The Pushkin’s masterpieces cannot fail to inspire

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

There are a lot of people who wish that art had simply stopped around 1911 or so. If it had, we would have been spared many of the monstrosities that modern art then proceeded to unleash — urinals in art galleries, randomly distributed paint, pickled animals, cans of the artist’s excrement, etc. Of course, we would also have missed out on a lot of great stuff, but this conservative mind-set is definitely understandable at times.

A good way to enjoy such an alternative art universe is to visit “Pushkin: Masterpieces of French Paintings from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow” now on at the Yokohama Museum of Art until September, when it will decamp to Kobe.

This is the kind of attractive, big name exhibition, sourced from one of the world’s great museums that really can’t fail to please, with works by some of the world’s best-loved artists, though it should be said that, in light of the title’s claim, not all of them are French. But I guess, if you are an artist, just having lived in France for a few years, makes you an honorary Frenchman.

Of course, the reason the museum has a Western collection that is so pleasing to conservative tastes is thanks to that most un-conservative of historical events, the Russian Revolution of 1917, which effectively cut off imports of Western art.

It is one of the great ironies of history that communism helped to preserve a lot of traditional things in the lands that it conquered. After all, despite 74 years of red rule, Russia is a country where traditional religion and views of gender and the family are much stronger than in the West. Although economically hard left, communism tended to be more socially conservative, in contrast to the West, where capitalist economics coexist with leftist social, cultural, and gender policies.

In the Czarist period that was truncated by the Revolution, rich Russian collectors had a preference for French art and French culture in general, with French being a language widely spoken among the upper classes. This reflects the close economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries, which became stronger following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

The Pushkin’s collection represents an amalgamation of works originally purchased by several rich patrons in that period, such as Ivan Morozov, Sergei Tretyakov, and Sergei Shchukin. These were then seized by the Soviet authorities following the revolution.

Shchukin, who escaped from revolutionary Russia and died in Paris in 1936, is especially well represented in this exhibition, with works by Picasso, Cezanne, Monet, and Matisse, as well as Vincent van Gogh’s densely-painted and rather claustrophobic “Portrait or Doctor Rey” (1889), and the steamy tropicana of Gauguin’s “Eiha Ohipa (Do Not Work)” (1896).

This latter work, painted when the artist reputedly had syphilis and was having sexual relations with girls who would now be classed as underage, shows a rather tomboyish Tahitian girl relaxing in an oddly statuesque pose while she smokes.

Works like this, that we now take for unquestioned classics, look strangely odd, awkward and unbalanced in this exhibition because they are hung in the vicinity of much more classical and frankly more skillful art, including Francois Boucher’s Rococo masterpiece “Jupiter and Callisto” (1744) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ neoclassical “Virgin with Chalice” (1841).

Both works, separated by nearly a century, are tour de forces of artistic skill. Boucher’s work takes as its theme a moment of sexual ambiguity from classical myth, when the god Jupiter disguised himself as the woodland goddess Diana so that he could get close to Callisto, one of the virgin nymphs attending the goddess. Those seeing the painting without this important back story might assume that the painting has been mistitled.

The delicacy and precision of Boucher’s brush seems to gently caress these forms with a far greater charge of eroticism than Gauguin’s much sleazier but duller work.

The slightly embarrassing sexual frisson elicited by Boucher’s work was thankfully dissipated by contemplating Ingres’ “Virgin with Chalice,” a work not only of serene peace but also a master class in composition, with the painting constructed on a series of hidden and overlapping circles that you can spend many enjoyable minutes searching for, then noting how they harmonize. This is a welcome contrast with the garish, throbbing wallpaper that crowds the subject of Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Doctor Ray.”

Art is an excellent indicator of social and cultural mood. It is telling that in the years before the Russian revolution, a collector like Shchukin was drawn to works such as the Van Gogh and Gauguin, which, like their creators, had more than a hint of insanity and disease about them. Was his personal taste also a foreboding of the cataclysms that would shake Russia to its foundations and isolate its art from the outside world?

“Pushkin: Masterpieces of French Paintings from the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till Sept. 16; open10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500 Closed Thu. pushkin2013.com