Invitation to a beheading: From Russia and its critics

Under normal circumstances, art critics are the last people to whom one would think to turn for moral guidance.

This is as true of the mass circulation sub-species as it is of their more plentiful, perhaps even less responsible academic cousins. Exceptions do, of course, exist. Robert Hughes, art critic at Time magazine for nearly four decades, has long proved incapable of stopping streams of engagingly old-fashioned, impeccably haut bourgeois liberal prejudice from leaking everywhere amongst the folds of his luscious prose. For the late Peter Fuller, whose lucid Modern Painters is still much missed in these parts, art and morality were simply inextricable — perhaps the one case in which the word ‘simply’ can be used in reference to this difficult, complicated, sometimes self-contradictory man. John Richardson, meanwhile, took time out to write two books — The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Sacred Monsters, Sacred Masters — which, although on the surface unrelated to that great work, his ongoing biography of Picasso, turned out to provide a surprisingly hard-edged if subtle moral counterpoint to it. And guess which critic came out swinging with this stern denunciation?

I am sick of the art-adoration that prevails among cultured people, more in our time than in any other: that art-silliness which condones almost any moral or intellectual failing on the artist’s part as long as he is or seems a successful artist. It is still justifiable to demand that he be a successful human being before anything else … As it is, psychopathy has become endemic among artists and writers, in whose company the moral idiot is tolerated as perhaps nowhere else in society.

That’s right, that scary demon king of arch-formalist dogmatism, Cold War opportunism and generalised all-around wickedness, Clement Greenberg himself. But then like all great critics — indeed, this may be their signal distinguishing quality — Greenberg believed that in life as well as in art, there was a difference between right and wrong that was worth articulating — even if, like the rest of us fallen mortals, he wasn’t invariably able to locate that difference, let alone act on it.

The Eye
But where were we? References to Greenberg, greatness and morality take us an awfully long way from the world of the British media and their in-house arts criticism, a scruffy ghetto within their broader ‘entertainment’ converage, where the skilful paraphrasing of an institutional press release, ideally without introducing too many obvious mistakes and perhaps even with the admixture of a few vaguely art-historical observations, is doubtless a more urgent requirement than, say, the ability to maintain a coherent, consistent moral-aesthetic stance.

Last week saw depressing evidence of this, in the shape of the generalised breathless slobbering over From Russia, the Royal Academy’s newest would-be blockbuster exhibition. The show’s bland subtitle, ‘French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg’, hardly does justice to the contents. Neither, it must be said, did the majority of newspaper reviews, e.g. Adrian Searle at the Guardian, Richard Dorment at the Daily Telegraph, or the indefatigably witless Rachel Campbell-Johnson over at the Times — a state of affairs summed up by the Spectator‘s Coffeehouse blog, which labelled the show a ‘must-see cultural monolith’. Well, that’s one way of putting it, I guess.

There are, by way of brief summary, various problems afflicting From Russia.

One of these problems (we won’t belabour it unduly, as, relative to some of the other issues here, it actually matters very little) is the question of quality. Very few of the pictures included in From Russia are any good at all. Some, in fact, are so jaw-droppingly poor — I am thinking here of not so much of freaks like the festival of high camp that is Ilya Mashkov’s Self-Portrait with Pyotr Konchalovsky, than of drearily derivative nonsense like Alexander Kuprin’s Still Life with a Blue Tray, or Nikolai Sapunov’s Still Life with Vases, Artificial Flowers and Fruits — that one genuinely struggles to understand the circumstances under which anyone was willing to pay for these pictures’ transit across the room, let alone all the way from St Petersburg and Moscow to distant London.

For what it’s worth, I’m by no means the sort of person who feels that we only ever need engage ourselves with art of the highest quality. Actually, I agree with the author of this review that unfamiliar, less-than-great art deserves the odd exhibition, not for its aesthetic qualities so much as its historical ones: someone loved this stuff, once, and it’s interesting to think why that might have been the case. But then this show isn’t marketed as a display of the less-than-great. Harder to forgive, in any event, is the fact that amongst the works by ‘big names’ — those reliable crowd-pullers Manet, Renoir, Bonnard, Cezanne, Gauguin, as well as Repin and Levitan — there are also some very disappointing paintings. Cynicism isn’t pretty, no matter how it’s curated. I’d love to see what the Advertising Standards Authority would do with a complaint against that ‘master’ label.

