Visual Arts: From Russia with difficulty

Russian paintings were crucial to the birth of modern art. So why are they so hard to find?
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IT'S EITHER feast or famine. London is, at the moment, basking in the glow of two fabulous exhibitions of Russian avant-garde art. Kandinsky at the Royal Academy and New Art for a New Era at the Barbican together emphasise the primary role played by Russians in the birth of abstract art. But when these exhibitions close in a few weeks, those whose imaginations have been fired will be forced to travel hither and thither across the country to track down more Russian art.

Is this important? It was Matisse, that apostle of Modernism, who declared that his contemporaries in France should visit Russia and not Italy to study medieval painting. He was overwhelmed by the early Russian icons he saw in Moscow, an influence that was readily acknowledged by Russian painters of the avant garde.

Today, of the British Museum's collection of icons only a handful are on show in the medieval gallery - alongside all manner of Byzantine and Gothic objects. The offering makes a pathetic comparison with, for example, the rooms of west European medieval art in the National Gallery. After the Barbican exhibition you have only to visit the icons here, particularly the arresting 14th-century icon of St George, the so-called Black George, to see the influence those works had on painters such as Natalia Goncharova, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Vladimir Tatlin. Tatlin's Sailor, painted in 1911, is a humanist icon, nothing more, nothing less.

There are important works by artists of the Russian avant garde in the Tate and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. But the Tate does not display them - though it says the situation will improve when the Bankside gallery opens next year.

And what of the period leading up to the avant garde? There seems to be no 18th-century Russian art in the country, and precious little from the 19th century.

It seems to be left to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to wave the Russian flag with its collection of turn-of-the-century Russian paintings and drawings. They are mostly from the World of Art group, focused on Alexander Benois and Leon Bakst, but include a small but important collection of drawings by Leonid Pasternak (which will appear in an exhibition opening on 22 June), and works by the master Valentin Serov.

It seems ironic that Britain, whose auction houses experienced a boom in Russian art in the late Eighties and early Nineties, should remain so short of that country's works of art. As Ivan Samarin, of the Russian art consultancy Stuart and Samarin, points out: "Russian music is constantly being performed over here, and Russian literature is widely read, but Russian art still remains comparatively unknown."

Though the free movement of Russian art was curtailed during the Communist period, there was by no means an iron curtain around it. Armand Hammer notoriously acted secretly as a dealer for the Soviet state, selling quantities of paintings on to the American market, while ambassadors to the Soviet Union frequently returned with enviable collections.

Yet controversy has dogged the Russian art market. Russian emigres' claims to paintings from family collections nationalised after the Revolution have tended to focus on Western European works of art. The icon world has been plagued by stories of smuggling, notably after the publication of the book Hot Art - Cold Cash, in which the Amsterdam collector van Rijn recounted his illegal exploits. A number of last-minute withdrawals of avant-garde works have been made from sales at auction houses, because of uncertainty over attribution and the existence of some highly convincing fakes.

Yet, regardless of this, excellent private collections have been amassed in the past 20 to 30 years. The same could presumably have been done by our national institutions. In St Petersburg, I have watched time and again Western visitors' amazement as they leave from a tour of the Russian Museum with its breath-taking collection of native painting. "How come I never knew about this?" they ask.

The exhibition `New Art for a New Era: Malevich's Vision of the Russian Avant Garde', is showing at the Barbican, east London, until 27 June (0171-638 8891). Kandinsky, at the Royal Academy, London, runs until 4 July (0171-300 5760)