The challenge for any exhibition is establishing order, making sense of the works gathered on the walls.
While a painting will please the eye standing on its own, it must hang next to another painting, and in a room full of paintings.
An exhibition, then, must give some reason for hanging an Impressionist next to a Purist, a Matisse opposite a Kandinsky.
The latest exhibition from the Art Gallery of NSW does an excellent job in this respect.
The collection of 65 pieces from the Hermitage State Museum in St Petersburg does more than give a rare opportunity for Australians to see some of these famed masterpieces up close.
It allows us to experience the breadth of European Modernism.
The exhibition is arranged in a series of rooms, allowing the viewer to wander from Monet’s impression of a poppy field, rippling in the wind, and through to the cubism of Picasso’s later period.
Easily the highlight of the exhibition in this case is Picasso’s Table in a Café, which shows a bottle of Pernod, its form broken up, divided by the geometry of perspective, as he tries to capture the whole of the bottle.
Add to this the word games of the letters scattered through the foreground, and it’s a puzzle of a piece, to stare at for long moments. Table in a Café highlights the central idea behind this collection: Modernism as innovation, and creativity.
The painters and styles displayed are ordered by their attempts to reject or develop the traditions handed down to them.
While cubism tried to capture the whole of an object, suprematism sought only to paint the subjective, believing that all objectivity was false. Importantly, these styles do not just stand alone in history, but are closely connected to the political realities of the time.
It is impossible to forget the background of the First World War and the shocking blow it brought to the consciousness of Europe – and its artists.
The exhibition explores these themes through the lives of two collectors who funded the artists and bought many of the pieces displayed.
On the whole, this is done well, with the history of the Hermitage, the effects of the Russian Revolution on these Russian collectors, is tied into the information of each painting.
The entrance greets you with videos of the Hermitage, which once was the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great.
It is in the context of this historical narrative that the exhibition stumbles.
There is a wonderful multimedia artwork produced as a response to the great masterpieces of Matisse’s Dance and Music.
Dancers from the Dutch Ballet Company interpret the slow, creeping, joy of Dance while the Italian composer Luca D’Alberto provides a moving response to Music.
Unfortunately you find yourself distracted from these works, from the contemporary conversation with the old masters. There is a video performance of the collector who commissioned these paintings, Sergey Shchukin and Matisse himself in a re-enacted monologues.
This tastes of history as a Great Narrative, as a teachable moment to ‘educate’ the audience, lacking respect for their own responses to the art, and the nuance present in the rest of the exhibition.
There is even a young Communist woman shouting in Russian about the new need for utilitarian art, while Shchukin declares, smiling, barefooted, that time will judge him the victor.
We should not forget that all these pieces were confiscated by Stalin and hidden away as a corrupting influence, Nevertheless, this element of the piece feels less like art and more like airport novel history.
Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage is a rare opportunity. Many paintings have never before been in Australia, and might not return in our lifetime.
They say that, in order to understand a people and its time, you must look at the art they create. It works the other way around too. The great strength of this exhibition is that it does it all, giving us the time, its people, and, of course, beautiful art.
Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage is showing at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 3, 2019.