The institutional authority of the Royal Academy can only do so much to redeem what looks like the work of a Sunday-painter-plodder. Eventually the eye takes over. On the day I went to see From Russia, even the genteel, herbivorous throngs of RA ‘Friends’ — many of whom had engaged in the genuinely Russian pastime of queuing lengthily in the cold in order to enter these rooms — soon learned they could move through sharpish indeed, spying out pearls in the slurry and congregating round them appreciatively. But if they could see the deficiencies here, what about the RA’s curators and organisers? And what, for that matter, about the so-called critics?

The Gift
Admitedly, the Royal Academy has tradition, recent but nonetheless robust, of Robert Rosenblum-inspired exhibitions (Citizens and Kings: Portraits in the Age of Revolution, 1760-1830, and before that, 1900: Art at the Crossroads), huge shows in which masterpieces rubbed shoulders with curiosities, dull academic productions and downright egregious tat, all in the interest of throwing — the metaphor is Rosenblum’s own — the deck of art history in the air and seeing how the cards fall. Put together with wit, authority, a lightness of touch, a very good catalogue and — this is important — the presence of even more eye-opening, goosebump-raising, heart-fluttering real Treasures of Western Art than one has been led to expect, the Rosenblum approach (sadly, never again to be carried out by the master himself) can be as stimulating — and fun — as it is exasperating.

That, however, is by no means the case with From Russia. The exhibition is also, it must be said, lamely curated. If the ‘story’ is meant to be the art-historical give-and-take (largely one-way traffic, in truth) between France and Russia, then surely we need a bit more information. How far back did this dialogue go? Who exactly were the Russian patrons of French, or French-inspired art? How were methods, styles and practices disseminated — through travel, or importing actual works, or reproduction, or what? What sort of opposition did the French influence meet? What critics and writers were important? What did the idea of France mean to Russians, and vice versa? Perhaps most centrally, given the dates of the works in question, how was the Franco-Russian conversation inflected by politics, war, exile, expropriation and mass murder? For without some attempt to address these questions, what we have is simply a series of rooms filled with paintings, a few of them famous and many of them dreary, plus an awful lot of hype about nothing.

I should perhaps add at this point that the From Russia catalogue is nothing short of bizarre in its unhelpfulness. Perhaps something was lost in translation, as all the text appears to have been written in Russian and then translated, apparently by a Russian. Still, why no index? (I’m not making that up, by the way — there really isn’t an index. If you wish to refer to a work by Repin, for instance, you have to leaf through 319 pages and hope for the best.) Why place the brief biographical summaries of French artists near the front of the catalogue, while the biographies of the Russians are relegated the end? Why allow the inclusion of so many flat-out errors that even a non-specialist, flipping through the pages (trying to refer to a work by Repin, as it happens), cannot avoid stumbling over two or three? (Aristocratic women did not pose nude for Titian; Monet, Degas and Renoir certainly were ‘mentioned’ in the Americans in Paris exhibition; the possibility of sentences like this — ‘As a rule, the art of any large country tends to develop not steadily but in bursts, and a temporary lull after a period of rapid development sooner or later will be followed by a flight to new heights’ — are part of the reason God created the ‘delete’ key.) More culpably, the notes on the individual pictures are derisory, short on facts and long (although not all that long) on vapid interpretation. (If this point demands further illustration, please compare any of the picture descriptions from the Citizens and Kings catalogue with the equivalent in the From Russia catalogue.) Meanwhile, the most extravagantly hyped-up picture in the show, Matisse’s Dance II (titled The Dance in the catalogue, although not in the exhibition), is reproduced across a gutter, amputating one dancer’s knee, severing two of the outreached linking arms, and deforming one of the big blue shapes, apparently ‘sky’ but key parts in the formal engine of the picture. One could go on. The critics, however, do not, because what they would surely have to say would clash, badly, with the prevailing ‘masterpiece’ scheme.

Despair
None of which, actually, really matters much.

Bad art doesn’t matter much. There’s a lot of it about. There always has been. People often try to charge other people a lot for goods or experiences that don’t quite live up to the billing. People often fib about whether they like things in order to be polite, or to curry favour. A Cezanne may be in rum condition, a nude by Boris Kustodiev may be even more repellant than the most candy-floss-awful Renoir imaginable, a portrait by Pyotr Miturich may be striking mostly for what it says about the late R. B. Kitaj’s originality, but what does it all matter? No one got hurt, no one died, it’s all just ‘art’, that airless aediculum of modern human experience in which uselessness becomes at once perquisite and alibi. Except that in this case, life and art have once again revealed themselves as inextricable. And here, finally, is where the really serious problem with From Russia lies.

