THE SCOTTISH National Gallery of Modern Art is well suited to narrative exhibitions, for its first-floor rooms lead the visitor through some intriguing corridors while their spaces allow for individual displays by differing personalities. This is ideal for 'Russian Painting of the Avant-Garde'. The show does not pretend to be a history of art in revolutionary Russia. Its purpose is to demonstrate the wide basis of that art. The organisers point out that the show was inconceivable five years ago. Now, though, we learn how, in the years after the 1917 Revolution, avant-garde art was not an elitist but a popular part of the new order.
The story is without parallel in the modern or the historical world. In 1918 Wassily Kandinsky was made head of a purchasing committee of the Soviet Department of Fine Arts. With Aleksandr Rodchenko, he was also responsible for the establishment of museums of contemporary art throughout Russia. In two years, they bought some 2,000 works by more than 400 artists. These were distributed among 30 new provincial museums. Then, with the rise of Stalinism, all experimental art was put into basements and store-rooms. Now it has resurfaced and the Edinburgh show brings together paintings from such distant places as Yaroslavyl, Samara, Nizhini Tagil, Simbirsk, Astrakhan, Tula and Ivanovo.
There is a sense of geographical extremes, especially in the first part of the exhibition. We feel that life in some faraway part of the globe - whether far from Paris or far from Moscow - is just as vivid as life in the artistic centres. Underlying the Russian artists' innovations was the thought that henceforward no new art need be provincial. This was the impetus of the splendid hybrid style known as Neoprimitivism, which gives us some of the most touching works on display. Neoprimitivism was not just the democratic art of the city. It belonged to all of Russia.
The great works of Neoprimitivism are perhaps by Chagall, but greater prominence is given to Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharova. Their achievement was to make forceful and distinctive paintings that - it could be imagined - might still have been painted by anyone who wanted to paint. These pioneers knew about Gauguin, Van Gogh and Le Douanier Rousseau, all of whom were, in their different ways, untutored artists. But their kind of European modernism was crossed with Russian traditions such as the lubok, the popular print of the 18th century, together with folk art, sign painting and icons. This might have led to a sophisticated jumble. Instead, Larionov and Goncharova made admirable, direct and spontaneous art.
They weren't at all overawed by Parisian art, but took as much of it as they needed for their own purposes. Larionov's The Katsapskaya Venus, roughtly translated as The Squaddy's Venus, has a pose from Manet's Olympia, but she is utterly a Russian peasant, a naked woman in a simple home who has seen too much of the desires of soldiers. Katsap is a Ukranian word meaning 'butcher', an epithet unlovingly applied to men of the Russian army. Goncharova's snowy landscapes have the rare quality of seeming to be without influence. Her Rabbi with Cat utilises the tradition of the lubok but is tragically up-to-date. This is a painting about the Tsarist pogroms against the Jews.
Other notable Neoprimitive paintings are by Aleksei Morgunov and Aristarkh Lentulov, both of whom had studied in France. Morgunov's picture shows an appreciation of Cezanne, Lentulov's alludes to Fauvism. Yet one has the feeling that they went to French culture in order to appreciate more fully the simple ways of their homeland. Their artistic lives give a context to Chagall. Seen against the background of Neoprimitivism he is a more dignified artist than one had thought: less of a phenomenon and more of an ambassador for his country. His Poet Reclining is familiar, since it belongs to the Tate. In its present company the picture appears even a little suave, the result perhaps of a careful appreciation of Le Douanier.
Shifting artistic allegiances with the backdrop of great events make the study of Russian art highly complicated. Christine Lodder's catalogue gives a clear guide through the times. All this is neatly done, but sometimes the artists burst through their categories as though with wilful energy. So it is with Kandinsky, whose peculiar early paintings are more German than Russian. Indeed, he is the least Russian of all the artists in the show, despite the fact that it was his purchasing at a crucial period which made the show possible.
Also un-Russian, though, are those paintings that slavishly follow the innovations of Cubism and Futurism. A large number of them occupy the central section of the show. One grants their historical importance. But it's a global rule that derivative Cubism was one of the most academic of modern styles. Alexandra Exter and Aleksandr Shevchenko contribute nice pictures precisely because they shy away from the Cubist set of rules. Rozanova, Shaposhnikov, Popova, Klyun, Pestel are all less individual.
One artist of superb inspiration gathers the main strands of the exhibition together. Kazimir Malevich, like others of his generation, went through many styles, from Impressionism to his own Suprematism. His two Suprematist compositions - black, green, buff and brick-red rectangles on a white ground - are the most perfect and elevated works in the show, marking him out as one of the best of all abstract artists. In later years he went through a sort of revival of his youthful Neoprimitivism. His The Carpenter (1928-32) belongs to this period. It's an eloquent work for many reasons, a people's painting of a man at a people's task, almost nostalgic for the world before the Revolution, and no wonder, but still faithful to the idea that peasants and artisans can build the future.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (031-556 8921) to 5 Sept.
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