Russia's Art on Display in London

The figures in Matisse's "The Dance" are oblivious to the furor that surrounded their arrival in London, frolicking around the canvas with joyous abandon. But Matisse's masterpiece—and the rest of the 120 works the Russian government planned to loan the Royal Academy— almost never made it. Frosty relations between Whitehall and the Kremlin over the 2006 polonium poisoning of former spy Alexander Litvinenko in London— and Russia's refusal to extradite the chief suspect—cast a diplomatic cloud over the show. Just weeks before it was due to open, the Russian state culture agency canceled the exhibition, citing British laws that might leave the works vulnerable to seizure by relatives of their tsarist-era art collectors. Only hurried legal action that safeguarded foreign-owned assets from seizure and intervention by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband paved the way for the exhibit's journey. Now it's on display at the venerable Royal Academy, which sits just a stone's throw from the sushi bar where Litvinenko was poisoned.

It would have been a shame if London had missed out. "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870– 1925 From Moscow and St. Petersburg" (through April 18) illustrates the artistic influence of Paris—then the epicenter of the art world—on Russia and beyond. Indeed, the blueprint for Vladimir Tatlin's geometric "Monument to the Third International" bears a striking resemblance to the matrix of structured iron used in the Eiffel Tower. Some pairings are subtler; could Chagall have come up with his surreal "Promenade"—in which his lover, Bella Rosenfeld, floats like a tethered balloon from his hand—without being exposed to French symbolism during his time in Paris? The show demonstrates how some members of the Russian school eventually surpassed their European mentors. "One piece by Pyotr Miturich is so ahead of its time, it resembles [British pop-art painter] Patrick Caulfield rather than anything else," says curator Norman Rosenthal. And Kazimir Malevich's "Red Square" (1915)—a solid block of red framed with white—is a bold benchmark in the history of modern art. It's this unequivocal statement that ends the exhibit, a potent symbol of revolution.

But it's Matisse's monumental "The Dance" that steals the show. The painting was commissioned by the Russian textile magnate Sergei Shchukin to adorn the staircase of his Moscow mansion, the Trubetskoy Palace. Shchukin—the Charles Saatchi of his day—stockpiled Matisse's early works, cramming the daringly modern canvases into his home, along with more than 50 cubist Picassos. When he opened his collection to the public in 1914, it became a beacon for the Russian avant-garde who were looking to buck traditional modes of painting. Malevich, Kandinsky and Tatlin, among others, used the tenets of cubism, fauvism, impressionism and post-impressionism to inform and influence their own revolutionary styles.

"From Russia" was never meant to be an act of cultural diplomacy. But now that the works are safely installed, it's certainly turning out to serve that purpose. "It's good for the British people to see the enormous wealth of Russian art and see that Russian culture was deeply engaged with European culture," says Royal Academy chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith. "Even though you can say it's historical, it's about cultures that have spoken to one another and have a long history." In the latest bout of diplomatic wrangling, the Kremlin has ordered the British Council to close its offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg in what Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted was a "reaction" to the ongoing extradition row. But for visitors to the Royal Academy, the controversy is meaningless when they're faced with the glow of Matisse's graceful dancers.