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The Russian avantgarde, an untold story

In Vicenza, 85 works from the regional museums of Ivanovo, Kostroma, Jaroslavl’ and Tula are on display alongside the icons from the permanent collection of Palazzo Leoni Montanari

Eightyfive works trace the previously untold story of one of the most important artistic movements of the 20th century: "The Russian avantgarde. Experiences from a new word" runs from 11 November to 26 February in Vicenza’s Palazzo Leoni Montanari, home of the Intesa Sanpaolo Museum. The event is part of the Year of Russian Language and Culture in Italy and Italian Language and Culture in Russia.

The uniqueness of the exhibition lies in the fact that it displays, for the first time in Italy, works from the Russian regional museums of Ivanovo, Kostroma, Jaroslavl’ and Tula. The items on loan are displayed in a fascinating interplay side-by-side with works from the permanent collection of Vicenza’s Palazzo Leoni Montanari, which boasts one of the largest holdings of Russian icons in Western Europe: over 400 items from the 13th to the 20th centuries.

The exhibition, which aims to provide a new perspective and demolish old prejudices, highlights the expressive plurality of the Russian avantgarde while underlining its shared roots and main themes. The curators are Silvia Burini, director of the Centre of Advanced Studies on Russian Culture and Art (Centro di alti Studi sulla Cultura e le Arti della Russia - CSAR) at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari University; Giuseppe Barbieri, director of the inter-university doctorate’s progamme in Art History of Ca’ Foscari and Iuav universities; and Mikhail Dmitriev and Svetlana Volovenskaja, respectively president and curator of the programmes of the Foundation for Inter-regional Projects of the Ivanovo Art Museum.

Although the exhibition features some key works by the leaders of the Russian avantgarde, such as Vasilij Kandinskij (Violet wedge), Kazimir Malevič (a suprematist piece from1915) and Aleksandr Rodčenko (Composition n. 61), it also showcases some lesser-known figures, such as Olga Rozanova, and highlights the existence of two trends: a fragmentary one influenced by expressionism (Natal'ja Gončarova, Pavel Filonov and Kandinskij); and a more homogeneous one that was closer to cubo-constructivism (Malevič, Vladimir Tatlin, and Rodčenko). 

The works on display include some that the artists themselves selected in the early 1920s when they tried to establish a series of local Museums of Painting Culture, along with other works that laid half-forgotten in warehouses during the Soviet era.

The new world imagined by avantgarde artists has roots that go far back in time. Its common origins can be traced back to the icon, both from a formal point of view -  due to their laconism and plastic tension – and from a spiritual one; the exhibition stresses this latter point of view by comparing and contrasting works from different eras.

For instance, at the beginning of the exhibition several icons are displayed alongside the works of the "Jack of Diamonds" group, the progenitor of the Russian avantgarde according to art critics.

The group was officially founded on the occasion of their debut exhibition in 1910; it continued to hold regular exhibitions until 1916 and survived under different names after the Russian Revolution. The “Jack of Diamonds” was inspired by folklore and “primitive” art, and drew from local sources as well as from German expressionism and early 20th century French painters, especially Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, and the first cubists, as evidenced by the still lifes of Robert Fal’k, Petr Končalovskij, Aleksandr Kuprin and Aristarch Lentulov. The group eventually split up, giving life to the neo-primitivism of Mikhail Larionov, Natal'ja Gončarova and Aleksandr Ševčenko.

Along with the archaic elements, the exhibition also stresses another crucial theme: the relationship between the Russian avantgarde and industrialization

The exhibition then delves into abstraction, highlighting the multifaceted approach that began with the Cubo-futurism of the 1910s: from  Kandinskij’s spirituality to Malevič’s Superatism, from Tatlin and Rodčenko’s Productivism to Larionov and Gončarova’s Rayonsim.

The exhibition’s highlights also include a never-before-displayed collection of propaganda textiles produced under the impetus of the avantgarde in the Ivanovo-Voznesensk industrial district, whose designers included Olga Rozanova, Aleksandra Ekster, and Ljubov’ Popova.
Kazimir Malevic, Suprematismo, 1915, Oil on canvas, Ivanovo Art Museum
Kazimir Malevic, Suprematismo, 1915, Oil on canvas, Ivanovo Art Museum

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