EUROPE – RUSSIA – EUROPE

Yekaterina Selezneva

Article: 
CURRENT EXHIBITIONS
Magazine issue: 
#2 2007 (15)
"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants, and so able to see more..."
Adelard of Bath

The idea behind “Europe, Russia, Europe” was a simple one: bringing together important works from leading museums from 28 countries creates an impressive exhibition. Careful study of these works gives rise to a multitude of fascinating questions and discussions. The most obvious, perhaps, would be: when and how did the plastic languages of European art develop? How, and why, do the artistic processes taking place in various areas of Europe differ? In what ways do the arts overlap and influence each other? What is the relationship between cultural and historical processes? How is politics reflected in art, and does art determine politics?

One of the main tasks of the "Europe, Russia, Europe” exhibition was to stage an experiment which might, at first glance, appear simple. A single exhibition space was to unite selected works by artists from different national schools. Art from different countries and different historical periods would be shown under the same roof. One of the most important features of the event was the condition that all the "Old World” museums select works specifically for display in a Russian exhibition space.

Thus, on the one hand, this colourful collection of works of art would be brought together in a given location - the rooms of the Tretyakov Gallery. On the other hand, however, each participating museum inevitably possessed its own view of the event, and therein lay inevitable tensions. Every museum has its own individual perception of cultural integration, and its own approach to art history, which may differ from that of other museums. Different museums may disagree on the relative importance of periods in art history and on the relationships between these periods. Finally, of course, each museum has its own unique idea of the kind of art that is relevant today.

"Europe, Russia, Europe” is a truly contemporary exhibition, and all of its exhibits possess meaning and importance in the modern context. The organisers hoped that viewers would not only see and appreciate these works as historical artefacts, but would also be able to form new artistic contexts. Thus, tradition will be linked to modernity, and culture can be seen not merely as a "recreation area”, but as a space where the future is projected and formed. We should add that many of the pieces had never before been shown in Moscow, and that a great number had never previously been shown together.

As Achille Bonito Oliva writes, Europe is indeed a continent "where art always possessed exceptional ideological importance”. It would, nevertheless, be short-sighted and incorrect to place this project exclusively in the context of contemporary European political, unifying trends. Had this been the case, the main task of the participants would have been limited to a conceptual, not to say tendentious, choice of pieces, and the entire event would, metaphorically at least, have been focused on the balance of forces and interests in the European arena.

The chosen method of free accumulation of artistic content allows first and foremost for diversity, mutual complementation and superimposition of meaning within the exhibition space. All this serves to compensate for the somewhat unbalanced nature of the result. The freedom of choice offered to participants and the diversity of the works themselves - the exhibition includes both historical and contemporary art from a whole host of countries - combine to make the exhibition something of a humanitarian gesture. It can be hoped that this event may have positive value in promoting assessment and examination of political trends, and that it may - who knows? - yet come to influence political practice.

Sharing Thomas Wulffen's view that culture is determined by local character - something difficult to describe without lapsing into pompous or moralising rhetoric - it can be noted that in our symbolic united European space (for this is how the exhibition should be viewed), the main part is played by specific works. The precedence of art from many different countries and periods encourages a breakdown of divisive boundaries. The boundaries of meaning, on the other hand, which viewers perceive as existing between different groups of works, serve on the whole to unite, rather than to divide: people find themselves communicating in the same language of art, able more fully to appreciate the unique nature of each individual comment.

The "Europe, Russia, Europe” exhibition was made possible through the untiring efforts of a large number of European curators. Around 50 museums took part in the project, and its conceptual framework was put in place via a set of three questions, which participants were requested to bear in mind. These ran as follows:

  1. What kind of works of art have importance in national art, as well as having a bearing on the history of European art?
  2. What kind of works of art speak of cultural or political modernisation and self-determination in a changing world?
  3. What kind of works of art promote open communication, reflecting the new reality of the industrialised, media- filled world?

Initially, each question was to relate to a specific period in the socio-cultural development of Europe, the first corresponding to the formation and self-determination of national and European cultures. The second would have included the successive stages of modernisation brought about by developing economies, political revolutions and the emergence of a new language within art, that of modernism. Finally, modernity, encompassing the vital issues of our times, including the impact made by a globalised economy and growth of communications on man's self-identification and understanding of the cultural context.

