Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of German and Russian Art, 1907-1917 (Neue Galerie- NYC)

Yesterday, I went to the Neue Galerie with my Mum to see the Russian modernism exhibit. Unfortunately, they don’t allow photographs beyond the lobby. On the bright side, this makes the flow inside the museum much smoother. People drift from room to room without worrying if they are walking in front of someone’s lens. It also forced me to stand longer in front of each work; I wanted to memorize each painting from top to bottom because I wouldn’t be able to refer to a picture later.

Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of German and Russian Art, 1907-1917 examines the forms of modernism that were molded during this ten year span. The climate was different in Germany and Russia, but a very similar genre of art was born in each country. This exhibit displays works from each country side-byside, drawing comparisons between the genres. Side panels identify the conditions and artistic groups that were particular to Germany and Russia, and explains how these contributed to the development of modernist style. Paintings are broken into five categories: landscape, cityscape, portrait, nude, and abstract, to help the viewer isolate the stylistic characteristics of each country, genre, and artistic group.

I found it difficult at times to differentiate which paintings were German and which were Russian until I looked at the hallway lined with artist biographies. I was curious which paintings were which, because I was interested to see how certain conditions in Russia played out on the canvas. The containment of Jews to the countryside resulted in a strong connection between Jewish artists and the landscape. Much of Russian modernism drew from folk artists in the Jewish countryside. Many of the Russian landscapes exhibit bright, almost surrealist colors- purple skies and yellow houses- that evoke an emotional response in me. I feel a sort of pride for this landscape, a landscape that is so wonderful it defies the laws of physics. Or perhaps the colors express the emotion the painters felt for the countryside. I see a tie-in between the Jews being confined to the country and the country’s surreal illustration. Maybe the landscape became so intertwined with Jewish pride for the home that a depiction of trees signified a depiction of identity.

The cityscapes reminded me of cubist paintings in Spain, the way their parts were geometrically disassembled. This speaks to the large influence other European painters had on German and Russian modernism. Cezanne’s flattening of space and illusionistic perspective can also be seen as a source of inspiration for the cityscapes and landscapes in this exhibit. Alexei von Jawlensky’s “Oberstdorf-Mountains” (1912) features elements of landscape- mountains, trees- that seem to oscillate between the foreground and the background. One cannot gain footing in this painting the same way he cannot in a typical Cezanne landscape, because the ground appears to be shifting beneath him.

Other works stuck out as being manifestations of national trends. Erich Heckel’s “Bathers in a Pond” (1908) seems half-represented. Bits of canvas can be seen, intentionally poking through long strokes of color. The subjects, two naked figures, demonstrate the German notion of the fantastical woods, where nudity is part of a search for spiritual freedom. The animalistic portrayal of the people suggests a primitive quality to this imagined pastime in a way that seems to be the opinion of the artist.

What I felt most strongly about these landscapes and cityscapes, was that they depict the motion of the atmosphere. Modified cubism reflects the jumbled yet highly structured nature of urban life. Uneven roads that bend into the sky, defying the laws of physics, makes us feel like we are riding on a winding road, with the wind sweeping through our hair. Landscapes that confuse houses with grass give the sense of rolling around in a meadow. These paintings are about how we feel in nature, not what we are literally seeing. They expertly provide a visual representation of the tactile and emotional sensations of being outdoors.

I can speak similarly of the portraits and the nudes. They extract the inner being of a person and paint it on his or her surface. Some create caricatures of the human form, as in Mikhail Larionov’s “Self-Portrait” (1911-1912). The eyebrows have been painted at an extreme diagonal, and the teeth shaved into a frightening grimace. The eyelids have been dragged down in the corners, leaving the impression of dropping eyes. The resulting image looks less like a direct representation of the artist, and more of a depiction of how he views himself, both physically and mentally. Other portraits utilized cubist brushwork or minimalist coloring to keep the figure on the line between representation and not. What this modernist, stripped down technique does is isolate key characteristics of the human form and psyche and bring them to the surface of the canvas. Soulful eyes can be seen peaking out from a face colored in flat strokes; hard, black outlines of a figure’s face emphasize his jaw and serious demeanor.

Lastly, the exhibit showcases a small room of abstract works. After seeing Kandinsky’s colorful, ethereal portraits and landscapes, I had a new perspective on his less representational works. “Black Form” (1923) evokes just as strong an emotional response in the viewer, despite its use of squiggles and circles rather than houses and faces. Kandinsky’s lines dance and vibrate, drawing the viewer’s eye all around the canvas. Patches of color overlap harmoniously. There is a surprise around every corner. Despite the use of geometric shapes, there is nothing geometric about the composition as a whole. The element of surprise and spirited use of line and color make me feel bright and joyous subconsciously. It is difficult to put into words what exactly speaks to me about his abstract works, and the abstract works of the Russian and German modernists as a whole.

I cam away from this exhibit feeling like I had learned something specific and contained. That’s the lovely thing about the Neue Galerie! It is small enough to see in one museum outing, and the story you come away with is succinct and special. I have a new appreciation for German and Russian modernists, and their emotionally riveting paintings. Come to the Neue before August 31st to see this wonderful show… I promise you’ll feel rejuvenated and inspired.


xoxo, Chloe <3

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