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"The Moscow News", #8, 2005.

The Jack of Diamonds: Russian Fauvists at the New Tretyakov.

The ongoing Jack or Knave of Diamonds exhibition (Bubnovy Valet in Russian) at the New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val continues to pull in the crowds. I queued for forty minutes to fight my way through a mixed throng of bemused, startled and keen visitors to see the work of this group of Russian fauvists from the early part of the twentieth century. Was it worth it? I think so, as they do form a coherent group at the outset and it is enlightening to see them alongside works by Matisse from whom they no doubt took inspiration. The names will be more familiar to a Russian audience than a western one, but at a certain point the group included members who went on to gain international renown such as Kandinsky and Chagall. It is also true that the group fragmented at a later date with a second group forming an exhibition called the Donkey's Tail and so on in like manner.

When the Knaves first exhibited, they created quite a shock. This was the first time that specifically fauvist and other artistic trends had been seen in Russian art with its traditions in classicism. The Fauvists (or wild beasts) deliberately used bright garish colors, often juxtaposing color opposites such as green, a secondary, against red, a primary color. The optical effect is quite striking - when two opposites are put next to each other the eye has trouble 'placing' one before the other and the result is that they almost vibrate next to each other. Fauvism was as shocking in Russia as it had been in its original home of France with such practitioners as Matisse and precursors like Gauguin and Cezanne. Some pictures on display are obviously related to this foreign influence in that they share the same subject matter as well as style; I found myself thinking immediately of Gauguin for example when I looked at the 1908 portrait of the black woman in room three with its hints of tropical pleasure seen against a lush backdrop all painted in vivid colors. Think of Gauguin's south sea escapades and you have the same idea. Another parallel the organizers themselves want you to see is that between van Dongen's 1911 Ispanka (Spanish lady) and Matisse's one of 1909.

In the first room you are greeted by Mashkov's self-portrait with Pyotr Konchalovsky of 1910, and although I immediately thought 'touches of homo-eroticism' there was no indication of this in the literature and later I saw that the artists were both married and had had children. Nonetheless it is a striking picture of two virtually naked men sitting by the piano with one holding a violin and I imagine it would have shocked the audience of the time. In the same room is Lentulov's self-portrait of 1915, 'Le Grand Peintre', reveling in color with even the sky pulsating it seems. Contrast this with Konchalovsky's self-portrait of 1911; a more subdued affair of vivid grays if that is possible! Room three has Larionov's 1909 painting Derevenskiye kupalshitsy, two naked girls on the beach? Again I thought of Gauguin. In the same room is Lentulov's 1915 portrait of a sturdy woman in her thirties with a crucifix around her neck. Here, the fauvist trend was more controlled and subservient to the artist's draughtsmanship. Room four held one of my favorites, Konchalovsky's portrait of Yakunov, complete with sabers on the wall! Opposite this was hung Mashkov's 1915 portrait of Natalya Mikhailovna Usova and his 1911 Woman with Pheasants, which was my 7-year-old assistant Rita's personal favorite. Room five turned a little too cubist for my liking but served to show the mix of influences the painters had gained from their travels abroad. So in contrast to his earlier picture of the woman with the crucifix, Lentulov had two grand cubist nudes - almost a contradiction in terms but not so much that you couldn't identify the figures and perhaps see them move in the manner suggested by the cubist facets of paint. Room six held another favorite, this time Konchalovsky's 1916 portrait of his daughter Natalie. Here, he had stepped back a little from the need to shock and set up color opposites making for a more natural and intimate painting. The last main room (and I found myself writing 'at last, the nudes'), some charmingly elegant treatments of the subject alongside others that my girlfriend found hard to take. I should mention Kuprin's 1918 Nude with a Vase, Osmerkin's Nude in front of the Mirror of 1923, and the most impressive Mashkov's Life Models in the Studio of 1916; a formally posed piece with two women standing either side of a bowl of fruit. The last room was reserved for three rather idiosyncratic pictures: Rozanova's series of playing cards were put alongside each other in the far corner of an otherwise empty room, a bizarre but somehow not unfitting way to end the exhibition.

By Philip Marriott



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