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 Russia, Peter the Great was aware that the arts