modernism. The effect of these western influences on Russian artists was galvanising.
The big stars of the From Russia show are undoubtedly Matisse's Dance II, commissioned by Shchukin in 1910 for the staircase of his Moscow mansion, and Picasso’s Dryad, produced in 1908 just a year after he painted his groundbreaking Demoiselles D'Avignon.
They are hugely important paintings. Whether they are the best this show has to offer is debatable. Their influence however is immediately apparent in paintings by, among others, Petrov-Vodkin. Take Bathing the Red Horse (1912) with its large areas of flat, vivid colour or Goncharova’s Pillars of Salt (1910) with its debt to early cubism and interest in primitive masks.
For many it is the French paintings that will impress the most and indeed there are some great Gaugin’s, some intriguing Cezanne’s and some seriously impressive Monets. Not all the paintings here are stunning though. There’s a decidedly insipid Braque and some rather indifferent work by Renoir. For this is an exhibition that tells the story of an era, it is about exchanges of ideas and a journey, brutally interrupted. It includes the great, the good and occasionally, particularly with the Russian content, the hopelessly misguided. All are part of a broader narrative though. The power of this exhibition is far greater than the sum of its individual parts.
For me the most stunning part of the show is the very end where Kazimir Malevich's ultra-radical black-on-white 1923 trio of paintings the Black Circle, Black Cross and Black Square provide a powerful conclusion to the visual journey you have just undertaken.
This is art at its purest, abstracted down to its essence, it’s building blocks. Somehow the alchemy of form and tension positively buzzes at you. It was no whim that made Malevich, when exhibiting The Black Square for the first time, display it in the traditional style of a holy icon.
*From Russia: French and Russian Master paintings 1870-1925 is on show at the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly, London, until April 18. More info at www.royalacademy.org.uk
*A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Echo, Bournemouth.