Join Art Gallery of NSW exhibitions curator Jackie Dunn as she guides you through a selection of the masterworks from the Hermitage. Look for the headphone symbol and stop number near the artwork labels in the exhibition.
Welcome to the Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage.
My name is Jackie Dunn, exhibitions curator at the gallery, and I will be your guide on this audio tour. Together we’ll take a short stop or two in each room to encounter master works of the avant-garde.
These paintings were brought to Moscow at the beginning of the 20th century as part of some truly significant collections, which then made their way to the Hermitage during the Soviet era, to become the core of their modern European collection.
The Russian collectors, most notably Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, were pioneers. They came from a new class of entrepreneurs that had sprung up in the century before the revolution – and with their new wealth, they bought art.
Together these ‘merchant princes’ collected some of the most experimental works of modernism. Like them we’ll start with Impressionism, before moving through the exhibition to explore the key developments of avant-garde modernism: radical experiments in colour and form.
Shchukin once said: ‘If a picture gives you a psychological shock, buy it. It’s a good one.’ And he was true to his word. He, and Morozov, made courageous purchases at a time when artists were still being criticised at home, let alone in Russia, where even the cultural elite found them incomprehensible.
Like many of the artists, Shchukin and Morozov were friends … and occasional rivals – in their case for acquisitions. Together, they went on a journey with painting.
In these shimmering works, glowing with fresh colour and light, we can see the Impressionists’ attempts to paint what they saw, not an academic idea of what was in the world.
To the collectors Shchukin and Morozov, the Impressionists were a breath of fresh air. Both businessmen came to know them on their regular trips to Paris, and came to admire their attempts to paint the change that was in the air in Europe.
Cities like Paris, the home of Impressionism, were expanding rapidly and modern life within them was taking on a new form, courtesy of a new bourgeois class with new urban habits. Even the very concepts of space and time were being tested by science and philosophy.
To capture the essence of change, Claude Monet turned to nature. Sometimes he worked in series, as in both of his works here. He made paintings of one specific location at different times of the day so that he could record precise atmospheric conditions and show change.
Look closely and you can see how rapidly Monet painted his Poppy field. Each tree is just a daub of paint; each cloud a grey smudge that has been quickly and simply given its halo of silvery light.
In a painting from a decade later, Monet is again attempting to capture the effects of the weather, this time on the bridges of London: a city he believed was only truly beautiful when swathed in fog.
Look around and you’ll also see how Alfred Sisley has caught the wind rustling the trees.
And how Camille Pissarro – who worked with discipline in morning and afternoon shifts perched in a hotel room above the Boulevard Montmartre – creates a birds’ eye view of the bustling street and its cycles of activity.
And finally, take in Auguste Herbin’s landscape, a study in green that adds a decorative quality learned from the symbolists you’ll meet in the next room, to a close observation of nature.
Paul Cézanne was in a kind of dialogue with the Impressionists. Like them, he continued to paint traditional subject matter – such as the landscapes and still-lifes here – but he explored them in ways that many of his contemporaries found odd or even shocking.
Cézanne’s analytical approach to nature and his way of building form with colour, were at odds with his Impressionist friends. They sought what was fleeting in nature; Cézanne searched for its eternal essence.
For example, the Impressionists loved water, seeing it as best able to refract light and reveal movement. But look at the water in either of Cézanne’s Banks of the River Marne pictures here. In them – different bends of the same river – there are no ripples, and everything is still.
Where the Impressionists saw change as representing reality, Cézanne concentrated on the relationship of objects. He saw the world as a plane uniting all the essential underlying connections of the universe.
In his masterpiece Large Pine for example, he uses mosaic-like brushstrokes to create an integrated composition, one formed out of geometrical volumes and planes of colour. But it’s not all academic: we can smell the pine and feel the heat rising from the red earth. ‘Painting from nature is not copying the object’, Cézanne wrote, it is ‘realizing one’s sensations.’
