Art lovers are well served by two Sydney exhibitions, writes Dionne Christian.

Cezanne, Monet, Gauguin, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Shchukin and Morozov. Two of these names are not like the others but without Russian art collectors Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, it's possible that the painters who revolutionised Western art might not have done so quite as comprehensively.

At the Art Gallery of New South Wales, standing in front of Claude Monet's Poppy Field or Wassily Kandinsky's View of Murnau: landscape with a green house is akin to being transported back in time.

Wassily Kandinsky 'View of Murnau: landscape with a green house' 1908. Photo / Supplied
Wassily Kandinsky 'View of Murnau: landscape with a green house' 1908. Photo / Supplied

We no longer think of paintings like these as "contemporary art", they are part of the many art movements that advanced us from more formal neoclassical works toward modernity but, in their day, the artists who produced them were regarded as "radicals" and criticised for upending centuries-old traditions.


The Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage, the Art Gallery of New South Wales' summer show, tells a new story about these artists who are variously known as impressionists, symbolists, fauvists, abstractionists and cubists.

It explains how they thrived, thanks to the patronage of Shchukin and Morozov — even if these businessmen didn't always understand or particularly like what they saw — who supported a new generation to reject traditional techniques in favour of exploring new ways of working and, in doing so, come up with entirely fresh visions of what a painting could look like.

In turn, local artists were introduced to the work that gave rise to the start of the Russian avant-garde movement. The show also tells of revolution, how art was co-opted to bolster communism then threatened by war and dictatorship and how, at great risk to their own lives, staff the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg kept the art safe, and on display, when there were calls for it to be destroyed. It's only in recent years that the depth and breadth of the collection, and the story of Shchukin and Morozov, have been revealed.

For me, a multimedia installation by film-makers Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenway is a highlight. Shchukin, Matisse, Dance and Music imagines a conversation between the artist Matisse and Shchukin about the paintings Dance and Music circa 1909-10.

It's a visual poem with an evocative score and dance which becomes truly mesmerising as we wonder just what might have been said about paintings the likes of which had never been seen before.

We can't imagine how art like this was, once, so controversial or, for those making it, like nothing they had seen before. It's now so much a part of our visual landscape and frame of reference that we take it for granted and forget to reflect upon how different our world might be without it.

I once read that too many of us save going to art galleries and museums to rainy days but, if we're really serious about art — especially teaching the next generation that it's a vital part of life — we should go when the sun is shining.

Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo / Getty Images
Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo / Getty Images

When the sun really beats down, escaping to the air-conditioned cool of a gallery can be welcome respite. I'm not sure if that came into play when, nine years ago, the Sydney International Art Series was created by Destination NSW alongside the AGNSW and the Museum of Contemporary Art.


More likely, it might have been to do with economics. Since it started in 2010, the series has made more than $149 million in overnight visitor expenditure for NSW and tempted 2.1 million to visit Sydney with about 10 per cent travelling specifically to see the exhibitions.

Whatever the reason, it shows a great many art lovers will travel to see art they might not otherwise get the chance to see. They're well served this summer with The Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage at AGNSW and, down at the Rocks, the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia's major exhibition by acclaimed South African photographer David Goldblatt.

David Goldblatt: Photographers 1948-2018 features 357 works, spanning seven decades of Goldblatt's career, mainly in black and white as his own personal protest against apartheid.

To do justice to the exhibition and to take in what Goldblatt documented requires spending at least half a day at the MCA, maybe even a return visit. Grouped together by specific themes — the mining industry, South Africa's white middle class, the forced segregation of black and Asian communities into townships — is to have it hammered home what a brutal affront to humanity apartheid is.

The Transported of KwaNdebele documents the journey blacks took from an apartheid tribal homeland, KwaNdebele, where there was no industry and little chance of work, to white-controlled Pretoria. For some, it meant catching a bus as early as 3am to be at workplaces by 7am and, at day's end, repeating the entire process to arrive "home" about 10pm.

'Poppy Field', 1887. Photo / Getty Images
'Poppy Field', 1887. Photo / Getty Images

These men and women are asleep on their feet, fatigue hanging on them like a grim cloak. Those who make eye contact with the camera do so with lethargy but also a steely determination to survive and, through the almost inhumane endurance demanded of them, show they will not be beaten.

By far, one of the most powerful exhibitions I've seen in recent years.



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Sydney International Art Series: The Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage, Art Gallery of New South Wales; and David Goldblatt: Photographs 1948-2018, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia; both until March 3, 2019.