For once, it isn’t even in the malformations of history that result whenever ‘art’ is near — although for the record, these are present too, albeit more as silences, lacunae, empty spots as wide as a big mass grave than in actual positive fibs. It would have been interesting, no doubt, to have learned more about the actual mechanisms by which many of the best of these works transferred themselves from their entrepreneurial, capitalistic yet aesthetically ‘enlightened’ owners to the Soviet State. Actually, it would have been interesting to have learned more about what became of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin themselves. And what of the Russian artists? Chagall and Kandinsky end up exiled, more or less without comment, although exile surely had something to do with Chagall’s need to commemorate his specifically Russian-Jewish heritage so obsessively. Malevich stayed in the USSR, but died persecuted and penniless there. Rodchenko and Tatlin survived into the 1950s, at what cost we are not told. No, in an exhibition whose narrative is still touchingly wedded to concepts like ‘development’, ‘progress’ and ‘achievement’, there’s no attempt to face up to what is in any event all too clear: the fact that while in the early twentieth century a tiny elite, enormously wealthy, liberal and Europe-facing, was able to encourage the creation of all sorts of great art (not only visual — think of music, dance and literature, too), the near-century of collectivist rule that followed produced very little indeed.

Or perhaps that wouldn’t be a tactful assertion to make here? Well, one might as well be honest about it. The meta-themes of this exhibition — one clearly emerging from the Russian end of the venture, by the way, rather than from the forehead of Sir Norman Rosenthal — is, surely, a vigorously nationalistic one. For centuries, Russia has faced a dilemma. Which way should it turn? Europe or Asia? And at one level or the other, virtually every shred of Russian art, literature or music created during the nineteenth or twentieth centuries speaks to this point. So France is never just France in this exhibition, any more than the wolf-hunt and peasant dance in War and Peace are just a hunt and a dance, or the peasant melody in the 1812 Overture just a melody. Because France, obviously, is always potentially the source of an invasion from the West — in our own time, the Napoleonic invasion inevitably prefiguring that other, more terrible and terminal Gotterdamerung of an invasion — and by the same token, the rarified, over-theorised, secularising, individualistic products of France might at any point be revealed as an assault on primal, orthodox, earthy, holy Russia. How best to respond? One sees, at this point, why it must seem compelling to defend as some sort of native tradition the French academic practice of a century previous, or to act as if the ‘achievements’ of the Soviet Constructivists were unparallelled elsewhere. In truth, the distance separating Malevich’s Black Square from, say, the first plate in Paul Nash’s Genesis series — an all-black rectangle printed by a bourgeois Englishman who loved the countryside — was a matter of months, and the well at which all artists drink is inevitably muddied by everyone, French or otherwise, who has come before.

But to reiterate the point, silly nationalistic tub-thumping at the curatorial level is hardly the serious problem here. It’s only art. It doesn’t matter much. The real problem is one that takes place in the world of law, property and capital. It has been documented well elsewhere, so there is no point in addressing it in depth here. Suffice to say, in order to bring From Russia all the way to London — an experience in the absence of which the British people would so clearly have been terminally impoverished — the Labour government decided to effect a small revolution in the United Kingdom’s understanding of property rights. The heirs of Morozov, Shchukin and the other rightful owners of these works would not be allowed to sue either for restitution, or compensation for their loss. As some smug woman writes in the Guardian, ‘It has been shown over and again, and around the world, that people hold culture above private property in the scale of human rights.’ Or, to put it another way, the only mistake the Nazis made was to have lost their war. Otherwise we’d be changing our laws to bring Treasures of the Reich: A Thousand Years of Greater European Collecting to the RA, safe in the knowledge that the few mugs who had their collections ‘nationalised’ in the 1930s and afterwards failed to ‘hold culture above private property in the scale of human rights’. And anyway, imagine the masterpieces — what a blockbuster! Doubtless the Reich of 2007 would be much improved from the 1934 version, with different personnel and moderation of all those half-forgotten earlier excesses. Probably it would be quite wealthy, too, and powerful. Obviously, we’d have to do business with it.

For as Sir Norman Rosenthal put it recently, ‘We have to collaborate for all of us to survive, particularly in the cultural field.’ Yes, quite — ‘collaborate’ does seem the right word here. How foolish to mention that vanished world of connoisseurship and civility, the vanished people who made that world possible, or indeed the laws, petty persecutions or bullets that drove them out of our world. How foolish, how philistine to mention anything unpleasant. Let us have, instead, culture, bread and circuses, positive reviews, and wall-to-wall masterpieces. Let us have peace in our time. And let us never mention the number of Soviet citizens murdered by the Soviet regime, which might be conservatively estimated at, oh, 55 million or thereabouts, although the means through which these deaths took place cannot logically be separated from the ownership of the paintings now at the RA.