Can Cézanne’s influence on the development of Western Modernism be overstated? The collectors Shchukin and Morozov came to believe that Cézanne was the first true modern, and certainly his multidimensional mapping of space anticipates cubism.
You’ll see echoes throughout the exhibition in works by Vlaminck, Derain, Picasso and others – including Matisse, who once called Cézanne ‘a sort of God’.
Our pioneering patrons from Moscow created the most important collections of modern Western art then in existence. They were as curious, audacious and passionate as the artists whose works they collected.
You can find out a little more about one of those figures, Sergey Shchukin, whose portrait is shown here, in the multi-media installation next door. By Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke, it tells the story of Shchukin and his patronage of Matisse.
Shchukin opened his collection to the public in 1908. Many young Russian artists became regular visitors, learning from and debating the pictures they saw in his home. Before long, they were taking up the challenge of their French colleagues, and the Russian avant-garde was born; one of the country’s key contributions to twentieth-century culture.
But how did these paintings end up in the Hermitage?
In 1918, it was decreed that all private collections be nationalised. A decree, signed by Lenin, was attached to the door of the Trubetskoy Palace, Shchukin’s home, declaring not only that the collection within was ‘of great national importance for the people’s culture’, but that it ‘shall count as the State property of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic’.
Later that year, the same decree was applied to Morozov’s grand townhouse home and its glorious collections.
First run separately as, respectively, the First and Second Museums of Modern Western Art, they were brought together in the mid-1920s. Other great private collections were added, and the whole became known as the Museum of New Western Art. It was eventually divided between the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St Petersburg in the 1930s.
Stalin declared the paintings we see in this exhibition to be of ‘reactionary bourgeois character’. They would remain in storage for decades.
Sergey Shchukin’s collection of works by Paul Gauguin was unmatched anywhere in the world. He filled his grand dining room with more than fifteen Gauguins, all hung closely together in a riot of colour to form a wall of what looked like golden icons.
To a Russian like Shchukin’s, a wall of icons symbolized the Heavenly Kingdom, a world of saints and angels. So, it must have seemed a suitable form for a display of Gauguin’s ‘exotic’ peoples and their spiritual beliefs.
Gauguin fled Europe for Tahiti twice in search of what he called a ‘primitive paradise’. The Month of Mary was painted during his second, final stay. It feels a little like Egyptian art, with its sharp divisions of flat colour and with Mary a stiff and solitary figure.
In fact, its direct reference was a sculptural relief from the temple of Borobudur, a photograph of which Gauguin carried around with him. But of course The month of Mary also refers to the Virgin Mary, and reveals Gauguin’s desire to unite traditional Christian motifs with his own ‘primitivist’ mythology.
Gauguin was constantly striving to develop a new style. He started out showing with the Impressionists, working closely with Pissarro. Then he went through a phase of admiring Cézanne above all others.
In Pont-Aven in Brittany, he continued his move away from Impressionism and wanted to ‘synthesize’ his approach to nature with feeling, to create a symbolic register of flat patterns and pure colour. His ‘synthetism’ would gain him a strong following of artists, many of whom we’ll meet in the next room.
Later, Gauguin would be called a ‘post-impressionist’, one of that generation whose work derived from and reacted to, Impressionism. Post-impressionism was simply the word coined to try and make sense of the complex scene in Paris at the tail end of the 19th century, when the avant-garde was taking its many diverse forms.
Henri Matisse was the artist most dearly loved by the Russian collectors. Through their acquisitions we can trace the great sweep of Matisse’s extraordinary development as an artist.
Let’s start with his sunflowers. They still have a little of the murky colour of his early academic training, but the energy in those brushstrokes, and the touches of vibrant yellow, are a big nod to the sunflowers painted by Van Gogh and Gauguin a decade earlier, paintings that Matisse would have known well.
