A visit to Moscow, like many great cities, offers a chance to immerse yourself in its fascinating, tumultuous history.
Moscow is unusual however because you can get a feel not just for the distant past, the medieval world of Ivan the Terrible or Napoleon’s campaign of 1812, but also for the dramatic events that happened there in our lifetimes. The city was the setting for many of the crucial moments that ended the Cold War. I was lucky enough to witness some of them personally when I moved to the city in 1992 to work as a newspaper journalist.
Almost every street corner has a reminder of how fast things changed over the course of the seven years that I lived and worked there. We used to say it was a place where you could go to sleep and wake up in a different country. I arrived in June 1992 about five months after the Soviet Union split into 16 countries and the Communist Party was banned. It was the period when the old structures collapsed and were replaced by Wild West capitalism and mafia rule both within and outside the government. The city was on its knees. The only reliable places to go out for lunch were a few western hotels and the newly opened McDonald’s.
On the other hand, however strange this might sound, it was also at least briefly a time of unprecedented free speech, democracy and hope for many Russians. There are so many extraordinary memories. Today Moscow’s wide main street, called Tverskaya, is lined with luxury boutiques, but in that summer of 1992, it was the scene of what for many Muscovites was an embarrassing but exciting first step in capitalism. At that intermediate time, the Soviet planned economy had stopped working but ordinary people were still terrified they might be sent to a gulag if they started up a private business.
The month before I arrived, the mayor of Moscow had tried to break that impasse by signing an order allowing anyone to sell anything – without fear of being arrested.
And so I remember ordinary Muscovites tentatively taking up positions in lines kilometres-long on the pavements of Tverskaya, holding up a pair of boots or a saucepan or a plastic bottle of cooking oil. Muscovites, many of them affluent, stood in these endless lines holding their spare stuff in fear and hope.
The ruble fell in value by 3,000 percent that year. Some months it fell by half its value. People lost their savings in the bank, which was tragic. There was also a bizarre side to it – it became almost impossible to use the pay phones. It was supposed to cost 5 kopeks to make a call but the central bank stopped minting the 5-kopek piece because it was worth far less than the metal.
Politically Russia was torn between a pro-western pro-capitalist group led by the drunken president Boris Yeltsin and a group of Communists and ultra-nationalists, known commonly as the “red-browns” who were based in the Russian parliament then still known as the Supreme Soviet. After endless wrangling to pass even basic reforms, Yeltsin in 1993 issued a decree dissolving the parliament, however the red-browns ignored it. After a month of scuffles, the red-browns launched a coup.
I was on my way to the gym when I saw a convoy of trucks with men carrying guns and waving the hammer-and-sickle flag driving along Tver Street. I later realised they were on their way to attack the television centre. Many people including a western journalists died during that incident but luckily I was assigned to cover what was happening on Red Square near the Kremlin.
Today, the great square flanked by St Basil’s Church and Lenin’s Tomb is packed 24-hours a day with tourists and young people, but that night as my wife Louise and I walked toward the Kremlin it felt too empty. Suddenly we heard steps and saw a dark figure approaching. It was frightening, but then to our relief a male voice said “I work for the Dutch embassy. On a night like this it would be better if we worked together.” We patrolled the streets towards the Arbat and near the Tass news agency building where guns had been fired, wondering if the army would side with Yeltsin or the red-browns and if the red-browns won, would they let us stay in Moscow. We could wake up in another country.
The next morning, at dawn tanks started firing into the parliament building and it was clear the army had backed Yeltsin. The fighting lasted for a few days. A curfew was imposed on a city of 12 million people. We went to sleep in our apartment to the sound of occasional gunfire. It was the start of the move towards authoritarianism that eventually led to the rise of Vladimir Putin.
Despite this, the 90s was probably the coolest decade ever to live in Moscow. It was a time of liberation when people suddenly felt truly free. The newspapers were lively and cheeky. People who had been trapped behind the iron curtain all their lives were suddenly free to travel and eager to meet foreigners. They poked fun hilariously at the New Russian gangsters who were called “red jackets” because they wore garish expensive European blazers. Under the Soviets, rock and roll was seen as western decadence but suddenly Moscow’s people could enjoy the latest trends.
