Bringing the Talent to you

The latest exhibition to be housed in Firenze’s beautiful 15th century Strozzi palace is The Russian Avant - Garde – Siberia and the East, currently on display until 19th January 2014 and well worth a visit. Expertly curated by John E Bowlt, Nicoletta Mister and Evgenia Petrova, the exhibition takes us on a fascinating journey, giving new insights into the origins of the Russian Avant-garde and demonstrating on the one hand the strong influence of Western Europe, and on the other, that of the East, from the steppes of Asia to India, from China to Japan.

Petr Konchalovsky -Family Portrait with Chinese Print
A Christmas Family Treat at the Palazzo Strozzi
The Russian Avant-Garde

There are special labels on display inviting young visitors and their families, many of whom will be from different parts of the world, to explore beyond the horizon, with fun questions about travel, exploration and emigration, and ideas aimed at stimulating their imagination. There is also an explorer’s map case, which is full of activities for all ages, and a free drawing kit; both are available at the information desk on the first floor.

Russian Avant-garde is a term that encompasses the various new trends found in Russian art at the beginning of the 20th century, including Symbolism, Abstraction, Cubo - Futurism and Suprematism.
During the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Russia was already a melting pot for great artists. Writers like Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy found world - wide acclaim, while the choreographer, Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes reinvigorated dance as well as costume and set design around the globe. The Romantic music of Tchaikovsky and later Rachmaninoff drew large audiences to the world’s concert halls and other musical styles thrived; Romantic nationalists like Rimsky-Korsakov of The Five, based their works on Russian folk tunes, dances and folk-tales, while the more experimental styles of Scriabin, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich flourished.

Circle of Keys, colour coded.

Clear links can often be found between the arts, but this flowering of intellectual and artistic dynamism was particularly exciting. In 1910, Kandinsky launched the revolution of abstract-art whilst Scriabin’s innovative and Symbolist style had become very popular, with Tolstoy describing his music as ‘a sincere expression of genius.’

Both artists were interested and skilled in other art forms and both were influenced by synesthesia and the idea of hearing colour and seeing sound.
Scriabin related specific colours to certain keys while Kandinsky associated them with emotion, creating a multi-sensory fusion. Both were philosophers and were drawn to mysticism and the belief that works of art could stimulate the soul.

Black Spot – Kandinsky 1915

During the years that led up to the radical social and political explosion of 1917, the Russian Revolution, both Kandinsky and Scriabin pushed their rich Russian arts heritage in the direction of mysticism and symbolism and were involved in Theosophy, an eclectic, mystical-philosophical doctrine popular in Europe and America in the last part of the 19th century. Kandinsky believed that emotions and feelings could be identified with abstract colours and shapes. This concept is evident in the Black Spot, which combines abstraction with the spiritual dimension of the art - work and the idea that abstract art creates an aesthetic experience.

Composition no.217 – Grey Oval 1917 Kandinsky

The exploration of Oriental and shamanic cultures played a major role in the construction of the conceptions of the Avant–garde, and in turn influenced western painting. Kandinsky thought of his Grey Oval as a symbolic shape (it is in fact the shape of a shamanic drum), representing the entire universe. Other art works such as Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite from his ballet about ancient Slav myths and Blok’s poem, The Scythians followed a similar line, as did the work of the abstract artist, Malevich. In his painting, Supremus, No 58, the white background indicates infinity.

Supremus no 58 - Malevich 1915-16

Pavel Filonov was interested in the artifacts of the people of northern Russia, and found and photographed wooden sculptures of the shamans’ spirit helpers.
His paintings are hung next to examples of some of these wooden pieces.

Beasts – Pavel Filonov (1925-6)

Artists like Vasilii Vereschagin who painted in the Impressionist style, were inspired by Japanese prints to change their conceptions of space and choice of colour, paving the way towards the modernist style, which was part of the Avant-garde.

Vasilii Vereschagin – Boat Ride 1903

The exhibition is clearly divided into 11 Sections, with 130 works on display including paintings, watercolours, drawings and sculptures and artifacts. It brings together the leading exponents of the Russian avant-garde with other artists of the time, who though less well-known are just as significant, and whose works are exhibited in the West for the first time, such as Kalmakov Nikolai, Sergei Konenkov and Vasily Vatagin, and it explores the fascination that Russian artists of all disciplines held for the exotic Orient – the rationality of Western civilization mingling with the heat of the orient.

Colours and Spaces of the Eurasian Steppes - Aleksandr Volkov

I particularly liked the booklet, Beyond the Horizon, edited by James Bradburne. Written in English and Italian, specifically aimed at the young, it is an excellent buy!