From Kandinsky to Chagall, an exhibition on the sacred and beauty in Russian art. In Vicenza

From October 5, 2019 to January 26, 2020, the Gallerie d'Italia in Vicenza is hosting the exhibition 'Kandinsky, Goncharova, Chagall. Sacred and Beauty in Russian Art'.

From October 5, 2019 to January 26, 2020, the Gallerie d’Italia at Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Vicenza is hosting the exhibition Kandinsky, Goncharova, Chagall. Sacred and Beauty in Russian Art, an exhibition that aims to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Vicenza museum by enhancing Intesa Sanpaolo’s collection of ancient Russian icons, one of the most prestigious in the world, which is housed right in the Palazzo Leoni Montanari museum. The exhibition, curated by Silvia Burini, Giuseppe Barbieri and Alessia Cavallaro, consists of an itinerary of forty-five works by 19th- and 20th-century Russian artists (including Vasily Kandinsky, Natal’ja Gončarova, Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevič, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Pavel Filonov and several others), from the Tret’jakov Gallery in Moscow and other major museums including the Musée National Marc Chagall in Nice and the Museum of Modern Art Costakis in Thessaloniki.

The works of Russian artists are compared with a selection of nineteen Russian icons from the permanent collection to investigate the theme of the sacred in Russian art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thus explored according to its connections with tradition: indeed, the spiritual and aesthetic researches of many avant-garde exponents reveal deep affinities with the philosophical-theological conception of traditional icons. And it was precisely in the second decade of the 20th century that Russian artists developed a very strong interest in icons, but it should be emphasized that even in earlier decades artists turned their attention to icons: This is the case, for example, with the most influential protagonists of Art Nouveau (such as Aleksandr Ivanov, Mikhail Vrubel’, Apollinarij Vasnecov, and Mikhail Nesterov, all of whom are featured in the exhibition), who tried their hand at sacred, Christian, and pagan subjects, but did not connect directly with the older tradition. Instead, the avant-garde forged a stronger relationship with tradition: although the themes were not explicitly religious and the works were obviously not aimed at worship, the presence of the iconic matrix in the context of the avant-garde is much more pronounced.

Antinaturalism is the dominant feature of the icon. The subjects of these paintings are rigidly limited, delimited by precise grids, compositional and interpretive; the pose of the figures is rigid, almost always frontal and fixed; linear perspective is lacking. This very last trait was considered a major limitation by those who encountered it without understanding its essence. And the early 20th century avant-garde sought to unhinge a painting understood as an illusory representation of the visible and found precisely in icon painting a valid hook. For the Russian people, the perception of nature in visual and pictorial terms was not to be regarded as a mere aesthetic experience. Rather, as Kandinsky continually repeats, it is a kind of “inner necessity” arising from the need to experience the invisible(nevidimoe), in a totally natural way, in the everyday(byt). The icon is taken as the foundation and guarantee of this approach, as an effective expression of the invisible in pictorial art.

Kandinsky is thus the first to leave behind figurativism and enter a world of abstractions. Natal’ja Gončarova uses biblical images, from Genesis to Revelation, to communicate to us the approaching hour of Judgment. Unlike Kandinsky, she reveals deep humanity with essential figurativism, without obscuring it in abstraction. He captures the evils of the world in secularization, industrialization, urbanization, revealing them as factors that seek to minimize the richness of Russian culture and its peoples. In his encounter with Larionov and Goncarova and their primitive painting, with clear references to the icon, Malevic also opens up to non-figurative painting, exploring the spaces of “nothing,” freed from all figurativism. And in Chagall it is possible to discover a further dimension of the influence of the sacred in Russian painting in the first decades of the 20th century, that of an everyday mysticism (“I am a mystic. I do not go to church or synagogue. For me to work is to pray”) that, starting in his case mainly from the reading of the biblical text, knows how to give life to an extraordinarily evocative visual universe (“it has always seemed to me and still seems to me,” the painter observes, “that the Bible is the main source of poetry of all time”).

“In the sumptuous Baroque mansion of Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Vicenza,” recalls Giovanni Bazoli, chairman emeritus of Intesa Sanpaolo, “the first headquarters of the Gallerie d’Italia was born in 1999, immediately identified as the ’house of icons’ because, as part of the major project to enhance the art collections owned by the Bank, it was destined to house one of the most important collections of Russian icons in the West. Twenty years after the inauguration of that exhibition, in an effort to promote a more widespread knowledge of our collection, we are now presenting an exhibition that, thanks to exceptional loans from the Tret’jakov Gallery in Moscow and other international museums, documents how modern Russian art has drawn lifeblood from the spirituality of ancient iconographic models. Intesa Sanpaolo’s Gallerie d’Italia in Vicenza, on the occasion of its 20th birthday, reaffirms its vocation to be a meeting place between Eastern and Western Europe, leading also to the recognition of the fruitfulness of common Christian roots.”

The exhibition will be enhanced by numerous initiatives aimed at art lovers, schools, and families: a course on Russian art history, a film review, meetings, and music and dance events. The catalog (Edizioni Gallerie d’Italia | Skira), contains essays by curators Silvia Burini, Giuseppe Barbieri, Alessia Cavallaro and scholars Nicoletta Misler and John Bowlt. For info you can visit the Gallerie d’Italia website.

Pictured: Vasily Kandinsky, Destiny (Red Wall) (1909; oil on canvas, 84 x 118 cm; Astrakhan, The Astrakhan State Art Gallery n.a. P.M. Dogadina)

From Kandinsky to Chagall, an exhibition on the sacred and beauty in Russian art. In Vicenza
From Kandinsky to Chagall, an exhibition on the sacred and beauty in Russian art. In Vicenza

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