Early in my stay I went to one of Moscow’s first dance parties in the Planetarium next to the Moscow zoo, a hall dedicated to the Russian space program. It was called the Gagarin Party in mock honour of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space who was a Soviet icon. The name Gagarin Party is a trans-language pun. Partiya only means “political party” in Russian but is used here with the English sense of “gathering for fun.” At the party, hundreds of Muscovites danced to house music, spilling outside onto the snow. My specially printed Gagarin Party T-shirt is still one of my favourite souvenirs of that time.
When I walk around Moscow today, I am stunned by how calm and normal it has become. Sometimes I miss the craziness of those days, but there are other charms. At least now there is an overwhelming choice of places to go to lunch.
The ‘Colours of Impressionism’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of South Australia offers a most novel and interesting insight into an art movement that is already well-known to many. Unlike the wonderful Orsay blockbuster exhibitions held previously in Melbourne and Canberra, this is a more manageable exhibition of just 65 highly significant works, and it is focused almost exclusively upon the development of Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism.
The Impressionist movement in France
Visitors will be well familiar with the subjects and styles of Impressionist paintings, if only because they are now so highly valued by museums and are also extensively reproduced commercially. These works are attractive because their subjects, drawn from everyday life, are generally pleasant and genial, and because their bright colours work wondrously to replicate the sense of open air and sunlight. Indeed, there is even a danger that some viewers might misjudge such paintings as merely ‘pretty’.
This, however, was not at all the purpose of the Impressionist movement, and it is worth pausing to remind ourselves what this generation of painters was really aiming to do. Like all names of art movements, the term ‘Impressionism’ is a broad generalisation that sits uncomfortably upon a very diverse group of painters, all of whom exhibited together on eight occasions between 1874 and 1886, and then went their own ways. Once we start to unpack an art-movement name, it tends to fall apart in our hands in a mass of contradictions. Our definition of Impressionism must perforce be – no pun intended – ‘broad brush’.
Themes: ‘The Heroism of Modern Life’
The Impressionists’ common goals were based first on the radicalisation of subject matter: instead of painting subjects drawn from classical history, Graeco-Roman mythology or religion – the ‘noble’ subjects that sold so well at the annual Paris Salon art exhibition – they depicted the modern world around them. In this, they were guided by the poet-critic Charles Baudelaire who, in a seminal essay, The Painter of Modern Life, had urged painters to record what he called ‘the heroism of modern life’; that is, to see everyday reality as being every bit as interesting as some confabulated scene from the classics.
Techniques: Painting in the open air
The Impressionists’ second goal was a technical one, namely, to capture both the modern city and the rural landscape, as well as effects of light and atmosphere, by direct observation. Two painters, in particular, were instrumental in introducing the young generation of painters to painting en plein air (in the open air): these were Johann-Barthold Jongkind and Eugène Boudin. In particular, it was Boudin who noticed a young artist wasting his talents doing caricatural drawings of local citizens, and tetchily urged him to pick up a paintbrush, go to the Normandy coast, and actually paint a real landscape. The young man who meekly obeyed this advice was named Claude Monet, and the rest is history… Jongkind and Boudin are routinely mentioned in art books as important precursors of Impressionism, but this is to forget that they continued painting as the Impressionist movement developed. Fortunately, there are works by both men in this exhibition, and they are of breathtaking quality. Just have a look at Boudin’s Etretat,The Amont Cliff, with its splendid study of bright sunlight illuminating the limestone face of the cliff.
Explaining Impressionism in terms of ‘colour themes’
The Adelaide exhibition is also new and stimulating because it does not use the traditional chronological approach to an art movement, but examines the movement in thematic terms of the use of colour. This is done in a most savant manner, and one senses some very deep curatorial minds at work behind the thoughtful sequencing of the works on the walls. This is one of the most innately intelligent – and thought-provoking – exhibition layouts one might have seen in many years.
Colour theme: Impressionist Black
The first section of the exhibition is devoted to an unusual tone for Impressionism: black. Have a look at Manet’s stunning The Port of Boulogne, a nocturne done from the balcony of his hotel room overlooking the harbour. Look closely and deeply at the paint surface, and see the wonderful, untidy, rag-like patches of pure black for shadow and of whitish-silver for moonlight.
Colour theme: Impressionist ‘Bright’ Painting
The second section again acknowledges that the ‘bright’ painting of the Impressionists had precursors in earlier artists, notably the great landscapist Camille Corot, and humbler painters, such as the genial Stanislas Lépine, both of whom are represented by beautiful works in the exhibition. But the ‘bright’ painting triumphed in the 1870s, when Sisley, Pissarro and Monet attained a luminous mastery of atmosphere, as seen in Monet’s Argenteuil and Sisley’s masterly Boat During the Flood at Port-Marly.
