Mar 2008 Journal

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Art notes (review)

Despite a major attack by the Evening Standard’s Brian Sewell, From Russia at the Royal Academy (to 18 April) has survived controversy with flying colours. In order to appease the Russians, who feared putative claims on art expropriated by the Russian Revolution, former Culture Secretary James Purnell scrambled an Act of Parliament to bring to the UK 120 French and Russian paintings from Russia’s four major art collections and ensure their immunity from seizure. Sewell himself sees parallels between such potential claims and those of Holocaust heirs. Whatever the provenance of the works on show, they cast a long shadow over this much vaunted exhibition, following its unfettered success in Düsseldorf.

So what can be said about the show itself? It has a vast remit: an examination of the interchange between French and Russian art during a revolutionary phase. It all turns on the foresight of two avant-garde Russian collectors, Ivan Morosov and Sergei Shchukin, who brought French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism to Russia. Picasso’s haunting Cubist work Dryad has a breathtaking earthiness and power, resonant of Jacob Epstein’s Genesis. However, the reflection of these artistic genres on Russian art is, apart from the work of Kandinsky and Chagall - who fuses French Cubism with Russian-Jewish folklore – largely disappointing.

I was impressed by the work of the early-nineteenth century Russian Realists known as The Wanderers who focused on social issues and their personal culture. Most captivating is The Blessing by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret, showing a kneeling bride whose white veil is a metaphor for romantic purity amid peasant poverty and simplicity. Opposite is James Tissot’s Ruins, a poignant painting of beggars amidst broken slates and tiles with strong Christian imagery.

Many Russian artists have a taste for dramatic pose – perhaps Matisse’s famous La Danse offers a metaphor – but, for example, Ilya Repin’s Leo Tolstoy Barefoot shows him animated as though on the brink of an idea. Commedia dell’arte, a joint self-portrait by Shukhayev and Yakovlev dressed as Pierrot and Harlequin and others, notably of Diaghilev, all strikingly deliver this typically Russian theatrical, narrative style.

The acerbic wit of the late writer and pundit Chaim Bermant is captured in a series of spirited, poignant portraits by his widow Judy Bermant in her tribute solo Portraits of a Licensed Heretic at the Ben Uri. The drawings, mainly charcoal or aquatint, catch the writer’s fleeting irony. Perhaps it takes a wife to penetrate one of the finest and funniest Jewish minds of the twentieth century. We shall not see his like again, but Judy has done a great service to his memory.

More disturbing memories pepper the mind of artist-sculptor Roman Halter. In an exhibition of paintings and watercolours at the Redfern Gallery, which once exhibited the art of Jewish internee artists of the Second World War, Halter’s powerful, fractured work delivers faces he remembers from the transports to the death camps. It is spiced with landscape miniatures broken up by tiny, marching brown figures which reflect his dreams - the rolling Dorset landscape into which the death march constantly transposes itself.

Gloria Tessler

previous article:Second World War internee records for the Isle of Man
next article:Austria’s loss, Britain’s gain (review)