The diversity of "replies”, or works of art, received in response to our questions showed the impossibility of dividing the exhibits into these three neat groups, which could have been called, say, "Formation”, "Change” and "The Future”. In the course of the project's development, however, organisers and viewers have nonetheless been able to distinguish certain groupings and areas of meaning, however impermanent. Some may seem less important than others, yet all are valid and interesting: the size and diversity of the exhibition allows the viewer to focus equally on large topics and minute details.

Some of the more obvious potential groupings deserve attention.

Foundations. Two groups of works allow viewers to study some of the most important aspects of the formation and development of European culture and civilisation. The first corresponds to the Greco-Roman tradition, existing and evolving for over 2,500 years. The "modernisation” of this tradition gave us Renaissance and modern art, whilst its myths continue to be accepted and reinterpreted by artists of all ages worldwide. As Sergei Averintsev wrote: "The Greeks did not merely create their own culture - concrete, historically unique, possessing its own specific characteristics and local limitations; through a dual creative process, they simultaneously built a paradigm of culture in general.”[1]

The second group in this category relates to Christianity. The visualisation of spiritual experience as the foundation underpinning the development of the Western, or European mentality is present in icons, sculpture and embroidery. Images of saints and interpretations of pagan and mythological subjects have a meaning for the modern viewer too. The symbols of Christian faith have remained constant for centuries, and their continuing artistic, aesthetic and museum use has not erased their sacral meaning. The religious works from Romania, Cyprus, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and the Czech Republic still hold the same spiritual significance, whilst academic interpretations of mythological material from ancient Greek sources differ enormously: one may compare examples, for instance, from 16th century Italy, Estonia, England, Ireland, Russia, and 19th-20th century Greece itself.

The theme of the ideal, or the absolute, is present in both groups within this category. In the brooding, reflective works of late 20th century artists, it resounds with poignant urgency - as in, for instance, Picasso's famous "Monument to the Spanish Who Died for France”, "A Room for Homo Sapiens” by the Cypriot Theodoulos Grigoriou, or "Mirror Disks” by the Belgian Panamarenko.

Heroes. Including portraits and compositions with people, this category prompts discussion on fate and the role of the individual in history. The main dimension of a state's development is its human aspect. Political figures and military commanders embody ideals of national independence, religious selfawareness and their countries' inclusion in European civilisation: this can be said of the portraits and scenes showing John the Steadfast, the Austrian Kaiser Ferdinand I, King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden and Peter the Great. Besides politicians, we see portrayed a number of philosophers and influential thinkers: Rene Descartes, Nikolai Gogol, the Hungarian painter Adam Manyoki, and Latvian artist Janis Mitrevics. These figures could offer their vision of the world as a whole, or expound on the importance and will of the individual.

A portrait is a product of its time. John Singer Sargent's subjects, for instance, clearly lived in turn-of-the-19th-century England, whilst Janis Mitrevics, here portrayed "trying on” a female body, inhabits the gender discourse current in international modern art.

Events and Symbols. The revolutionary changes frequently associated with freedom and progress can be linked to individual names (see Theodoros Vryzakis's "Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi”), allegories (such as Sean Keating's "Allegory”, or Franpois Rude's "Genie de la Patrie”), and common metaphors reinterpreted (Jack Butler Yeats's "Singing Horseman”, Georg Baselitz's "Eagle” or Ernst Fuchs's "Golden Heart”). As Nicolas Bourriaud notes, "Now nearing reality, now departing from it to embrace abstract or archaic forms, art plays with reality a complex game of submission or resistance.”

Through their portrayal in literature, real historical figures and heroes of folk legends can become national symbols - vital elements of an entire people's identity. Such a consideration allows us to group together a number of paintings, at first glance extremely different: Nikolai Abildgaard's Hamlet, Robert Wilhelm Ekman's Finnish pagan goddess Ilmatar, and Carlo Maratta's Italian version of Cleopatra. This small, yet important group is closely linked to the next category.

Location. Many of the participating museums chose to submit works which portray places: diverse landscapes or views, in which man is present as a part of nature, a "measure for objects”, or a literary or mythological character. Some of these can be seen as philosophical generalisations, others as poetic metaphors. Even this modest collection of views can be used to illustrate some of the main stages in the development of the European landscape: the Flemish realism of Teniers (Belgium), classical idealism of Turner (England), romanticism of Friedrich (Germany), 19th century realism of Philipsen (Denmark), Feders (Latvia) and Liez (Luxemburg), the impressionist style of Edelfelt (Finland), Ferency (Hungary) and Purvitis (Latvia), early art nouveau of Klimt (Austria) and Dobuzhinsky (Lithuania), the late postimpressionism of Svazas (Lithuania) and the conceptual "geography” of Rodrigo (Portugal).

