already in the pisa airport you could see massive posters advertising it: ‘the russian avant-guarde, siberia and the east’ was coming to palazzo strozzi this autumn. even the wall street journal was talking about it. so when i went on sunday evening, i was not expecting to come out somewhat disappointed.
let’s put it in perspective: at it’s core, this is a fascinating idea. the whole premise is to shift presumptions that russian artists were influenced by the artistic ideas of western europe. in fact, russian artists were deeply influenced by the ideas and peoples on the peripheries of their own empire: from the far east, to the dry deserts, to the siberian landscapes, artists at the turn of the century drew inspiration from the ‘fire and ice’ of the russian empire. indeed, after the exhibition you do truly come out with a real sense of the vastness of the empire, of the diversity of its terrain and peoples. one of the first paintings captures this perfectly: it is aleksej stepanov’s ‘wolves by night’, where you see a pack of wolves sat in a seemingly endless field of siberian wintery landscape. the only sign of mankind is the cart tracks left in the snow…
but one thing struck me as being hugely important: the absence of all things ‘hist’. whether we are talking about the historical contextualisation of the movement in itself, of it’s artists, or of their work, nothing feeds into the hugely complicated story of the fall of the russian tsarist empire and the rise of the soviet nation. nothing helps to illuminate this period; likewise, this period is never used to help illuminate the works themselves. this, for me, as both a historian and an observer, is really disappointing.
(gorkin moved back to his home region in siberia after spending a few years in moscow. in 1937, he was killed in a siberian labour camp on suspicion of being a japanese spy – yes, more historical context would have been nice.)
in addition to this absence of hist, you were never asked to question the gaze of these russian, white, male artists over the oriental subjects they represented. for example: a link was made between one artist and gauguin: like gauguin, he ditched his modern, urban, western lifestyle for a more exotic locations on the borders of the russian empire. however, as the tate exhibition in london showed in 2011, gauguin’s gaze on polynesian women was hugely problematic. it combined a fetishism of both the orient and the oriental woman. gauguin deliberately ignored the realities of life in french polynesia in order to focus more on the stereotypes of the ‘primitive peoples’ in his work. in the post-colonial world we live in, we only understand too well the problems of fetishizing the orient, the exotic, the primitive, and the female form. and yet, this was never called into question in this exhibition, despite it’s glaring obviousness. what a shame.
(would have been nice to question the artist’s gaze in il’ja maskov’s ‘natura morta’, for example)
my final critique is one of form. the amount of text on walls and paintings was quite significant, and a special effort had been made to draw in children. but we got an audio guide – and it was largely useless. a lot of the text in the audio guide was written in the exhibition panels. so unless you’d forgotten your reading glasses, it was completely futile. i mean, the whole point of audio guides is to add more context about the individual artists and their work. it is not a replacement for the panels – it adds to them. it adds texture, nuance and reflection. here, sadly, it was mostly descriptive and even, dare i say, anecdotal.
ultimately, i felt that the juxtaposition of paintings, sculptures and artifacts had great potential; but the absence of a strong, overarching narrative meant that a lot of the significance of this exhibition seemed to get lost in translation. that being said, i would be lying if i didn’t admit that i did come out thinking differently about russian art and artists at the turn of the century. their work reflected a fascinating flow of ideas, peoples, cultures, and it was often steeped in mysticism.