“From Russia“, an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London has attracted a great deal of press in the past month over threats of cancellation. Some of the work to be displayed was seized from private Russian collections during the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. The tug of war between the descendants of the works’ original owners, Russian Museums, and the British Government was resolved recently when the British Parliament passed anti-seizure legislation, ensuring the work will return to Russian museums. The show features both French and Russian realist, impressionist, post-impressionist and modernist work from 1870-1925.
On the upside, this drama has drawn enormous attention to the exhibition. Achim Middleschulte of E.ON UK, the exhibition’s sponsor, called the commotion, “the best possible publicity.” On the downside, however, articles on the show often underestimate and downplay Russian work. Artists like Serov, Levitan and Repin are, unsurprisingly, eclipsed by names more recognizable to a western audience: Cezanne, Matisse, Gaugin.
This bias, however unintentionally, encourages show goers to skip over those artists which they are least familiar with; it sends patrons into the show with an expectation of what they will and will not respond to. Columnists can hardly avoid mentioning specific artists and pieces, but there seems to be little variation in what is highlighted.
What are our highlights? Isaak Levitan, one of the’ Wanderers,’ may be the most peaceful painter in the exhibition. A favorite artist of Russian Orthodox monks, Levitan devoted his life to capturing the true spirit of the Russian landscape. Mikhail Vrubel, also a Wanderer, may be the most visionary artist in the show. Vrubel’s work is often considered to be closer to byzantine and early renaissance art than to the art of his time. His work reflects his mystical spiritual beliefs. You can find an example of his work on the exhibition website.
The show will run through April 18.