Man in Action. Scenes of labour and daily life can show the degree of social tension present at a particular time, or convey dreams of social harmony. Artists' attention to the work of peasants and factory workers bears testimony to the force and power of the "human element”. On the eve of large-scale historic upheavals, in the late 19th-early 20th century, a time of social revolutions, this appreciation of the role of the working man was most evident. The majority of works showing scenes of labour belong precisely to this period. Among these are paintings by Constantin Meunier (Belgium), famous for his portrayal of workers; the impressive "Ages of the Worker” by Leon Frederic (Belgium) from the Musee d'Orsay, Paris; "In the Factory” by Floris Verster (The Netherlands); and images of peasants by Adamantios Diamantis (Greece), Ludovit Fulla (Slovak Republic) and Ivan Grohar (Slovenia).

New Languages of Art. The works in this group can all be said to have played an important role in the development of national, or, perhaps, even European or world art. The creators of these extremely diverse pieces were innovators, pushing back the boundaries of visual expression and the transformation of reality. Of national, rather than world importance, the work of Bulgarian artist Zahari Zograph is nevertheless a shining example of a painter's departure from medieval style and language to embrace a new art, focused on the human element. Titian's painting steered contemporary art trends from the late Renaissance style into baroque, influencing eminent artists all over Europe to this day.

The evolution of artistic language and of the role of art in society is, perhaps, most evident in the work of modernist giants such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Kazimir Malevich, Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, Marc Chagall and Vasily Kandinsky. Their oeuvre served to shape the main tendencies in 20th century painting and sculpture; at the same time, it is difficult to ascribe their massive achievements to any one specific style. Neither can their art be viewed as belonging to any one country: the work of such masters is truly international. Modernism promoted the emergence of a European and, indeed, a world language in art, making for a new relationship with tradition and increased understanding between different cultures - an innovative language capable of depicting the ambiguous, paradoxical nature of modern history and contemporary art.

Movement change. A wonderfully dynamic and concentrated form, works of art allow viewers to access history and modernity simultaneously - to understand others, and to clarify their own standpoint. A large number of pieces in this exhibition can be seen as relating to past and present changes, primarily in the arts, through which the scientific and philosophical characteristics of our ever widening picture of the world assumed visible forms. Thus, the exhibition includes a number of works by contemporary artists who quote their predecessors.

Created in the early days of postmodernism - the most important of recent trends in art and culture - the homage to early Renaissance artist Carlo Crivelli by Richard Mortensen (Denmark) can be juxtaposed with the "Last Exhibition” by Ryszard Grzyb (Poland), dedicated to the Russian avant-garde giant Kazimir Malevich, and certainly a late postmodernist work.

The capacity of works of art to absorb and interpret the dynamics of national and European cultural and artistic trends is also clearly evident in pieces by Nedko Solakov (Bulgaria), Bela Kondor (Hungary), Erik Bulatov (Russia), Ovidiu Maitec (Romania) and Silja Rantanen (Finland).

Wandering through the exhibition halls or studying the catalogue, viewers will, naturally, establish their own boundaries of meaning. For some, the main boundary may lie between classical art and modernism; others may wish to focus on contemporary pieces as a separate, more radical group; some may approach the event from a strictly socio-political viewpoint; others will primarily be interested in the famous masterpieces. Each to his own!

The idea behind this exhibition relates back to the "unifying projects” which, at first, existed as research presentations on international relations, such as "Moscow - Paris”, "Moscow - Berlin” and others. Examining links between countries, finding common ground and, ultimately, laying the foundations for mutual understanding, such events promote development, marking the growth of a single European cultural and political space. This tendency is also reflected in the philosophical field of art: let us recall, for instance, the "Magiciens de la Terre” exhibition, or certain projects within the Kassel "Documenta”. If, just over a century ago, social development was seen as linked primarily to socio-economic factors, at present we are talking about building a creative culture-oriented society.

