Russian art is such an important part of world culture, that anything that raises awareness of the art and the artists can only be a good thing, so that we can appreciate it more. The current exhibitions at the St Petersburg State Russian Museum in Malaga show what a masterful and forward-thinking collaboration it was for Malaga and for the State Museum to work together on this initiative, which opened only 3 years ago and brings a programme of fascinating Russian art exhibitions to the city. They are ahead of most other European cities in this regard and it is almost worth visiting Malaga just to see the exhibitions as they change.
Located in the former 1920′s Fabrica de Tabacos (Tobacco Factory) in Malaga, which is surrounded by building contractors beavering away on new developments, the museum, along with the adjacent Automobile Museum housing the Joao Magalhaes collection of 20th and 21st century vintage motor vehicles, is part of Malaga’s successful arts and visitor strategy which has made it a major international cultural centre of Spain.
The initial exhibition in 2015 provided an overview of five centuries of Russian art, along with an exhibition on the relatively unknown, but fascinating, work of Pavel Filonov. Today we are introduced to another artist, Mikhail Shvartsman (1926-1997) whose work combines mysticism, architecture and art: ‘To understand my work requires very little: just faith and an open heart’.
The 1930’s through the Second World War to the 1950’s was a time of great turmoil and change in Russia, as it was in western Europe. Art in pre-war Russia was ruthlessly controlled and was focussed on the cult of its leaders, on the beauty of sport, and on the heroism of labour, whether in the agricultural fields or in the industrial factories, giving way to the sacrifices being made by ordinary men and women during the Second World War. ‘The Radiant Future: Social Realism in Art’ provides a comprehensive overview of how artists portrayed an ideal world for the Russian people, until the Second World War and ultimately the break up of the Soviet Union brought a new reality.
Russian artists, like artists in other countries, travelled to world to classical cities such as Venice, to exotic locations such as Morocco and China and to the modern world of the USA. Such travel was rigorously controlled by the Academy of Fine Arts who until the mid-19th century prescribed the work that artists were allowed to carry out, mainly Biblical themes. Thereafter they were allowed to portray places and people and, even though they were not in Russia, many of the paintings have similar themes about celebrating the labour of the ordinary life, of factories, urban and rural scenes and recording local ceremonies while for a brief moment in the 1930’s they show something of the chic style found in Paris and the complex cultural life of America, as shown in the exhibition ‘The Traveller’s Gaze: Russian Artists around the World’.
Given the location, it is good to see that paintings by Russian visitors to Spain are well-represented and a little sad to see nothing of visitors to London. However, these changing exhibitions demonstrate what an extensive collection the State Museum has and reinforce the wish to visit St Petersburg itself.