Pale Fire
All of which brings us back to the critics. Who, indeed, would look to them for moral guidance? This is what Martin Gayford says about From Russia; this is what Simon Jenkins, qualified as an all-purpose cultural critic though being such a refulgently decent, liberal man, says about From Russia. Would either of these decent, liberal men be happy, though, if the proletariat tried to nationalise their property — great art or perhaps just wallet and mobile phone — at the point of a semi-automatic? And how about the other critics who leapt so obligingly on the Burlington House bandwagon? For that matter, where do they stand on other restitution / compensation cases? Would they wish to explain why a forced expropriation in 1918 matters less than, say, a forced expropriation twenty years later? Or do they truly believe that art exists outside and beyond these grim considerations? My own suspicion is that the critics mentioned above did not think very deeply about any of this, simply banging out the rave reviews traditionally laid at the shrine of ‘blockbusters’, before moving on to the next piece.

And yet, this is all marginally unfair to the critics — two of them, anyway, to be precise.

On the one hand, Tom Lubbock at the Independent — good at prose, good at seeing — is quite clear, albeit perhaps in a marginally wrong-headed way, that From Russia wasn’t worth the diplomatic sacrifice. Well, although I’m personally unsure that Alexander Litvinenko’s murder and its repercussions had anything to do with the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t show down at Burlington House, the overall point is surely correct. Also, Lubbock spots flaws in the exhibition that few others mention. One feels he actually bothered to go to the rooms, look at the pictures, and form some thoughts. This seems quite typical of his practice, which involves more consciousness of the partiality of his own response, more sensitively expressed, than is the case with most of the arts-coverage hacks. There are no two ways about it — on this narrow stage, Tom Lubbock is someone worth watching, a critic capable of honesty, perceptiveness and a degree of courage not usually seen in our ‘quality’ newspapers. Occasionally, the Independent lives up to what was hoped for it, all those years ago. This is one of those cases.

And so we come to the other critic who forms an exception to the general rule of moral abdication.

Over at the Evening Standard, Brian Sewell is a law unto himself. He isn’t my favourite critic. Sometimes I find him mannered or predictable. Sometimes he seems to slip into acting a part, like David Starkey does. But one would have to be a fool not to respect either his experience — his academic training is far better than that of anyone else writing for a UK newspaper today — or his perceptiveness. In fact, he and I once went round an exhibition together. It was Vuillard at the RA, and when I say ‘together’, what I mean is that he and I were both at the press view, competing to be the two slowest travellers round the exhibition, so that our paths kept crossing and re-crossing, embarassingly, especially as I was obviously unable to make eye contact with him, given that he is, well, very famous, whereas I am so un-famous as to regularly blank famous people when they smile at me. Make of that what you will.

The information I derive from this experience is, though, that Brian Sewell looks at everything, sometimes for many minutes at a time, long after normal critics are off chatting to one another, sometimes returning to look again at a work he’s examined some minutes before. And at From Russia, he was clearly looking closely indeed. He dismisses virtually everything in the show except one ugly, excellent Picasso — this creature — and then calls down thunder and lightning upon the morality of the exhibition itself:

The Russian Revolution was ultimately a great and continuing crime against humanity, the cause of far more deaths than the Holocaust with which its consequences overlapped and to the victims of which we make strenuous efforts to return expropriated property. James Purnell’s law against the heirs of the Revolution’s victims rescued the Academy from financial loss in the failure of a strictly commercial enterprise of no educational value but it was a squalid and spiteful little measure unworthy of a statesman, unworthy of us all, and we are sullied by it. All with a sense of decency should boycott this exhibition.

Sewell’s right, of course. Although I disagree with his review in certain points — most of the Gauguins here were delectable; that glazed and over-framed Monet reminded me, in its claustrophobic darkness, of the swamps of my American Southern youth, and hence enchanted me; Pavel Filonov’s The German War is in some ways quite an mesmerising painting — he’s right about the boycott. He’s also right about the Russian Revolution. Best of all, despite being an art critic, he maintains his sense of proportion.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Invitation to a beheading: From Russia and its critics

  1. In the process of catching up with your posts to date…

    Of course expropriation is wrong. But turning this disapproval into a policy of restitution is totally impracticable.

    Everything possessed by the post-Soviet state that derives from Soviet times was, in effect, stolen. What can we do to rectify this? Not a lot, by way of material restitution. And anyway, as per the arguments against restitution for slavery, how is a young Muscovite responsible for what some bandit did 100 years ago?