"Europe, Russia, Europe” has shown that, today, even the most cautious and responsible institutions for the preservation and development of culture, namely museums, are prepared to take part in this process. At the same time, perhaps Achille Oliva was right in claiming that "... art has no function. Paradoxically, creativity - this abundant wealth, this luxury - is simply part of man's biological 'baggage' ... A society is free only when it can tolerate this happy uselessness and superfluity of art, its joyful attempts to become even more complex. Finally, the paradox: art seeks to complicate our lives, and only a happy consciousness is capable of supporting all these difficulties.”

The geography of Europe's cultural life is, indeed, becoming more complex. The "white spots” are disappearing off the maps, as the art market grows ever more complicated. The "European capital of culture” - a dynamic, constantly evolving project - has now been running for over a decade, and many European cities have had the privilege of bearing this title. Today, the Tretyakov Gallery has the honour of receiving, and showing, a collection of magnificent works from around 50 European museum collections.

 

  1. Averintsev S. S. Ritorika I istoki yevropeiskoi kulturnoi traditsii. (The Rhetoric and Sources of the European Cultural Tradition), Moscow, 1999, p. 352.

 

Jaan TOOMIK. Father and Son. 1998
Jaan TOOMIK. Father and Son. 1998
Video, 3 mins. Estonian National Gallery, Tallinn

Illustrations

Workshops of the Neamt Monastery. Epitaphios – The Lamentation. 1437
Workshops of the Neamt Monastery. Epitaphios – The Lamentation. 1437
Silver and silver gilt thread, coloured silk and pearls on silk. 194 by 115 cm. The National Museum of Art of Romania
Unknown sculptor from Bratislava or Vienna. Virgin Mary from an Annunciation Group
Unknown sculptor from Bratislava or Vienna. Virgin Mary from an Annunciation Group
Limewood polychrome, golden folia. 148.5 by 55 by 42 cm. Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, Slovak Republic
St. Stanislaus of Szczepanow. C.1520
St. Stanislaus of Szczepanow. C.1520
Distemper on wood. 92 by 98 cm. National Museum, Krakow, Poland
Johann BOCKSBERGER the Elder. Kaiser Ferdinand I (1503–1564)
Johann BOCKSBERGER the Elder. Kaiser Ferdinand I (1503–1564)
Full-length portrait. Oil on canvas. 206 by 109 cm. Art History Museum, Vienna, Austria
Pieter STEENWIJCK. Vanitas still life. C. 1653
Pieter STEENWIJCK. Vanitas still life. C. 1653
Oil on canvas. 79 by 101.5 сm. Lakenhal Municipal Museum, Leiden, The Netherlands
Lucas CRANACH the Elder. Portrait of John the Steadfast, Elector of Saxony. 1526
Lucas CRANACH the Elder. Portrait of John the Steadfast, Elector of Saxony. 1526
Oil on wood. 57 by 37 cm. Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden, Germany
Zahari ZOGRAPH. Self-portrait. С. 1838
Zahari ZOGRAPH. Self-portrait. С. 1838
Oil on canvas. 76 by 50 cm. Bulgarian National Gallery, Sophia, Bulgaria
Albert EDELFELT. Boys Playing on the Shore. 1884
Albert EDELFELT. Boys Playing on the Shore. 1884
Oil on canvas. 90 by 106.5 cm. Ateneum Art Museum, Finland
Constantin BRANCUSI. The Prayer. 1907
Constantin BRANCUSI. The Prayer. 1907
Bronze. 111.5 by 35 by 120 cm. The National Museum of Art of Romania
Mstislavas DOBUZINSKIS (Mstislav Dobuzhinsky). Tilto Street. C. 1907
Mstislavas DOBUZINSKIS (Mstislav Dobuzhinsky). Tilto Street. C. 1907
Oil on canvas. 50 by 52 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius, Lithuania
Konstantinos PARTHENIS. The Battle of Hercules with the Amazons. C. 1922
Konstantinos PARTHENIS. The Battle of Hercules with the Amazons. C. 1922
Oil on canvas. 115 by131 cm. National Art Gallery and Alexandros Soutzos Museum, Athens, Greece
Jekabs KAZAKS. Ladies on the Beach. 1920
Jekabs KAZAKS. Ladies on the Beach. 1920
Oil on canvas. 110 by 100.5 cm. Latvian National Museum of Art, Riga, Latvia
Jonas SVAZAS. Red Ships. 1971
Jonas SVAZAS. Red Ships. 1971
Oil on canvas. 150 by 200 cm. Lithuanian Art Museum, Vilnius

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