Colour theme: Impressionist White – The myriad colours of snow
The third section again avoids the cliché of Impressionist sunlight, and focuses instead on white. Needless to say, there is a rich array here of important works by the major artists: Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Pissarro. It is a delightful experience to sit on one of the circular couches in the rooms and simply immerse oneself, letting one’s eyes travel slowly over the breathtaking paint surface of Monet’s masterly early work The Magpie. As we gaze into three extraordinary landscapes by Sisley – including the lyrical Snow at Louveciennes – we realise that the key quality of snow is that it is not just white, but a rich tapestry of fleeting colours, with deep blue shadows in the depths of the snowfall.
Colour theme: Of Greens and Blues
The fourth section of the exhibition is called ‘Greens and Blues’, which brings us to the Impressionist landscapes with which we are most familiar. All of these works are astonishing in their sheer proficiency, but two in particular stand out. Monet’s Corner of the Apartment is a compelling view of the interior of Monet’s second house at Argenteuil, with his young son, Jean, standing in a secluded space lit by the bluish light coming through a curtained window. The use of deep blue on the parquetry floor has a poignant lyricism and a tonal intensity that are exceptional in Monet’s work.
Equally compelling is Auguste Renoir’s quite exceptional Field of Banana Trees. Renoir’s landscapes generally do have a pleasing, genial quality, but this canvas has a raw power, a primal celebration of foliage in itself, with no attempt to compose a pretty scene; it is, in fact, an untidy jumble of opulent foliage. What has happened to this painter of charming landscapes? The answer is that Renoir had just had an experience that the French would call ‘bouleversant’, or astonishing. He had recently finished the iconic The Luncheon of the Boating Party, which he sold to the eminent dealer and collector Paul Durand-Ruel for a very substantial sum. Exhausted, he used the ample funds to take himself to Algiers, where he experienced the revelation of the brilliant light of the Mediterranean. In this work, there is no concern at all for the picturesque or the exotic, just primal response of an artist to an overwhelming and intense visual impression, with a glimpse of the city of Algiers in the distance, dissolved in a white glare of intense sunlight.
From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism
The fifth section of the exhibition introduces us to another quite magical aspect of Impressionism, a later offshoot known both as Neo-Impressionism or – sometimes – by one of its key techniques, divisionism. Painters such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and Charles Angrand adopted scientific theories regarding light and colour, and attempted to translate them into a more disciplined form of Impressionism, in which the large, gestural strokes of the Impressionists were replaced by very small dots of paint or, in some cases, small, luminous ‘tiles’ or ‘plaques’ of paint. Of these artists, Georges Seurat is perhaps the most famous, and we are privileged to have some of his wonderful small oil sketches here in Australia. Paul Signac’s large painting, The Palace of the Popes, is almost incandescent in tone. Possibly the most radical of all is a tiny painting by Charles Angrand, Haystacks in Normandy, in which the solid forms of grain stacks are subsumed in light, dematerialised to the point that they have no mass, no texture and virtually no outline, emerging as diaphanous, luminous ghosts from the white heat of the field.
Pink and Purple: Is there such a thing as a ‘woman’ Impressionist?
This section of the exhibition is a broad church, seeking to acknowledge other aspects of Impressionism, such as the late work of Monet, and the stupendous works of Paul Cézanne. Both of these male painters are by now icons in the history of art, and require little introduction.
It is gratifying that this room also includes two works by Berthe Morisot, including The Hydrangea, thus acknowledging the place of women in the Impressionist movement. Morisot herself used paint with such freedom that it almost seems to fall of the canvas, and yet her painterly touch has a devastating assurance. This is a good acknowledgement of the role of women in the Impressionist movement, but it would have been even more satisfying to see other Impressionists, such as Mary Cassatt and Marie Bracquemond, acknowledged as well. In addition, it would be wonderful to see them listed in art books not as Women Impressionists, but simply as Impressionists pure and simple. Their sex is utterly irrelevant: they are simply brilliant painters. We never refer to their male counterparts as Male Impressionists, so why create a sub-category of ‘female’ Impressionists?