    Once we’ve established restitution as an active principle, where does it stop? Who draws the line and where? Unlike our previous discussions on torture, I do think you have a practical problem here. As far as I know, there’s not a lot to go on as far as existing law is concerned.

    Whilst condemning how they came into existence I would have welcomed the arrival of these collections to our shores: they have provided you (and Mr Sewell) with an opportunity to advert to the crimes and misdemeanours of the thieving, murdering legators of these works. And perhaps also to make people wonder whether the legatees themselves have clean hands…

  2. That’s all perfectly fair comment.

    The only two points I’d make (or reiterate) are these. First, I wasn’t calling for the UK to institute some new policy of restitution — I was criticising the Labour government’s decision to introduce new legislation specifically aimed at preventing claimants from seeking to pursue restitution claims through the UK courts, which seems to me, anyway, a rather different proposition.

    Secondly, for what it’s worth, that whole exhibition — not a very good exhibition, curated very badly — did, somehow, leave a nasty aftertaste. True, there were doubtless plenty of other ways to respond to ‘From Russia’, as the review indicated. Many other critics enjoyed and valued it. But, having seen it, I wished I hadn’t.

    Irrational? Self-contradictory? Quite possibly so, but at least it’s at least an honest reflection of my response to what I saw that day. And since I have very little to contribute when it comes to art-historical knowledge or perceptiveness, honesty is the best you’re going to get. 😉

  3. I’m just working out how to read your last sentence. So you’re asking me to appreciate your honesty just after you clearly state, let us say, a mistruth?

    BTW enjoyed your Bacon review too, which managed to scratch the itch that’d been bothering me since having seen the show, so to speak. I never got to see the After Russian show, for reasons that escape me, though I can well understand your feelings of distaste.

  4. You’d be surprised — or, well, maybe you wouldn’t! — but seriously, if I stopped to think about how much some of the people who visit this site actually know about the complicated topics through which I’m cheerfully if aimlessly gambolling — because some of the people who visit this site really do know infinitely more about these things than I ever shall — I’d never write a word. Indeed, most of what happens here is as much an attempt to get things clear in my own mind as it is some sort of quest to enlighten or edify the audience. Caveat lector and all that. Honestly so. Particularly when it comes to writing about art, the partiality, the subjectivity and the blind spots are almost the point. I’ve no professional background in anything to do with art, and doubtless there are times when that shows. But then no one’s making anyone read this stuff, which is why it seems quite harmless to go on posting it, my grave doubts about quality (mostly) notwithstanding.

  5. With respect to knowledge about art, the gap between you and me is more of a chasm. If your (other) readers sit at an Olympian height in relation to you then…crumbs. I’m sure I’m not worthy to comment.

    But I will anyway! It’s great to read some intelligent and thoughtful art criticism written to essay length. I think there’s a paucity of this for the general reader. With the occasional exception of the Guardian on a Saturday, the dailies and Sundays certainly don’t do this sort of thing anymore.

    I think your discursive, engaging and witty style is certainly an aid to opening the subject up for someone like me. The rather confessional, epistolary nature of the medium helps too.

    I look forward to your next post reviewing a show. It would be handy to read it before going to the exhibition myself, as I’m sure I’d get a lot more out of a visit having partaken of some relevant knowledge!

  6. ‘Discursive’ is a tactful way to put it … seriously, though, thanks for the generous, encouraging comments.

    You’re right, by the way, about the paucity of ‘extended’ criticism for the general reader. The LRB runs some very good reviews (and more general art-related articles), as — ranging rather further afield — do the New York Review of Books, The New Criterion and so forth. But in general, the print media here tends to treat the arts as one of the less popular (and hence less attractive in advertising terms) byways of ‘entertainment’, with coverage falling to jobbing hacks of varying quality — leading to a rather uncritical environment, dominated by press releases and ‘news stories’ of frothy superficiality or improbable sensationalism, or sometimes both.

    So while art criticism probably isn’t as dead as some commentators assume, there are increasingly strong reasons to seek it outside its traditional habitats. And while this may alter its modes of expression — and will make it much harder for readers, at least in the short term, to locate and evaluate it — I can’t see why there ought to be any significant drop-off in quality.

    Still, it’s a real shame that some very good critics have had to weather this change in climate, which must have been personally discouraging as well as professionally challenging. Whatever else one may say about Brian Sewell, he’s achieved a near-miracle in writing several-thousand-word-long essays, wilfully ‘elitist’ in tone, for a mass-circulation newpaper, up to the present day, with no end in sight — that still seem to sell papers.