"Unknown Masterpieces". Treasures of Russian Art from the Museum Collections of the Baltic Countries

Alexandra Murre

Magazine issue: 
#4 2012 (37)

This spring Tallinn hosted a large-scale exhibition of Russian art from the mid-19th to the early 20th century from the collections of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian museums, titled "Unknown Masterpieces. Russian Art in the Collections of the Baltic Countries". In total, seven museums took part in the exhibition: the project's initiator the Art Museum of Estonia, the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Lithuanian Art Museum, the Lithuanian Theatre, Music and Film Museum, the Ciurlionis National Art Museum, the Narva Museum and the Tartu Art Museum. Conceived for the general public, it included characteristic works by famous artists, mainly paintings, complemented by some graphics and sculptures.

For some years, Europe has been showing an increased interest in Russian art — in a broader sense than the avant-garde and icons, that have attracted researchers and collectors since the first half of the last century — which was illustrated by the recent exhibition "The Peredvizhniki" in Stockholm, where the queue of visitors stretched along the embankment, and stopping in front of any one exhibit was made difficult by the endless flow of viewers. The Russian art exhibition in Tallinn was for some visitors a similar discovery and first-time acquaintance with works by Russian realist and academic artists of the mid-to-late 19th century and the "Silver Age" painters; for others it proved an uplifting encounter with unknown works by familiar masters. That is why the exhibition had a rather didactic character, and a traditional catalogue was replaced by an encyclopaedic word-list catalogue in three languages (Estonian, Russian and English), which, apart from reproductions of the works, included biographies of all the artists represented at the exhibition, annotations to their works, and brief summarised articles on the main notions, phenomena of artistic life, and artistic trends and unions of the period. The joint exhibition project will continue with an event entitled "The Silver Age. Russian Art from the Baltic Countries" that opened on 2 November 2012 in the Riga Bourse Museum, a new branch of the Latvian National Museum of Art. This is a somewhat modified version of the Tallinn exhibition, complemented with graphics from the Latvian collection. Works by the "Peredvizhniki" (Wanderers) and their contemporaries — representatives of academic and salon art — will probably be exhibited in Lithuania later.

"Unknown Masterpieces" became an important event in the exhibition activity of the Art Museum of Estonia, and was divided between its two branches — the KUMU Art Museum and the Kadriorg Art Museum. It presented works by Russian artists from the late-19th to the early-20th centuries from the museum collections of three Baltic countries to the general public, marking the beginning of wider inter-museum cooperation and continuing the research related to local Russian art collections. The idea of a large-scale exhibition of Russian art from this period came both from research interest in this subject, and a need to reconsider and re-evaluate the Russian art collection of the Kadriorg Art Museum in the light of a forthcoming academic cataloguing of the collection.

Since the Art Museum of Estonia's collection is rather heterogeneous and does not offer a coherent representation of the development paths of Russian art, that task seemed more achievable in cooperation with the museums of Latvia and Lithuania, whose collection histories have much in common. That is why this exhibition can be considered not only a presentation of Russian art and aesthetics illustrated by examples from the local collections, but also a review of one of the fragments of the history of collecting in the Baltic countries; this makes it possible to compare the histories of the formation of collections and to link their specific features to the impact of historic events and changing ideological systems, reflected in the collecting of art. I believe that Russian colleagues and readers of this magazine will be more interested in the latter subject rather than in the exhibition concept and items which are partly mentioned in this article and fully listed in the exhibition catalogue: thus, this introduction is followed by three reviews about the composition and formation of the Russian art collections at the central art museums of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, written by curators from Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.





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