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Culture news
Diamonds Turn a Knavish Trick
07.15.2004 12:24

avant_garde By Galina Stolyarova



One of the most scandalous and provocative artistic movements in Russia, Bubnovy Valet ("The Knave of Diamonds") is enjoying its largest ever exhibition at the Benois Wing of the State Russian Museum, showcasing some of the most acclaimed names of the Russian avant-garde.

The display takes its title from the group of avant-garde artists who from 1910 until the Bolshevik Revolution united the crop of the Russian avant-garde. Kazimir Malevich, Marc Chagall, Olga Rozanova, Ilya Mashkov, Natalya Goncharova, Aristarkh Lentulov and Pyotr Konchalovsky were involved with the group at some stage in their careers. The movement also had a radical side-project in the shape of "A Donkey's Tail."

The extensive exhibition is set in chronological order, starting from early paintings, which made the movement's first display in Moscow in 1910, and progressing to the works of the group's followers. The intention was to reconstruct the atmosphere and style of the movement's original exhibitions in juxtaposing several hundred paintings with a performance, which if successful, would call for the police! At the exhibition's opening on July 8, acrobats wandered through the halls on stilts, while female gymnasts, armed with giant fake weights and decorated with artificial breasts of similar size and shape, were trying to exercise. Alas, no police could be spotted.

"The Knave of Diamonds", with its brutality of lines, bright colours and an often grotesque approach, emerged as a response to the poetic, refined and thoughtful symbolism movement of the era. In French gambler slang, the term "knave of diamonds" was a stigma with which to brand a foul player, so even in its name the artists teased and mocked the romantic symbolists, who united under such tender titles as "The Blue Rose".

The Russian artistic movement was largely inspired by French post-impressionism. Most of the paintings bear tangible influences of Paul Cezanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Henry Matisse in style, technique, sense of colour and even philosophy, celebrating le joie de vivre.

The Russians, however, transformed and developed the French ideas by creating new genres, such as abstract art, performance and body-art, all of which thrived in the 20th century. Mikhail Larionov painted over the body of his own wife Natalya Goncharova, while Kazimir Malevich organized extravagant performances on Moscow streets.

The exhibition unveils over 160 works from 17 collections including the museum's own funds, Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery and dozens of provincial museums and private collections.

"No museum would be able to mount such a project single-handedly, as it is a truly Herculean task to represent fully such an important artistic movement, which influenced the development of European art in first half of the 20th century," said museum's Vladimir Gusev at the exhibition's opening.

"This exhibition is especially important because it shows Russian art within a European context, providing an opportunity to trace mutual influences," Gusev said. "Until the 17th century painting in Russia was limited to icons, with other genres virtually unknown here until Peter the Great sent the first Russian artists to study abroad. Russian avant-garde is also the first ever Russian artistic phenomenon to have made an impact on the art world."

Yevgenia Petrova, deputy director of the Russian Museum said one of the major criteria for the exhibition's organizers was to select paintings which were not only representative, but also able to showcase the highlights of non-St.Petersburg collections.

"In comparison to the Soviet era, when exchange exhibitions were funded by the state and therefore organized with quite some frequency, these days we have very few such opportunities," she said. "So, if there was a choice between one of our paintings and a painting from another collection, the guests had the priority."

"The Knave of Diamonds" can be seen until October, 10, when it travels to Moscow.


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