Paintings that puzzle and intrigue the viewer
Visitors might be intrigued to notice that there are also some paintings in this exhibition that are not, in traditional art history, considered strictly Impressionist. But this is exactly what the Orsay museum’s vision is all about: it aims to ‘show us the 19th century whole’, by putting the great masterpieces of today’s consciousness amongst works by artists once famous but now largely forgotten. It is arguable that we can only truly understand the boldness of the Impressionist style when we have looked carefully at the slick, almost photographic detail of formal Salon paintings in the ‘official’ academic style.
Signs of the times: The birth of the modern bathroom
For example, the name of the painter Alfred Stevens may be unfamiliar to some visitors, and his careful style of painting seems to belong to the more conservative tradition; no bright colours or splashy brushstrokes here! But he was in fact associated with a most interesting modernist group that preceded the Impressionist movement of the 1860s, and included Manet, Legros and Fantin-Latour. Stevens was a mate of Manet, and even tried his hand at some scenes of modern life.
The remarkable work in the exhibition, The Bath, for example, is deceptively familiar to the modern viewer, because we are now so accustomed to having formal bathrooms in our homes. But in 1867, when this canvas was painted, this sort of bathroom represented ‘the shock of the new’, and was an astonishing and novel development. Thanks to Baron Georges Haussmann’s massive program to modernise Paris – including its water supply – he managed to double the total length of city water mains and the city’s water capacity, and to increase the number of houses with piped water from 6,000 to 34,000. This utterly transformed the private lives of Parisians. Stevens depicts an elegant young Parisienne luxuriating in the so-called “new water”, which soon came to be termed “city water”. For the first time, bathing could become a regular rather than an occasional occurrence; think of all of Degas’ women, making ablutions in makeshift tubs on the floor.
Another recent development was the birth of the great modern department stores, which responded to the vogue of the bathroom by having special ‘departments’ selling items devoted to bathing. Soap became a luxurious item, and the first shampoos appeared on the market. Some companies began to advertise baths as luxurious pieces of furniture; this young lady in The Bath, for example, has bought an ornate duck-head tap and a ceramic soap holder.
The bathroom had now become a place to tarry and to relax, and had taken on some of the intimate and romantic connotations of the boudoir: this young woman has been reading a novel, and now dreamily thinks of the lover who has no doubt presented her with the flower we see. Indeed, Stevens’ painting has a note of subdued eroticism, and it may be that he has depicted another aspect of the new fashion, its association with sensuality and sexual enjoyment. It is possible that Stevens’ model is in fact a young courtesan, one of the stylish and wealthy professional prostitutes of the Second Empire. These women quickly perceived the attraction of receiving their customers amidst such lavish settings, but amongst the general population this sort of bathing did not become popular until later in the century.
Do peer into this work, and allow little details to intrigue you. Why is the tap still running with ‘new water’? Why is there a little clock in the soap holder? And why, pray tell, does Stevens lavish such beautiful and sensual paint on the flowers, the open novel and the white towel, and then present a quite cool, non-sensual image of the young lady?
There are many more delightful and unexpected visual encounters to be had at Adelaide, and the exhibition is to be warmly commended to all.
Spain’s remarkable history makes it a compelling destination for travellers. Its origins go back to at least the 11th century BC, when Greek and Phoenician settlers first encountered indigenous Iberian tribes. As the Roman province of Iberica, Spain was the birthplace of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian, before becoming a substantial Visigoth kingdom. Seven centuries of Moorish Islamic civilization – unique in Europe – created an artistic legacy of glittering palaces and mosques. By the early 16th century Spanish rulers controlled most of Europe and the New World, heralding a period of unprecedented wealth, and an explosion of building and artistic patronage. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a new dynamism and independent spirit emerged, expressed in exuberant modernist art and architecture.
With such an overwhelming history, we recommend taking the time to read up on this fascinating destination before planning a visit! But where to start? With so many books on offer, we asked our tour leader Dr Jeni Ryde for her comprehensive list on the best reads to prepare you for a tour of Spain.
SPAIN TRAVEL GUIDE BOOKS
Blue Guide: Spain
By Ian Robertson (A&C Black, 2002)
Blue Guides are perfect for the kind of cultural tour we take and strong in their treatment of art history. The Blue Guide for Spain has not been reprinted since 2002, but copies are available on secondhand book websites (more information below on how to access these) and most of the information is still relevant.
