A new way of looking at art

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The Independent Online

It's relatively commonplace these days for new exhibitions to boast that they offer "a rare chance to see" a work of art.

It's relatively commonplace these days for new exhibitions to boast that they offer "a rare chance to see" a work of art. What this usually turns out to mean is a rare chance to see in the flesh, rather than in reproduction. Indeed, part of the draw of the publicity often lies in how well we already know the pictures involved. It isn't that you're going to be seeing something for the first time, but that for the first time you're seeing the thing itself, rather than a photograph of it.

The instinct aroused is a bit like that which grips a Madonna fan who has the opportunity to see her play live in concert. Not a bad instinct, when it comes to paintings, since even the very best reproduction won't convey the exact qualities of the original. (Whereas in the case of rock stars, the live performance can often seem to be striving to attain the condition of a video.) Yet though the rhetoric seems to promise novelty, what you're actually getting is often very familiar.

It's striking, then, to attend a major gallery show where you not only haven't seen the pictures in any form at all, but at which even the names of the artists will be unknown. I may be wrong here (my own ignorance is a poor guide to the collective consciousness), but I'm guessing that Shishkin and Levitan and Klodt don't ring bells in the way that Monet and Degas and Pisarro would. In fact, I'm guessing they don't even generate the faint tinkle you get off Tuke or Nolde or Puvis de Chavannes. The National Gallery even goes so far as to offer a pronunciation guide for one of the artists featured in its Russian Landscape exhibition. Should you want to casually drop the name of Arkhip Kuindzhi in conversation - and he definitely deserves a name-check of some kind - you have to say "quind-gee".

Kuindzhi is easily the most interesting painter here - an artist whose simplified landscapes seem strikingly ahead - or aslant - of his times. His 1890 painting Landscape, the Steppe consists simply of a band of green and a band of pale white, both delicately modulated to create grassland and Russian sky. He is also capable of almost hallucinatory lighting effects. When his painting Moonlit Night on the Dniepr was first exhibited gallery-goers tried to peer behind the canvas because they couldn't believe that it wasn't back-lit. In fact, the verdigris shimmer is achieved with countless tiny strokes of paint.

And these paintings do feel like a revelation of sorts. Apparently the writer Turgenev, a big fan of Kuindzhi's, tried very hard to get them exhibited in France, but he never succeeded. So Kuindzhi's Slavic Impressionism flourished in isolation - and not very splendid isolation at that, since not all of his contemporaries appreciated his radicalism.

But the pleasure of the show doesn't actually depend on the quality of the individual artists. Because the really intriguing thing here is to find yourself in a foreign country without the usual navigational guides. There are, of course, ways to orient yourself, either by slotting the paintings on the walls into pre-existing categories (a hint of German Weltschmertz here, Italian peasant arranging there) or by extrapolat- ing from what you do know. Since 19th-century Russian writing is familiar in a way that 19th-century Russian painting isn't, it's hard not to look at the works as literature in oils, to see them as confirmations of what you've already learnt from Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Gogol. But both procedures will only get you so far before you're thrown back to looking hard at the pictures.

When you do, you find something odd, given that many of these works are painted in a mood of self-conscious patriotism. Because again and again - at least in this selection - the land is portrayed as a kind of plight. It is dauntingly vast, intractable and resistant to civilisation. And though German romanticism is capable of setting a single isolated figure against the overwhelming scale of nature, there's always something a little self-dramatising about those compositions, a sense that the lonely wanderer is thoroughly enjoying his feelings of insignificance.

Here human existence and settlement seems more contingent, or even actively repudiated by nature. A painter such as Ivan Shishkin (nicknamed "The Accountant of Leaves" because of his vast detailed paintings of woodland) composes his pictures so that they invite the viewer to enter, but also makes it clear that taking more than two or three steps would be enormously laborious.

It's possible I'm just projecting here, but then that's what you tend to do when you're on foreign ground, reliant only on your own eyes for a sense of direction, rather than cultural preconceptions. It's a surprisingly exhilarating feeling, though; what you might call a rare chance to see.