Paul Gauguin and the Russian Avant-garde

Written by  Beatrice F. Buscaroli

Another major artistic event in the halls of Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara.

In his last known letter, a month before his death, Paul Gauguin wrote to the French critic and poet Charles Morice: «That's why solitude does not suit everybody; you need to be strong to stand and act alone. Everything I have learned from others has hindered me. Therefore I can say: no one has taught me anything. On the other hand, it's also true that I know so little! But I prefer that little, which I have created. And who knows if that little, once it has been exploited by others, will one day become much?...».

On the other side of the world, a group of young artists was beginning to exploit that little that Gauguin had created. Those young artists, the leading lights of the Russian avant-garde movement - from Mikhail Larionov to Natalia Goncharova, from Kandinsky to Malevich, from Petrov-Vodkin to Maskov, Kuprin, and Lentulov - frequented the houses of three extraordinary individuals living in Moscow at the turn of the century: Mikhail and Ivan Morozov and Serghei Schukin, who put together collections of works by Manet, Monet, and Renoir, Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin, Derain and Matisse.

«These people,» writes Albert Kostenevich in the catalogue of the exhibition dedicated to Paul Gauguin and the Russian avant-garde (Ferrara, Palazzo dei Diamanti, until the 2nd of July 1995; catalogue by Artificio of Florence), «had the great merit of recognizing Gauguin's talent when the artist was still alive and when no one was prepared, in France or anywhere else, to chance buying works that were so far outside the dominant aesthetic canons of late Nineteenth century Europe.»
Paul Gauguin and the Russian avant-garde introduces, for the first time in Italy, these three figures, destined to occupy a privileged place in the history of art collection. The exhibition features thirteen paintings by Gauguin: six from the Morozov collection and seven from the Shukin collection.

Serghei Shukin had hung his sixteen Gauguins in the dining room of his house, «so close together that it was hard to tell where one finished and the next began». The canvases thus formed an unusual iconostasis, the collection of icons typical of Russian and Byzantine churches.

The exhibition ranges through some of the best loved and renowned works by Gauguin (born in Paris in 1848), from Café in Arles of 1885 to Sunflowers of 1901. The visitor is thus free to accompany the artist through the last feverish decade of his life and work, spent between Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands.

Café in Arles is an important work, which dates from the years of Gauguin's search for synthesis, his studies with Emile Bernard, from Brittany to Arles, where the artist - albeit for a few months only - had shared a house with Van Gogh.
The canvas entitled The Flowers of France, instead, is considered one of the first works to be executed in Tahiti.
When he arrived in Papeete, Gauguin knew very well what he wanted. He also knew what he would find. «I'm leaving in order to live in peace,» he wrote, «freed from civilization. I want to create simple art, and that's why I need to renew my strength in contact with unspoilt nature, to see only natives and live their life without worrying about anything else except translating the mind's fantasies with the simplicity of a child.».

All of this is only partly true. The style that Gauguin perfected in Polynesia, had already been formed in Europe. In Polynesia, Gauguin had the courage to develop his style as fully as possible while bringing out all its potential.

He never forgot Europe, Greek art, Manet, or the XVIth century German engravers; he never forgot his beloved Japanese prints. The memory of a Greek statue lies hidden behind the figure occupying the foreground of What! Are you jealous?, a work that - apparently - is a portrait taken from life of two Tahitian women on the beach.
His journey backwards through time and space did not lead him to forget Europe, nor did it satisfy his need for the "primitive" and the "savage". The "primitives" of the world were beginning to disappear while the era of the "primitive" in the world of art was about to begin.

With the rediscovery of the primitive, the desperate prophecy contained in Gauguin's last letter was free to come to pass.
The second part of the Ferrara exhibition, devoted to the painters of the Russian avant-garde, explains - with the forceful immediacy of clear and comprehensible comparisons - the possible consequences of the migrations that have always characterized the world of art since the dawn of history.

In this sense, the exhibition tells an exemplary story. This, really, is the freedom of art.