Spain: Eyewitness Travel Guide
By Nick Inman (DK, 2011)
A readily available travel guide which is well illustrated.
The Rough Guide to Spain
10th ed. Rough Guides, 2002.
Rough Guides are often available in e-book formats (for those with Kindles, iPads and iPhones).
BOOKS ON SPANISH HISTORY, ART AND CULTURE
The Cuisines of Spain
By Teresa Barrenechea
We have cooked from this book, and can say that the recipes are as good as the essays! The latter contextualise the diversity of Spanish cuisine in the country’s history and geography and are great for those with an interest in gastronomy.
An Interpretation of Spain and the Spanish People
By John A. Crow
This work is a standard text for undergraduate history courses so it’s readily available. A history of the various groups that have settled in Spain and their differing cultural outlooks. It can be heavy-going in parts.
Fire In the Blood
By Ian Gibson
The book is a companion to a BBC series and covers the “New Spain” after Franco. A natural companion to Crow, focusing on a more recent history. You should be able to locate secondhand copies easily online.
The Shock of the New
By Robert Hughes (Knopf, 1991. Various editions, and also a TV series for PBS in the late 1970s.)
Iconoclastic Australian art historian Hughes’s work is useful because his direct approach forces the reader to make up their own mind! The Shock of the New treats modern art generally and puts Spain’s modernista and surrealist movements into a global perspective. Barcelona is a sensitive biography of the city.
The Arts in Spain
By John F. Moffitt, John F (Thames & Hudson, 1999)
From the World of Art series, this introductory work covers the earliest surviving origins of Spain’s art (the Iberian and Roman periods) and works its way systematically through to Modernism. A useful survey.
Time of Silence: Civil War and the Culture of Repression in Franco’s Spain
By Mike Richards (Cambridge UP, 1998)
This book is particularly good for those with an interest in the Spanish Civil War. It offers a close reading of Spain’s time under Franco. A special-interest study.
The Story of Spain
By Mark Williams (5th ed. Santana, 2005)
This is better written than the widely available Traveller’s History of Spain. You may need to look for it online, and it will also be available in a number of museum shops on our trip.
SPANISH LITERATURE BOOKS
By Miguel de Cervantes
This work is to Spanish literature what Shakespeare is to English. We don’t recommend that you attempt to read all of it, but a brief encounter with it will demonstrate its wide-ranging interest in the human condition.
The Islam Quintet, particularly Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree
By Ali, Tariq. Verso, various editions.
This Pakistani film director, journalist and activist has an abiding interest in the history of Islam and its interactions – peaceful and otherwise – with the Christian West. The first book in his Islam Quintet is set in Granada just after the Reconquista and considers the clash of Islam and Christianity from the perspective of one family.
The Shadow of the Wind
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon (Penguin, 2005. and various editions)
A gripping mystery set in Barcelona under Franco’s Spain, this bestselling work owes much to the style of writers like Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, but is perhaps more accessible!
The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls
By Hemingway (Available in numerous editions)
Hemingway’s style – and subject matter – is not for everyone, but he presents an unflinching account of the ways in which violence and disorder can underpin the most basic human emotions and needs.
Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba
By Federico García Lorca
A poet, dramatist and theatre director, García Lorca’s political activism brought him into conflict with the anti-Communist feeling of the Spanish Civil War and he was probably “disappeared” by the death squads. The Rural Trilogy we recommend above gives a good sense of Spaniards’ relation to their earth.
As I Walked Out One Midsummer’s Morning and A Moment of War
By Laurie Lee (various editions)
These come highly recommended: Lee details, in the first, how he caught a ferry to Spain in the 1930s and walked the length of the country before the outbreak of the Civil War. In the second, he fights with the anti-Franco movement alongside other prominent intellectuals. Very evocative and beautifully written.
Homage to Catalonia
By George Orwell (various editions)
Orwell served in Catalonia and Aragon for six months, fighting in the Spanish Civil War. In this work he chronicles his time there and offers a powerful message about the dangers of totalitarianism.
TIPS FOR FINDING READING MATERIALS ON TRAVEL TO SPAIN
The UK-based website, Book Depository (www.bookdepository.co.uk) has a massive inventory of new books at heavily discounted rates and does not charge postage to Australia. Abebooks (www.abebooks.com) brings together the inventories of second-hand bookstores the world over, and you can narrow your search down by country (which brings down the postage). Check delivery times as these vary according to the provider you choose.