Review: The Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage, at The Art Gallery of NSW

Bernard Buffet, The Winter Palace, 1928 - 29, oil on canvas

The first painting visitors see in the exhibition "The Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage"  is Bernard Buffet’s The Winter Palace, which presents the St. Petersburg Hermitage painted as a gothic hard lined institution rather than the opulent jade pastel palace that it is. This fantastic painting serves two functions as it welcomes visitors to the exhibition. Firstly, it sets the curator’s motive for the exhibition which presents masters of modern art who were occupied with pioneering alternate art styles in contrast to their classical peers, secondly this painting conjures up the thought in visitors the magnitude of the Hermitage and it’s collection. The Hermitage is undoubtedlythe world’s largest art gallery, this record coupled with the twenty-eight dollars ticket price leads gallery goers to presume they are to see a large and comprehensive display of art, which unfortunately is not the case. Student tickets are priced at twenty dollars, thus rendering the possible audience of Masters Of Modern Art from the Hermitage as quickly defined between the haves and have nots.

Sergei Shchukin Matisse Collection Room, The Morozov Palace, 1937 

This exhibition is largely made up of artworks from Sergie Schukin’s collection, a man very much from the aforementioned “haves” group.The art movements explored in this exhibition owe some of their success to collectors such as Sergie, who collected art with an audacity matched only by the wonderfully imaginative artists they supported.

Paul Mezzane, Banks of the Marne at Creteil, 1906, Oil on canvas

In the first gallery we are hummed with the shimmering vibrations of impressionists’ brush strokes. Largely, an optical movement, the impressionists were concerned with painting scenes as how they were seen and felt rather than the academic realistic paintings prevalent of their time. It is recommended to spend time in front of Monet’s “Waterloo Bridge” were Monet illusionist brushstrokes have captured the sense of foggy air as it’s mist swallows up the painting’s subject, Waterloo Bridge.  On the adjacent walls are two noteworthy Cezanne’s Banks of the Marne at Creteil and The River of the Marne. Cezanne’s approach to the elements is a different optic to his impressionist peers. Cezanne’s lake here is painted less concerned with the light refracting movement of water, but rather as rigid spaces in defined brushstrokes.

Visitors must not expect the Art Gallery of NSW to curate a comprehensive exhibition presenting the natural progressions in the canon of western art history, there just aren’t enough paintings on display to achieve this, instead this show presents nods in art movement directions, presenting only superficially the progression of these multifarious art movements during the time of the early 1900’s.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman (Portrait of Genevieve), c. 1902-1903, Oil on Linen

So thus, Cézanne’s analytically defined colourscapes is all it takes to lead us into the next room. Here a quaint yet beautiful blue period Picasso hangs politely next to it’s cubist cousins. Portrait of Genevieve is worth alone coming to see. Genevieve sombrely sits representing at large the artists heavy depression that stylized this period of monochromatic blue shades in Picasso’s work. A natural progression follows in the curation of the room, with a leap into Picasso’s cubist period. Genevieve is neighboured by two aggressive matriarch women painted by mainly triangular shapes and donning aloof African masks, which, due to the lack of room's curation and explanation of the consecutive progression in Picasso’s Blue Period to Rose Period to African period, presents Genevieve unwarrantedly polemic.

Kazimir Malevich, The Black Square, circa 1930 

The exhibition’s whispering curation voice continues with exploring the rebuke on figuritve art with Malevich’s The Black Square, the only Malevich in the exhibition, but gee is it a good one. The Black Square hangs alone on a red wall, it's boisterous presence discharges the voice of Malevich’s semantic exactness of words, demanding of his peers “What is art?”. Perhaps here curator Jackie Dunn could learn a thing or two in voice projection. 

Wassily Kandinsky, Landscape 1913, Oil on canvas

As this show repeatedly makes clear, even if famished in it’s curation, artists during the early 1900’s shared the idea that art should no longer present traditional subject matters but rather should be a fantasy of evolution of subject. Wassily Kandinsky surveyed by Malevich’s watchful square summarises this idea in one of the last rooms of the exhibition, yes, it is almost time to exit through the gift shop. In Landscape 1913 and Composition V the material world has dissolved completely to abstract colorful forms. Kandinsky’s debt to the fauvist Manet or Derain nodded to in the previous rooms has almost vanished in these two paintings, as his colour forms dance on the point of the undistinguishable.

Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage includes some visceral paintings worth seeing, however the exhibition lacks. Like a Contiki tour making the must see stops in Paris, St. Petersburg and other magnificent places reduced to an aunt’s photograph, the Art Gallery of NSW has presented an exhibition that lacks size, comprehension and a curatorial voice. Judging by the ticket prices, perhaps the gallery presumes we already have a holiday booked for The Winter Palace next Spring.