The Art Gallery of NSW’s big exhibition for this summer features 65 artworks from St Petersburg’s massive Hermitage Museum. The Hermitage holds more than 3 million items (most aren’t on permanent display) and is the second biggest art museum in the world, just behind the Louvre. It was established by Catherine the Great in 1764 and has amassed art from all around the world, from just about every major artist and major artistic movement.
The AGNSW exhibition is focused on a very specific part of the Hermitage’s collection, and most of the works that have landed in Sydney are by French artists and not Russians. They're the painters who forged the path through late impressionism and into the expansive modernism the world saw explode in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Monet, Gauguin, Cézanne, Pissarro, Picasso, Matisse and Signac.
You mightn’t know that two Russians played a pivotal role in this period of evolution: collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were championing some of those master painters, some of whom were overlooked by the art world elite in their home countries. Shchukin, for example, was collecting Matisse artworks (of which there are eight in this exhibition) when Matisse was a total unknown. The pair's boundary-pushing collections influenced a whole generation of Russian artists, and eventually came to be held by the Hermitage after decades of Russian political evolution.
All 65 paintings have been taken directly off the walls of the Hermitage, so if you’re looking to see modern masterpieces at the Hermitage, you might want to delay your Russian trip until this exhibition has finished. Here are seven of the most significant works on show in Sydney.
1. This unique poppy field by Monet
You’ve probably seen one of Monet’s poppy field paintings before, but the one held by the Hermitage was completed at the start of the 1890s, when he painted his other poppy fields in the 1870s and ‘80s. And he was getting a bit loosey goosey by this point, pushing his impressionistic style even further than in those earlier paintings, which have more detail but don’t have the same sense of dynamic movement as captured in this painting.
He was clearly painting the field on a windy day, and it’s suspected that he completed it on location due to his rapidly painted brushstrokes – most of the trees are made up of only a few strokes.
2. Cézanne constructs a pine from brushstrokes
There are a bunch of Cézanne paintings in the Hermitage exhibition, but this is probably the masterpiece of the group.
It’s considered a “constructional” work, which means it’s assembled from separate blocks of colour to create a mosaic-like effect; each brushstroke is used consciously as its own building block. He was trying to strip things back to their simplest in terms of construction but retain the depth of the landscape.
This is also hugely personal work for the artist, associated with his childhood memories in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where he spent time with his childhood friend and fellow artist Émile Zola, and began to forge his style.
3. Gauguin combines Buddhism and Christianity in Tahiti
This painting, completed when Gauguin was living in Tahiti, is called ‘Te avae no Maria’, which translates to “The month of Mary”. For those who aren’t well-versed in Catholicism, that’s the month of May, when the Catholic Church celebrates the Virgin Mary. But in addition to Christianity, the painting pulls in Buddhist elements – the pose that the woman in the photograph is hitting is taken from a stone figure from a Buddhist temple in Java.
4. Matisse finds ritualism in a simple game of bowls
There are eight works by Matisse in this exhibition, showcasing the evolution of his work, and all but one were owned by Shchukin. This painting came at the end of his period as a proponent of the “fauvism”, a relatively short-lived movement that favoured colour and bold painterly qualities. The three figures depicted are thought to be Matisse’s sons and nephew. But although they appear to be teens caught up in a game, they have a ritualistic quality and are striking unusual poses and gestures.
5. Who is she? Picasso pushes portraiture
There are also eight works from Picasso in the exhibition, all from his early period, leading up to World War I. You can certainly see his evolution of style, particularly in this famous painting of his partner Fernande Olivier. But you probably wouldn’t know that it was her given the way he’s transformed her figure.
In this particular period, Picasso was inspired by African art – you can see that the mask-like face is inspired by African wood-carvings – but there’s also a reference to the Greco-Roman goddesses with her white robe and exposed breast.
6. The black square that changed everything
Okay, we know what you’re thinking. Isn’t that just a black square? Well, yes and no. Malevich was pushing the limits of abstract painting, and this work remains one of the most radical and daring pieces of modern art. It was considered an “anti-painting” by many when it first appeared in 1915, as a totally non-representative work of art. It’s often called the “zero point of painting”, and has been debated and evaluated by critics and historians for the last century.
The work actually had its genesis in 1913, when Malevich designed the sets for an opera called Victory over the sun, which prominently featured the black square motif.
The interesting thing is that Malevich painted four variants of ‘Black Square’ into the 1930s – the Hermitage holds the fourth that he painted – but all of them have the year 1913 etched onto the back, which makes it clear that it was the formation of the idea of the piece, rather than its execution, that was the point of creation for this artwork.
7. Kandinsky boldly reinvents the landscape
There are five works by abstract pioneer Kandinsky in the exhibition, four of which come from the Hermitage. But this is one of Kandinsky’s favourites – after it was first exhibited he took it back to his own house and put it up in his drawing room.
And yes, it is actually a landscape, even though you mightn’t recognise it as such. The tall black lines that appear between the two curves? Those represent a castle behind a hill.
Masters of modern art from the Hermitage is at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 3, 2019.
Need more art in your life? Check out the best exhibitions this month.