We begin to see his truly radical change of vision – and another nod to Gauguin – with The Luxembourg Gardens. His trees are just simple zones of cut out colour, nothing more.
Then we come to Matisse’s fauvist moment, with works that he created at Collioure in the south of France. You’ll see more fauve works in the next room, but for now, just look at the 1906 painting Woman on a terrace, to see what he was aiming for: the Mediterranean sun has bleached out all the shadows and details, leaving only intense colour and simple forms.
A couple of paintings point to Matisse’s trips to North Africa, where he gained new energy and new motifs. Like Dishes and fruit, where we see a red and black carpet that he bought in Algeria, forming a base for a tumble of flattened objects which merge with its decorative patterns. This sort of flipped perspective would return in Matisse’s still-lifes for many years to come.
In 1908, Matisse declared, ‘What I dream of is an art of balance, purity and serenity’. That year he would paint two of the purest and most serene of paintings for Sergey Shchukin, Game of Bowls and Nymph and Satyr.
Their brilliant colour combinations stunned Shchukin, leading him to commission Matisse to paint more works in the same ground-breaking style: The Hermitage masterpieces Dance and Music.
Shchukin invited Matisse to Moscow to hang these himself. When Matisse came in 1911, he squeezed more than twenty paintings in tight, frame to frame, to create an immersive environment of colour and light.
It was revelatory.
As a Russian critic would later say, ‘I did not know Matisse until I saw Shchukin’s house.’
By the time Shchukin and Morozov were actively building their collections, Impressionism, which had once been anti-academic and daring, was already more than twenty years old and fast becoming a thing of the past. Its influence was still strong, but there was new work starting to take the lead in the cut and thrust of the avant-garde.
In these collections of late symbolist work by the Nabis, or Prophets, we see Morozov and Shchukin really starting to cultivate their passion for the new.
The artists here were no longer satisfied with exploring external reality – they wanted to explore our inner worlds; to capture the mood and emotional content of a scene.
Both Morozov brothers, Mikhail and Ivan, loved the decorative yet religious works of Maurice Denis. In paintings such as The Visitation, Denis made plain his Christian faith, but he brought to it a modernist slant through contemporary touches, radically modern colour and abstracted organic shapes.
Denis was later to create a grand series of mythological narrative panels for Ivan Morozov’s music room. His Story of Psyche was such as success that Morozov was moved to ask another of his Nabis favourites, Pierre Bonnard, to create the triptych By the Mediterranean. Both once took pride of place in Morozov’s Moscow mansion, but now hang in the Hermitage.
Bonnard and his friend Édouard Vuillard would become known as the ‘intimists’. Their worlds were the contemporary bourgeois interiors and surrounds of fin-de-siecle Paris, intimate subjects like lunch with friends, musical evenings, children at play … Their cropped compositions echo those of popular Japanese prints, and their colour harmonies illuminate the little nuances of everyday gesture and mood.
Others like Odilon Redon, here with Woman asleep beneath a tree, held to an older variety of symbolism, one of dream spaces and the colours of the night. Redon makes his colours even more radiant by rubbing them into raw canvas, and in this, and in his flat, abstract patterns, he heralds the Fauves.
‘A pot of paint has been flung in the face of the public’, declared one outraged critic at the now infamous Salon d’Automne of 1905. It was there that many of the artists we see here: Derain, Vlaminck, Van Dongen, Marquet and of course, Matisse – were christened the Fauves, or wild beasts.
Shchukin had been at the 1905 Salon and was not deterred by the furore it caused. Nor was Morozov. These progressive collectors would buy many works by them.
The fauves believed that art should be guided by self-expression. They still observed nature rigorously, but they added new ideas, breaking down traditions by using non-naturalistic colours and expressive brushwork.
You can see these clearly in Raoul Dufy’s vivid portrait of his sister with its wide patches of contrasting colours and loose and energetic brushwork. And a decorative approach that sees Suzanne Dufy’s blouse dissolve into the patterns of her chair.
