by Roderick Conway Morris

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'A Russian is not only a European, but also an Asian'

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 6 November 2013
State Tretyakov Museum, Moscow
Still-Life with a Sculpture by Natalya Goncharova, 1908



In 1995 Italy was the scene of a groundbreaking exhibition, 'Paul Gauguin and the Russian Avant-garde,' at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara. Works by Gauguin, originally bought by the pre-Soviet collectors of post-impressionism Mikhail and Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, were shown with pieces by Russian artists influenced by these imports.

'The Russian Avant-garde, Siberia and the East' at Palazzo Strozzi, returns to this subject, but this time seeking to demonstrate that Russian painting and sculpture of this period owed as much, if not more, to the artists' encounters with works from Central Asia, Siberia and a wide range of Eastern countries.

The exhibition is arranged around themes, including 'Exotic Sources: From Greece to Siam,' 'The Far East,' and 'Gestures and Rituals,' and it contains works by, among others, Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who were featured in the 1995 Ferrara show, as well as anonymous traditional Central Asian and Siberian pieces.

Dostoyevsky's assertion that 'a Russian is not only a European, but also an Asian' is quoted in the catalog and this sense of duality is a recurring theme. But the exhibition fails to convince that Russian artists of the first three decades or so of the 20th century had a greater knowledge or understanding of Eastern art than their Western brothers and sisters. Indeed, also quoted in the catalog is a pertinent observation by the art historian Dmitri Sarabianov: 'Despite the fact that Russian space had reached the borders of Japan and China, Orientalist tendencies entered our art from the West in a very roundabout way.'

While even the talented Natalia Goncharova in mystical mode may have declared herself closer to the East than the West, her paintings on show here manifest the palpable influence of Gauguin, Matisse and Cézanne, and the Asian objets d'art in her 'Still-life with a Chinese Print' and 'Still-life with Sculpture' are attractive decorative devices rather than evidence of a deep affinity with the arts of the East.

The Russian Avant-garde: Siberia and the East. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Through Jan. 19.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024