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Odd Convergences

Curators: Jean-Hubert Martin (France); Alexandra Danilova, Head of the Gallery of 19th and 20th Century European and American Art, The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts is pleased to present the exhibition project ‘Odd Convergences’ by the prominent French curator Jean-Hubert Martin that will be one of the museum’s main events of 2021. This large-scale exhibition with over 400 artworks and items from natural history collections will occupy the principal exhibition axis of the museum’s main building and 7 rooms on its second floor. Viewers will get to see not only well-known masterpieces from The Pushkin Museum’s collection but also works that are usually kept in the storerooms as well as paintings and drawings by old masters and contemporary artists from over 50 museums and private collections.

Designed by Jean-Hubert Martin, the exhibition proposes taking a fresh look at the museum’s collection and the history of art in general. Deconstructing the conception of the museum as a temple or a huge archive with carefully arranged hierarchies, the curator proposes turning it into a play space where visitors can discover similarities and differences that exist between artworks of different periods despite chronological and geographical distances. This gives rise to a new classification of art that allows viewers to approach classical art as a contemporary phenomenon.

The analogical thinking used by artists is the key to understanding the essence of this expositional experiment. Abandoning the traditional museum toolkit of explanations and detailed labels that place each work into a specific niche in the history of art, the curator invites visitors to trust their own impressions. Carefully selected sequences of visual analogies help viewers to discover similarities between the depiction of drapery on medieval icons and the technique of Cubist painters, find hidden symbols in well-known paintings, and trace how Ingres’ Madonna turned into Malevich’s ‘Black Square’. The exhibition consists of 13 sections, each of which aims to debunk a prevalent myth in the history of art.

From Hidden to Double Image. The first section of the exhibition immediately involves visitors in a game. Tree branches, rocks, and drapery in paintings often contain contours of human faces or animals. Is this a coincidence or a hidden message from the artist?

From White to Coloured Classical Sculpture. Over the centuries, the whiteness and fragmentariness of Classical sculpture was mistakenly believed to be an irrefutable truth. This false notion emerged during the Renaissance on the basis of archaeological discoveries and greatly influenced the European understanding of good taste, which explains its tenacity. How did such myths influence the subsequent development of art? In what other traditions do they occur? And what relation do they have to our time?

From Lovers to Witches. Love is one of the predominant themes of traditional Western European art. The museum’s collection contains a broad range of female images and a large number of works about love, making it possible to arrange paintings and drawings into a sequence telling a love story. The motifs include the rendezvous, courting and marriage, as well as the fear of female beauty and allure that could recoil against women, sparking witchcraft trials and capital punishment.

From the Apple to the Globe. The next section of the exhibition takes viewers on a trip through images of the world and the cosmos. The story begins with the forbidden fruit in the hands of Adam and Eve, develops the image of the circle that predominates in the artworks of this section, and passes through different cultures, religions and countries before returning to Christian iconography. The apple turns into the terrestrial globe in the hands of Jesus, Saviour of the World.

From the Mirror to the Double. This section continues the theme of the visual game. A common element of mythological and genre paintings, the mirror is used by artists for violating the perception of space and combining different standpoints.

The Onlooker Being Watched. The image exists only if someone beholds it. How often do we notice that portraits in museums follow us with their eyes?

From Youth to Old Age. Museums traditionally use the chronological principle for structuring their expositions. However, the paintings and sculptures in this section are arranged not in the order of their creation but according to the age of the depicted characters.

From the Horizon to the Bird's-Eye View. The landscape is one of the most popular genres in painting. In depictions of nature, the laws of perspective demand that a vanishing point be selected on the painting’s surface. A sequence of images selected from the museum’s collection has gradually rising points of view – from the horizon line to the vertical gaze from above.

From Folds to Geometry. The predilection for simple forms and the search for structural geometric elements are equally characteristic of Russian icons, old master paintings and graphic art, and 20th-century artists. François Morellet’s grids have unexpected parallels in Eastern decorative panels and drawings on Egyptians burial shrouds, while the paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque echo the icon tradition.

From Black Square to Tachism: Two Schools, one of the key sections of the exhibition, takes its title from the article ‘Two Schools’ published by the Parisian magazine ‘Les Hommes du Jour’ in 1920. The article featured a spread with a representation of the Holy Virgin on either side: a reverent and collected image by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and an ink blot by Francis Picabia, which could be seen as embodying the opposition of Classicism and Expressionism. Despite its radicalism, Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ stands in the painterly tradition: transformed in the work of Alexander Rodchenko, it gave rise to the monochrome paintings of Yves Klein. As to the inkblot, it led to the expressive gestures of Georges Mathieu and Kazuo Shiraga.

The Five Senses. This is the most interactive section of the exhibition, in which each of the five ways of experiencing the world at man’s disposal is illustrated by both classical and contemporary artworks. This art can be heard, touched and even tasted.

From Pierced Rock to Abstract Sculpture. In contrast to classical Western aesthetics, the key aspects of Chinese ‘Gongshi’ or scholar’s rocks are strangeness and extraordinariness rather than beauty. This approach to playing with volume and space opened new paths for the development of sculpture.

From Bacchanale to Bistro. Originating in the Greek Dionysia, bacchanales became a popular theme in painting that allowed artists to depict hedonistic scenes. However, mythology was gradually replaced by genre scenes: the epic gave way to the banal.

On December 1–24, the XLI annual festival ‘December Nights of Sviatoslav Richter: Free Variations’ will be held at the museum. Its programme will echo some of the key themes of this exhibition.