Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Palazzo Strozzi: "Fire and Ice" and the Russian Avante-Garde

The best mostra, or art exhibit that I went to in Florence this fall, hands down, was at Palazzo Strozzi. It's title: The Russian Avant-Garde. Siberia and the East. I spent three hours viewing this extraordinary exhibit, which included 130 pieces (79 paintings, watercolours and drawings, 15 sculptures and 36 Oriental artefacts and ethnographical objects). I almost skipped it because of the reference to Avante-Garde artists, thinking it was only about radical modern art in Russia. But I read an article about the exhibit by Nina  Lobanov-Rostovsky in the Florentine, which described the exhibit as a "synthesis of the indigenous and the exotic, examining all the elements that went into the works of Russian modernists while simultaneously highlighting the shamanistic roots that are unique to Russian art." I wanted to know more.

The author of the article believed that the title "Avant-Garde" was misleading: "In speaking with all three of the show’s curators, they made it clear that they preferred their original title, ‘Fire and Ice,’ which would have referred to the scorched deserts of the eastern Russian empire, known as Turkestan, and to its frozen Arctic regions. Most of the artists included in the show belonged neither to the early nor to the later Russian Avant-garde, a name assigned to radical, innovative artists and movements that started taking shape between 1907 and 1914."

Artists Léon Bakst, Alexandre Benois, Pavel Filonov, Natalia Gončarova, Wassily Kandinsky, Michail Larionov and Kazimir Malevič were included in the exhibit. Though Kandinsky was the only artist I was familiar with, I found the exhibit to be not only compelling but very moving, as the works portrayed not only the creative process of the artists, but also their spiritual journey. I paid an extra 5 euros to use the audio guide for the exhibit, and am glad I did, as it gave me deeper insight into the artists and the meaning they intended to convey in their works.

From the exhibit, I learned about Kandinsky's interest in theosophy and how he explored and used symbolism in his paintings. Kandinsky believed that the artist has a mission to move others along their spiritual path with his/her work. I was introduced to the work of Natalia Gončarova and her husband, Michail Larionov, who were considered to be at the forefront of Russian art in the early 1900s.

 I viewed Neolithic stone figures, wooden sculptures, reindeer horns and even a shaman's drum. "Siberian shaman rituals, Chinese popular prints, Japanese engravings, theosophical and anthroposophical theories and Indian philosophy are some of the elements that inspired the new Russian artists and writers in the development of their aesthetic and theoretical ideas, just before the October Revolution of 1917."

I saw the exhibit on a quiet week day, when there were not many people in attendance. When I left the Palazzo, I discovered it had rained steadily while I was immersed in scenes of Siberia. I felt serene and uplifted by the exhibit, and the rain-washed streets only furthered the sense that I had experienced a watershed moment at Palazzo Strozzi. This exhibit deserves a long, quiet study, and is worthy of more than one visit.

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