Perhaps most radical and innovative was André Derain. He began applying paints straight from the tube – paints he described as ‘sticks of dynamite discharging light’. In Mountain Road you can see his startling colours divided like panes of stained glass.
Derain, together with Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck, would become the undisputed leaders of the informal and often competitive group. Hermitage curator Albert Kostenevich suggests that this Vlaminck painting, of a boat on the River Seine, is the most deserving in the entire collection of the label ‘fauve’: that is, if we see it as a depiction of nature inspired by the artist’s own unrestrained emotions.
Also joining the leaders was Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen. His light, bright works show the lessons of Paul Signac, whose vibrant canvas hangs with Matisse next door. Van Dongen’s Spring is utterly simple and full of joy. Bits of bare canvas let the painting ‘breathe’, and a distinctly musical placement of leaves and blossoms gives it rhythm.
In 1905, Maurice Denis, whose works we see next door, declared fauvism to be ‘pure painting’: ‘what is being done here’, he said, ‘is the primeval search for the absolute’.
In Pablo Picasso, Shchukin found his absolute modern artist. Shchukin’s son Ivan once recalled his father saying of the Spanish innovator, ‘this is the future’. Shchukin went on to amass some fifty works by Picassos that he would later hang all together in their own room in his Trubetskoy Palace.
The earliest here is the haunting and impassive early portrait of Genevieve, typical of Picasso’s mournful blue period. Next is a terracotta-toned boy that is both classical Greek and earthy Iberian sculpture. He actually appears again on the other side of this card, together with a delicate sketch of a woman in bed.
Then come the drastic changes we see in the works of 1908. This was the year Matisse introduced his patron Shchukin to Picasso at the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre.
Shchukin was reportedly shocked year that year, on first seeing Picasso’s revolutionary Les demoiselles d’Avignon, but he must have recovered as he later bought a work that issued directly from it: Woman with a fan – in the centre here.
From that same pivotal year comes the striking Small house in a garden, painted during a holiday stay at the tiny village of La Rue-des-Bois. Its interpenetration of planes certainly owes a good deal to Cézanne. Like Les demoiselles d’Avignon, we might consider it a milestone on the way to cubism.
Picasso immortalises a rural worker from that same holiday village in ‘Farm woman’. Such powerfully cut volumes and mass – they may make more sense when we know Picasso was also working on sculptures at the time.
If some see the very first phase of cubism in these works, others at the time saw something far worse: ‘These forms’, wrote Russian critic George Chulkov, ‘have no corresponding influence outside of hell.’
Shchukin seemed bewitched by Picasso and spent long hours – sometimes weeks – letting new works speak to him until he understood them. It can’t have been easy: Cubism was a rupture; breaking all ties with the past and rejecting all accepted painterly values.
The very last works Shchukin ever bought were by Picasso: two cubist still-lifes of 1914. One of them is here: Fruit bowl, cut pear and bunch of grapes.
Russian Wassily Kandinsky had been working in Germany for many years, absorbing and producing some of the most electrifying currents in avant-garde modernism while working with The Blue Rider Group.
Here we see his progression, starting with those early expressive works he was painting alongside Gabriele Münter in Murnau, at the foot of the Bavarian Alps. See how even in these simple landscapes, his compositions may be traditional, but his colours are used in a wildly innovative way.
Kandinsky and his Russian friend Alexej Jawlensky – were together in Germany, but also in Paris in 1905, watching firsthand the shock emergence of the fauves.
His pioneering explorations into abstraction took off, extending way beyond the territories of fauvism, cubism and futurism. He believed that colours and forms alone, freed from representation, could have an aesthetic, affective impact on us; that they could stir our spirit, like music.
The largest work here is a sketch for one of his Compositions, a loose series of ten breathtaking paintings created between 1910 and 1939. He considered them his most important works.
