Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Kandinsky and Malevich. In their day, these painters were radical innovators. Now, some hundred years later, they are part of the art historical canon: the grand old men of modern art. But, Peter Raissis, curator of European prints and drawings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales where 65 of their paintings will be on view in Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage, insists that the show is not going to feel like walking through a textbook. The exhibition isn’t prescriptive or didactic, he says. “It’s much more free-flowing, and I think people will get a sense of the energy and momentum that was going on at this time.”
Rather than an art history lesson on the early 20th-century avant-garde, if Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage has a story to tell, it is one that highlights the impact an individual can make.
Two wealthy Russian merchants collected the bulk of the work on show: Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. Of these two, according to Raissis, Shchukin was the most influential. In 1908 he began opening up his Moscow palace to the public every Sunday, and it was here that young Russian painters were able to see the most experimental paintings coming out of Paris, then the undisputed centre of the art world.
Shchukin and Morozov didn’t collect Kandinsky and Malevich, but their works are included in the show from the Hermitage. As Raissis explains, “Malevich was one of these Russian artists who would go to Shchukin’s mansion to look at his paintings by Matisse and Picasso. It’s where he came in contact with radical movements like cubism. So he was really formed in the artistic nursery of Shchukin’s collection. It’s in this way that Shchukin and his collection had a really direct hand in moulding the Russian avant-garde.”