A Celebration Of Life And Creativity

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In Switzerland, a Moscow museum pays tribute to Russian emigre artists

The portrait of “The Confectioner of Cagnes”, painted by Chaim Soutine, with its contorted, distorted figure and enigmatic bloody handkerchief, hangs modestly on the simple gray walls of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, as part of “My Homeland Is Within My Soul: Art Without Borders,” an exhibition on display throughout the summer.

The exhibition is a presentation of a selection of paintings from the Moscow-based Museum of Avant-Garde Mastery (MAGMA). Established in 2001 by Vyacheslav (Moshe) Kantor in cooperation with the Russian Culture Ministry, the museum is composed of a prominent collection of leading 20th-century artists, most of them Russians or Russian emigres.

Russian chemical magnate Kantor, the current president of the European Jewish Congress, with close ties to the Kremlin, initiated this first-time presentation of the MAGMA collection.

Standing in front of the portrait, enthralled, he tells The Jerusalem Report, “I wanted to make an exhibition to emphasize the contribution that Russian emigre artists made to 20th-century art. Each time I view these paintings, I think: without tolerance and humaneness, there can be no art.”

Including some 40 works by Leon Bakst, Alexander Tyshler, Marc Chagall, Sonya Delaunay, llya Kabakov and other prominent 20th-century masters, the exhibition “decisively proves the infinity of artistic quests beyond national boundaries,” says curator Andrei Tolstoy, a member of the Russian Academy of Arts and a leading researcher of Russian emigre art.

But Kantor initiated the exhibition for reasons that extend, he says, far beyond the art itself.

“It is tremendously symbolic to me to create this exhibition here, in Geneva, on the eve of Russian Independence Day. After the right-wing victories in the European Union Elections, I hope that this exhibition can make an important contribution to the promotion of tolerance and understanding.”

In less than a decade, Kantor, who is the major shareholder in ОАО Acron, one of Russia’s largest producers of nitrogen-based fertilizer, has acquired an impressive collection of art for MAGMA.

“My collection is guided by three main principles,” Kantor explains. “I want to collect art that is connected to Russia, was created by artists who were or are Jewish, and by artists who were major innovators in the 20th century.

“I do not buy art in order to acquire brand names. I collect top artworks for myself and the museum. If I feel that I can’t live without an artwork, then I buy it,” Kantor continues.

Yet, in addition to painting, sculpture and graphic works, MAGMA, which is rapidly attracting worldwide attention, also includes a collection of rare World War I period photography.

The exhibition is comprised of three sections: “Experiments of the 1920s,” “Paris School” and “From Nonconformism to Conceptual ism.” Taken together, says Tolstoy, they reveal the “particularly noticeable imprint of artists from Russia.

Walking through the exhibition, Kantor cites the “Paris School” as an example of “how tolerance and understanding contribute to the world.” Russian Jewish artists, he explains, confined within the shteils (Jewish villages) wanted to become part of the exciting world of early 20th-century Russian art. But because they were Jews, they were barred from joining their fellow artists. Most

therefore emigrated, often to Paris.

“It was in the art-infused atmosphere in Paris, which warmly welcomed the artists, that they were able to create and bring their talent to its full expression,” says Tolstoy.

At a press conference preceding the opening of the exhibition, Kantor points to a large photograph of Russian-born Chagall’s painting, “Self Portrait with Seven Fingers” (1912-1913), which is owned by the Stedclijk Museum in Amsterdam.

At the top of the painting, which marked Chagall’s first self-portrait, the words “Russia” and “Paris” are written in Yiddish, and the entire work is filled with Jewish references, especially to the mystical number, seven, to Russia and to Paris.

“Chagall came to Paris without speaking a word of French or even Russian,” Kantor says. “He spoke Yiddish. He was taken in by a family, Robert and Sonya Delaunay, who accepted his language. Chagall was able to create in Paris because the atmosphere there was one of acceptance of different ethnic and historical experiences.”

Kantor then tells a story. For years, he searched for the grave of Soutine, who was buried, he knew, in Paris, in 1943. He finally found the grave in the Montparnasse cemetery, but the tombstone was marked only with the dates of birth and death and with a small cross.

“Soutine’s friends tried to save him from the Nazis. They were afraid that the Nazis would destroy the grave, and they wanted to make sure that he was buried with dignity and love. From this I learn that the dialogue of civilizations can be creative and provide security for all. It need not – it must not – be destructive. Our world would be much poorer without these outstanding Jewish artists.”

Kantor also attaches particular significance to the exhibition’s venue. “On the one hand,” he says, “we could not find a better place to support the spirit of tolerance than Geneva, the center of diplomacy for Europe and the world.

On the other hand, this city and this very building, the Palais des Nations, hosted the ‘Durban II’ conference [the United Nations Durban II anti-racism conference, held in Geneva in April 2009, in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke against Israel’s existence.]

“This conference proved that we are living in a period of banalization of the challenges that we face. The world makes little of the threats of increasing nuclearization, increasing xenophobia and the lack of historical memory. This exhibition is one of our responses to Durban II and the attempt to erase the State of Israel,” says Kantor.

“Those who bear historical guilt for the conflicts of the 20th century are prepared to turn the page and move on. Our mission is to keep the details of their actions alive – to commemorate the tragedy, and to celebrate life and creativity,” Kantor declares.

Referring to the elections to the parliament of the European Union, which brought right-wing and racist parties to power in several countries, Kantor says, “The problem is that we are too far [away] from our last tragedy. I hope that this art will help us to remember.