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  • Fiona Prior

Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage

Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage

The Hermitage Masters of Modern Art is presently at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales. Works by Matisse, Kandinsky, Gauguin, Monet, Pissarro, Delaunay, Malevich, Cézanne and more are all on display until March 2019. The exhibition, apart from being essential viewing for its own sake, it is also a wonderful lesson in the role of the patron in this fertile European pre-WW1 period.

image: 'Fruit' 1879/80 (detail) by Paul Cézanne. Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum and AGNSW.

The works speak for themselves, and have throughout the 20th Century so I will leave them for you to explore. Do, however, ensure you see the wonderful audio/visual installation by Saskia Boddeke and director Peter Greenaway ('The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover') that illuminates the exhibition with a lesson on the art patron Sergei Shchukin, and the influence his patronage made to modernism.

Shchukin collected the works of Matisse, Picasso and other emerging artists at a time when the intelligentsia of Russia was pushing for functional art; to take art off the walls and put it to use as artefacts and utensils. Place this political push in a context where artists’ subject matter had already gone from rarefied to the depiction of the worker and everyday activities and it is obvious Shchukin’s selection validated and reinforced a paradigm-shifting leap in aesthetic.

The artists discovered that painting had its own autonomous meaning – that colour, line, shape, tone, spaciality, symmetry or asymmetry, and the urgency of pure expression could be themes in, and of, themselves

image: 'Landscape: Dünaberg near Murnau' 1913 (detail) by Wassily Kandinsky. Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum and AGNSW.

Shchukin exhibited his collection in his magnificent Moscow home; an open house to students, art lovers and detractors alike. Both a generous man and a generous patron it should be noted that Shchukin’s collection was seized just a handful of years later during the 1917 Russian revolution. It was deigned ‘degenerate’ but was eventually prized back for public display some ten years later by the dedicated Hermitage management and staff. (*Extremes in politics do seem to name-call!)

A wonderful insight into the history of a period of European art accompanies Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage.

image: 'The month of Mary (Te avae no Maria)' 1899 (detail) by Paul Gauguin. Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum and AGNSW.

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Until 3 March 2019

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