Last week I visited the new Spanish outpost of the State Russian Museum, Collección del Museo Ruso in Málaga. I’d read about the plans for it last year, so was delighted that its opening coincided with my stay in Granada, where I’ve been hiding away on research leave and writing my book since early January (yes – lucky me! my thanks to my wonderful colleagues in the Departamento de Filología Griega y Filología Eslava at the Universidad de Granada for hosting me as a visiting researcher).
Málaga was already home to some excellent art museums, notably the Museo Picasso and the Museo Carmen Thyssen, and the Collección del Museo Ruso is a great addition to these. Located a little way from the old town centre in an industrial suburb, it’s worth walking there to see some interesting workers’ housing and a normal, non-touristy part of the Costa del Sol. The former tobacco factory that houses the museum, alongside the Museo Automovilístico, is beautiful, and has been carefully converted to create a stunning – and very large – exhibition space.
There are currently two exhibitions being shown, Russian Art from Icons to the 20th Century, and The Age of Diaghilev. I was impressed by both. The Russian Art exhibit, as the name suggests, is a sweep through 500 years of painting, and the works are very well chosen to convey the development of Russian art. The icons were perhaps a little disappointing, but realistically they were never going to send their best works by Rublev and Dionysius, and the six or seven that are there serve as solid illustrations of different styles and types of icon painting. As for the rest, pretty much every well known Russian artist from the 18th to the 20th centuries is represented, along with works by lesser known figures. Portraits of the great and good and Petersburg vistas give way to Romanticism, genre paintings, the Peredvizhniki, modern art and, finally, socialist realism. There are some absolute gems, including a beautiful little Levitan landscape, Perov’s ‘Head of a Kirghiz Convict‘, and couple of surprisingly good factory scenes from the 1920s. There’s also some real trash – Aleksandr Deineka’s ‘Tractor Driver‘ with absurdly short legs particularly sticks in the mind – but good on them for not glossing over the socialist realist period completely. Overall it works very well as an introduction for visitors who don’t know a great deal about Russian art (my travelling companion confirmed it was very effective in this regard), but also had plenty to interest more seasoned observers.
I was initially slightly disappointed to learn that the temporary exhibition was devoted to Diaghilev, not because I’m not interested in him – rather the opposite, my interest means I’ve seen more Diaghilev/Ballets Russes/ Silver Age exhibitions than you can shake a stick at. But in fact it was a pleasant surprise, as it concentrated much more on the artists involved with Mir iskusstva, whilst avoiding the tweeness that could occasionally assail that movement (yes, Somov, I’m looking at you). Some of the paintings were very familiar and much loved, such as Bakst’s ‘Supper‘, and Malyavin’s ‘Peasant Women‘. Others, like Natan Altman’s ‘Self Portrait‘ were a real revelation. Again, the exhibition was very effectively curated to tell the story of the art that led to the Ballets Russes, a selection of costumes and designs for which also appear in the final room.
Occasionally in both exhibitions I felt that, despite the explanatory texts accompanying different sections, there was a slight lack of context about specific works, and would have liked more details than the titles and dates given in the captions. The audio guides (available in Spanish, Russian and English) doubtless provide additional information, but I really can’t bear them (am I the only one?). Fortunately the very thorough catalogues (in the same three languages) are also much more expansive, so (oh no!) I had to buy both.
The Age of Diaghilev exhibition is on until July, and Russian Art from Icons to the 20th Century until at least October, although different parts of the website and the museum’s leaflets give different dates for the latter. This was one of a few minor organizational glitches (the cafe wasn’t yet open, the bookshop gave the impression of being half-ready, with no prices on anything, and the reading room and virtual museum space were visible but locked), which I’m sure will soon be ironed out. Great culture may not be most people’s first association with the Costa del Sol, but the Collección del Museo Ruso makes a significant contribution to Málaga’s increasingly good reputation for art and museums, and is well worth a visit. And while you’re there, go to Atarazanas market for lunch – the seafood is just fabulous.