Review By: Emmalyn Rucker
On January 13, 2014, I had the good fortune to visit The Russian Avant-garde, Siberia and the East exhibition held at Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence, Italy. Though I am just now getting around to writing about the experience, it is in no way related to the exhibit’s impact upon my senses or its aesthetic value. Organized by Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and curated by John E. Bowlt, Nicoletta Misler, and Evgenija Petrova, the exhibit proves how influential such subject matter as the Orient, Buddhism, and Chinese and Japanese culture were in shaping the way Russian artists depicted their ideas. Colors, shapes, forms, and line work all begin to make reference to Eastern works ranging from prints, calligraphy, and tapestries to statues and relics. In Ilia Mashkov’s work, Portrait of a Lady in a Chair, one can sense a play between shape, form, and realism, as he paints areas of interest or importance in a more realistic or detailed manner. The captivating face of the woman has an uncanny resemblance to how many of the women’s faces in Oriental prints were handled. Also, perhaps more apparent, is the artist’s reference to the vivid color and raw imagery depicted by such Oriental groups. The artist Nikolai Kalmakov dealt with the notion of the Eastern femme fatale in his pieces Woman with Snakes and Buddha and Chinese Maiden. On the other hand, some of the artists in the exhibition chose to represent the religious natures associated with the Eastern cultures. These ideas may be noted in Nicholas Roerich’s The Great Sacrifice and Nicola Bendis’ Before the Buddha, Initiation into the Priesthood, Miracle of the Indian High Priest, Levitation on 22 April, 1915. The notions associated with the term “Fire and Ice,” a relevant theme to the exhibition, are also referenced in many, though not all of the works. “Fire”, refers to “pagan ecstasy”, and “Ice,” refers to “the conformation with traditional standards.” For instance, “Fire” is the idea behind the wooden sculptures created by artists such as Mikhail Matiushin whose works show a likeness to forest spirits and idols, and works like Kazimir Malevich’s oil painting entitled, Head, which shows a strong resemblance to an earlier 20th century Ritual Mask utilized by the Koryaki people. The notion of “Ice” may be seen in Wolves by Night by Aleksei Stepanov; the painting, a realistic Russian landscape, is affronted by wolves who seem to be preventing the viewer from entering the wild or the unknown territory that is home to mysterious/primitive cultures and ideas. Because of trade with primitive or distant cultures, Russian artists were given new artistic license and direction to explore these mysterious ideas that would so heavily influence and improve their unique forms of expression. One can easily say that these works helped teach and guide Russian artists into a period of artistic revival that will and should be remembered for generations to come.
For the exhibition text, please visit the following link:
Sebregondi, Ludovica, and Manuela Bersotti, eds. The Russian Avant-Garde, Siberia and The East; Kandinsky, Malevich, Filinov, Goncharova. Trans. Stephen Tobin. Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, 23 Sept. 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.