In 1873 an English traveller put his finger on the whole problem with Russian art. ‘Artists in St Petersburg live in comparative isolation,’ he wrote, ‘they are as a colony planted on the utmost verge of civilisation; they are as exiles or exotics, far away from the commonwealth of art, left to pine or starve in a cold and sterile soil.’ The same was true of artists in Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Perm and everywhere else. Who indeed wouldn’t struggle to name a single Russian artist before 1900 with an international reputation? It was the political revolutions of the early 20th century that fertilised that cold and sterile soil to produce a cluster of celebrated figures whose influence was felt beyond the empire’s borders, among them Malevich, Chagall, Kandinsky and Gabo.
Russia had no long-standing, indigenous art tradition. Its staples were folk art and icons – the painters of which were almost always anonymous. The high art that collectors did possess was entirely the work of foreigners. In his efforts to modernise