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Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant Garde

Museum Barberini shows how Russian artists experimented with new ways of seeing

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Kazimir Malevich, Summer (or House and Garden), 1906, Oil on canvas, 19,2 x 31 cm. Collection of Vladimir Tsarenkov, London

Wassily Kandinsky, the great Russian painter, was so startled after seeing one of Claude Monet’s paintings of a Haystack, that he renounced figurative painting and began down a path that would lead him to abstraction. What unsettled him was the lack of a discernible object in the French Impressionist’s work – and to Russian artists brought up on stiff academic realism, Monet’s haystack, with its violet and vivid orange hues, must have looked like it came from another planet.

This story exemplifies the huge impact and influence the French Impressionists exerted over so many Russian artists during a period of immense political and social upheaval. Between 1860 to 1925, the modern ideas and techniques of the Impressionists forever altered the work of artists such as Ilya Repin and Natalia Goncharova. This period has received little study over the years but is now the focus of the ongoing exhibition ‘Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant Garde’ at the Museum Barberini.

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Natalia Gonscharova, Rowan: Panino near Vjazma, 1907/08, Oil on canvas, 99,4 x 69 cm, State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

There is perhaps no better place to see the Impressionists’ striking use of colour than the elegant Potsdam museum, with its dark grey painted walls. More than 80 paintings are on display and the luminescent whites and colored shadows in purples and blue radiate out as the artists attempted to depict natural light in increasingly inventive ways. Clothed all in white, the three female figures in Igor Grabar‘s Under Birches appear in one of the first paintings you come across. As the light filters down from the trees, their bodies merge and disappear into a shower of fragmented white brushwork.

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Ilja Repin, Along the Field Boundary: Vera Repina Is Walking along the Boundary with Her Children, 1879 Oil on canvas, 61,5 x 48 cm © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Next to this is Valentin Serov’s intimate portrait of his wife – whose dress is buttoned right up to the top of the neck so as not to expose an inch of skin. Painted outside on a hot summer’s day, its laid back, easy charm is an example of the lighter themes brought in by the Impressionists in contrast to the heavy subject matter of previous years. Painting outside, en plein air, the painting captures what feels like a spontaneous, almost unfinished snapshot of private life. 

With many paintings set on grand Russian estates and in great mansions, it’s hard not to think about the seismic changes soon to sweep through the country. Most of the Russian painters were born to a life of privilege and ease. Sergei Vingradov’s In the House, provides an almost pantomime moment for late tsarist Russia. Painted a few years before the Bolshevik revolution, the painting gives a glimpse into the lifestyles of the cultured elite. A pig-tailed child faces away from the painter, studying something on a table, completely oblivious to everything around her.  

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Kazimir Malevich, Construction in Dissolution (Three Arches on a Diagonal Element in White), 1917 Oil on canvas, 98 x 70,5 cm, Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

The work of the pioneering Kazimir Malevich is scattered all over this exhibition. Experimental and restless, the paintings seem to oscillate from one direction to another: non-objective painting to Suprematism back to Impressionism. One of the last paintings in the show is his Construction in Dissolution from 1917, which shows a series of white arches (like pickaxes) on an off-white background – the forms are barely delineated and nearly impossible to make out. It is believed to be the final conclusion of his development that first began with the Impressionists. After what has come before, the sense of change is palpable and strangely terrifying.

Museum Barberini Impressionism in Russia: Dawn of the Avant Garde. Through January 9 2022, Potsdam