“Russian artistic life in France in the XXth century”

“Russian artistic life in France in the XXth century”

Thesis defended november 24, 2008
University Charles de Gaulle, Lille 3
Direction : François Robichon
Président de Jury : Eric Darragon, Université de Paris I
Membres du Jury :
• Sarah Wilson, Institut Courtauld, London
• Andreï Tolstoï, Institut d’Architecture, Moscow

The challenge implicit in the emigration of Russian artists to France in the 20th century was to assure the perpetuity of a Russian artistic evolution that, after the revolution of 1917, was integrated into a European evolution of man and his ideas.

Between 1885 and 1991, five generations of Russian artists (painters and sculptors) left their country of origin and established themselves in France for reasons associated with the consequences of great events that shaped Russia and during four distinct periods: at the end of the 19th century, between 1905 and 1914, after the revolution of 1917, and the period up to the early 1970s.

Amongst these creators there appeared many great names of modern and contemporary art history: Marie Vassiliev, Chaïm Soutine, Pinchus Krémègne, Michel Kikoïne, Serge Charchoune, Mihaïl Larionov and Natalia Gontcharova, Alexandre Iacovleff, Léon Zack, Ivan Pougny, Alexandra Exter, Vassily Kandinsky, Nicolas de Staël, Oscar Rabine, Valentina Kropivnitskaya, Erik Boulatov, Vladimir Yankilevsky.

To recompose the story of those Russian artists who emigrated to French soil, to understand the evolution of their careers in our country, to interrogate their creations and take account of their origins and to detect in their work as many concessions to Western styles as strong examples of cultural resistance, are the objectives of this thesis.

She presents, in the first annexe, an inventory of the French national collection of Russian art composed throughout the 20th century by agents of the state devoted to its heritage. This inventory presents acquisitions from Russian artists in France during their lifetime. She has gathered this information from the State’s purchase dossiers held in the National Archives.

This collection of more than a thousand works was initiated by Léonce Bénédite for the Musée du Luxembourg on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition of 1900, completed by André Dézarrois for the Musée des Ecoles Etrangères Contemporaines du Jeu de Paume (1922-1940) [Museum of foreign schools of contemporary art at Jeu de Paume]. A sample of this collection was then presented to the public permanently until the execution of the plan to evacuate the works in 1939 and the requisition of the space by the Nazis in 1940. After 1945, it was dispersed in the reserves of the national and provincial museums.

During the seventy years of the Soviet regime in Russia, Franco-Soviet diplomatic relations ‘forbade’ the temporary exhibition, in state institutions, works by these artists, generally considered (according to the law) as ‘stateless’. Russian artists exhibited at the museum Jeu de Paume were emigrants, the cards next to their works put forward the term ‘ex-Russian’ and their travels betrayed the reality of Soviet society which remained a subject of controversy for a long time in France.

Caught in the turmoil of this history are the networks of private Parisian galleries who participated in order to increase their visibility. French art criticism, meanwhile, also neglected too often the works themselves and their creation, notably during the interwar period, taking advantage of a ‘lyrical narrative’ of the émigré. Despite this they were often victims of amalgamation and assimilation into the terminology of caricature, that of ‘pro-Soviet’ or ‘white Russians’.

Yet, there were two art historians tried to focus purely on the artistic issues of Russian emigration in France during the last century: Louis Réau (in 1922) and Arsène Alexandre (in 1932). It was of course too early, in terms of art history, to respond to the questions inspired by this strange presence active on French soil.

These artists have allowed, beyond the scope of the thesis, a different perspective on the history of modern and contemporary French art, by taking into account all the artistic aspects imaginable over a long period arising out of the ruptures which were further used and frequently relayed.

The thesis also brings to today’s Russia clarity regarding those who were taken up by the elites of the past, beyond borders, bringing their art and culture into favour. Thus filling an area of knowledge which was consigned to rare passionate enthusiasts and contributes to the reintegration of these artists into the history of art and to a History that is also our own.