Kandinsky carried all these revolutionary ideas about life and art back with him to Moscow at the start of the war in 1914. And with the revolution, he was very active, teaching and setting up new cultural organisations.
But, ultimately he was more interested in painting as a pathway to spiritual reality than mere ideology, and he left Russia in 1921 to work with the Bauhaus.
Kandinsky left behind a number of his most important works for safekeeping – but artists and works were never reunited.
In 1948, his works joined the avant-garde French pictures in the Museum of Modern Western Art formed by the nationalisation of Shchukin and Morozov’s collections. There they remained taboo for decades: way too radical to be displayed while Stalin ruled.
Sergey Shchukin first opened his home and collection to the public in 1908. The Trubestkoy Palace became, effectively, the first public museum of modern art in the world.
It also became an unofficial school for Russian artists hungry to absorb all the exciting developments of the European avant-garde. Every Sunday, Shchukin would overcome his lifelong stammer to take visitors on an engaging personal tour of his treasures. Artists, critics and writers would join him, and when the tour stopped at the Picasso room, vehement debates about art would often break out.
The collection was a radicalising force that prompted a range of strong responses. One of the strongest came from a regular visitor, a philosophical young artist named Kasimir Malevich.
The open house debates, and the publishing of the futurist manifesto in Russia in 1909, cracked open the potential for art. Both would have direct impacts on the ideas being thrown around by artists whose revolutionary fervour was growing daily.
‘Twenty new schools of art are born within a month … Futurism, Cubism, they are already pre-history’, wrote founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Before long came Rayonism, Suprematism, Constructivism and more – all movements keen to create a new visual language for a new world.
Malevich led the suprematist group who aimed for ‘the supremacy of pure feeling’ that might come from a ‘non-objective’ art.
Malevich painted a version of Black square in 1915 for the ‘Last futurist exhibition’ in Petrograd, today St Petersburg. That’s it you can see hanging in the photograph of the exhibition behind. To him, the square was the key suprematist element. And here he has made it a daring, astounding full stop.
There would be 4 versions of Black Square, and Malevich would date them not from when he painted them, but from 1913, the moment when he first had the idea for the work.
After cubism, the Paris scene really fractured. In this room, we see artists who followed their own paths in response to the key directions of post-impressionism: idiosyncratic ones like Henri Rousseau, or those making late career returns to realism and classicism like André Derain.
Shchukin bought seven works by the self-taught Rousseau, loving the naïve freshness of his accounts of contemporary life. Luxembourg Gardens is one of the Paris places Rousseau would visit often to get inspiration for his famous jungle scenes.
And, we’ve come full circle. You can see the influence of Cézanne in the work of several artists here. Henri Le Fauconnier, who was associated with cubism and Othon Friesz, who worked with the fauves, but who takes up a distinctly cubist pose here. Both were regarded by their contemporaries as leading artists of the avant-garde.
It is Derain who most clearly returned to Cézanne and his rhythms after abandoning fauvism – even returning to the Renaissance and Dutch masters. Derrain was disappointed with where the fauves’ experiments had taken them and wanted art to return to being about what he called ‘lasting, eternal and more complex’ forms.
Take a look too at the dark directions carved out by Georges Rouault and Chaim Soutine who often came close to the grotesque. Actually, like Derain, Soutine drew inspiration from classical masters like Chardin and Rembrandt – but to create his unique vision, he added the expressive brushwork of the fauves.
We see another side to Matisse as well, working at the tail end of fauvism – with those mauve tones against a lurid ground, he’s more classical; using powerful black outlines in his traditional, if sensual, pose.
The great private collections of Shchukin, Morozov and other Russians would come to a dramatic end with the outbreak of war in 1914, compounded by the revolution of 1917. So, would the avant-garde in Paris, which, after the war, sought the ‘return to order’ we see in so many of the works in this final room.
Listen to music composed especially for the exhibition by contemporary musicians Corin Ileto, Becky Sui Zhen & Casey Hartnett.