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July 27 - October 13, 2003 at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, West Hollywood

by Marlena Donohue

Claude Lorrain, "The Rape
of Europa," 1655, o/c.

François Boucher, "Jupiter
and Callisto," 1744, o/c.

Vincent van Gogh, "The
Prison Courtyard," 1890, o/c.

Paul Gauguin, "Eiaha Ohipa ('Do Not
Work' Tahitians in a Room
)," 1896, o/c.

Henri Matisse, "Nasturtiums
and The Dance," 1912, o/c.

all works shown
© The State Pushkin
Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

As Reagan’s Evil Empire morphs into a docile post-1989 capitalist society instituting fast food and democracy (of sorts), East/West relations continue to be comprised predominately of diplomatic symbols. Recall then-Soviet President Nikita S. Krushchev slamming his shoe at the United Nations in a show of power; fast forward to the current state of amicable relations, and you will understand the ever so friendly inter-cultural symbolism of a visiting show of 76 old master and modern works from Russia’s Pushkin State Museum of Moscow.

The Pushkin was opened in 1898 in the presence of Czar Nicholas II and members of the bejeweled royal family, and in 1912 named after Czar Alexander III. In 1937, to break with Russia’s imperial past, it was renamed for the great Russian poet.

The Czars and their immediate circle of unimaginably wealthy aristocrats understood that art acquisition was one litmus test of power; and this lesson was apparently not wasted on socialist comrades after 1917. Russian nobles collected actively, and what they collected was not necessarily home-grown (with the exception of Russian icons and Byzantine art).

They fancied French academic art, as early as the 17th century already the imprimatur of high taste. Nicholas Poussin, whose ideas were the touchstone of French academic classicism, was popular with the educated Russian upper crust, as was the 18th century Baroque master François Boucher, who could turn even religious art into something oddly erotic. Poussin is sampled here not with rigorous classicism, but with a fussy, almost decorative work of Andromache Mourning Hector (1793), and the Boucher on view is--what else--an insipidly sexy if splendidly painted Nativity: Virgin and Child (1758).

But the crowds that filled the halls of the museum three deep this particular day did not come to see Poussin. They came to glimpse that favorite staple of middle American art goers: the Impressionists and Post Impressionists. A crowd gathered around Gauguin’s superb Eiaha Ohipa (Don’t Work), in which the ex-stockbroker cum bohemian depicts his favorite Western European male fantasy of the noble savage: A robust brown man smoking some twisted hemp, while a woman in a wrap sits lusciously close at hand.

Also popular, Renoir’s In the Garden (1876), a lovely work displaying subtle tonalities by an artist more associated with that oft yucky mauve/turquoise prismatic palette the Impressionists borrowed from vision theories of their day. Also getting it’s share of attention was an early and not yet resolved Monet, Boulevard des Capucines (1873).

Museum signage successfully contextualizes one aspect of art acquisition in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union, describing the art of wealthy nobles and entrepreneurs whose holdings became state property. The public education materials even name some of the ill-fated family lines--Morozov and Schukin--whose prized pieces added to the Pushkin trove.
In a careful act of symbolic diplomacy, the museum utterly avoids the decades-long controversy which has suggested that much of the great academic and modernist art in the Russian collections was allegedly acquired per force by the circuitous ironies and changing political winds between the World Wars. Indeed, both the Soviet Union and Germany, each in their turn, appropriated millions in private collections as spoils of war and revolution. There has been an on again/off again movement advocating serious provenance research and the return of works to rightful owners. Though the jury is out and the issue nettlesome, it is a relevant subtext that one cannot overlook.

As to the fabled Impressionist and Post Impressionist works in the Pushkin collection--including many pivotal, art historically significant works--materials from the State Museum itself suggest that many modern works were in Russia as “the result of the oft-forgotten fact that such works gained an appreciative audience in Russia long before they captured the imagination of collectors further west. . .” In other words, no one helped themselves to anything. Russian entrepreneurs were collecting advanced French art in the late 1800s, even before the rest of us. . . .sounds revisionist to me, but anything is possible.

All that aside, what a delight to see Cezanne’s The Pipe Smoker (1890-92). We’ve all read that Picasso and Matisse clung to the small Cezannes they purchased early and at great cost as sort of visual road maps detailing the balance between abstract structure, personal expression and observed motif. This unique way of seeing in effect jump-started the whole rhetoric of modernism, and in this Cezanne one sees that seamless interplay writ large and clear; the canvas is luminous.

Finally--and this small work had the same impact when the Russians sent LACMA a selection of Post Impressionist works some years back--a whole gaggle of viewers (this writer included) stood rapt in front of The Prison Courtyard (1890), Van Gogh's teeny vortex of green prisoners circling round and round a vertiginous jail yard. Possession may be, for better or worse, nine-tenths of the law, and thus we are today the beneficiaries of the Pushkin’s generosity.