Published  09/03/2006

To the Finland Station and Back: RUSSIA!

To the Finland Station and Back: RUSSIA!

RUSSIA!, The Guggenheim Museum, New York
16 September 2005-11 January 2006

Russia is not accessible to reason
and cannot be measured with a yardstick;
Russia is a special country
that can only be taken on faith.
Fedor Tyutchev (1803-73)

The same may be true of Russian art, as anyone who was lucky enough to see the recent exhibition, 'RUSSIA!', in New York from 16 September 2005 to 11 January 2006 might attest. The exclamation point says it all. It is a tough task to occupy that vast parking garage on Fifth Avenue known as the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. Only an exhibition of the size and ambition of 'RUSSIA!' fills and fulfills it. With the full support of Vladimir Putin, president of the Russian Federation, this exhibition of 275 highlights from 800 years of Russian art gathered from the country's greatest museums (including the State Russian Museum, the Kremlin Museum, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Hermitage), and private and foreign collections is the most comprehensive survey ever presented in the United States. Its opening conveniently co-ordinated with the start of the 60th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, so President Putin could attend both momentous events.

Many of these objects, some representing the very foundation of Russian art, had never travelled outside the former Soviet Union before. Until recently, some were generally unknown to many Russians. Consequently, 'RUSSIA!' serves a greater role as cultural, social and political history than as an art lesson. It required several visits to absorb all of this vast nation's rich traditions of painting and sculpture. Yet, it was well worth the effort. It is unlikely that such an exhibit of Russian art on so grand a scale will ever be repeated.

It has often been said that Russia skipped the Renaissance and clung to the traditions of medieval art long after the Italian, French, German and Flemish painters had abandoned them in search of new manners of expression. Russia's monks and artisans held fast to the Byzantine conventions, while transforming them into the glories of Russian icon painting. These were works of the deepest religious faith in which the artist suppressed his ego to the glory of God. The four stunning panels of the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel from the late 15th-century Deesis Tier in the Cathedral of the Dormition at the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery dramatically opened the Guggenheim exhibit. Sophistication and naiveté walked hand in hand in creating these idealized portraits of the revered saints of Mother Russia. Centuries later, the stylized figures and the brilliant colour inspired other artists; the legacy of the icon is evident in the work of such unalike modern artists as Natalia Goncharova and Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

The country suddenly leaped into the 18th century with the first flowering of secular Russian art, when Peter the Great consolidated his power and diminished that of the church. The official portraiture of the imperial family and other Russian nobility could have been produced as easily in Versailles as in the newly founded St Petersburg. There is nothing distinctively Russian about these pictures. The rest of Europe considered the vast Romanov Empire uncouth and backward. To dispel this notion, Peter the Great, foreign-born Catherine the Great and Nicholas I cultivated the imperial art collections. They wanted Russia to compete with the West in culture, encouraging French, German and Italian painters, composers and architects to raise St Petersburg above the swamp of its provincialism, and filling their palaces with the finest imported art and other goods. The educated classes at the St Petersburg court preferred to speak French, German and Italian to their native language. It seemed far more civilized, far more progressive. The domination of cultural importation was evident everywhere in Russian art and literature.

The royal family did not entirely succeed in Westernizing their nation. Nevertheless, they amassed some beautiful works, including a sweet pastoral scene by Jean-Antoine Watteau, an exquisite Chardin painting of a laundress and a jaunty self-portrait by Van Dyck. The Guggenheim devoted annex galleries to masterpieces of Western painting and sculpture that profoundly inspired the country's painters and indicate the breadth of foreign influence. This trend continued up to the Revolution. The wealthy merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were among the first connoisseurs anywhere in the world to recognize the importance of Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. They nearly single-handedly introduced Impressionism, post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism to Russia. The Bolsheviks seized this art and put it in the Hermitage and other museums, where it remains today as national treasures. Many fine examples of the pre-war School of Paris, once owned by Schukin and Morozov, provided a seductive sidebar at the Guggenheim.

Russian collectors opened their galleries of Western art to local painters who were also expected to study abroad. It is difficult to look at relatively obscure Russian paintings and sculptures without associating them with other far better known European work. For example, Fedor Alexeev's handsome views of Moscow and St Petersburg have all the cool, clear, clean precision of Canaletto's scenes of Venice. As this exhibition suggested, Russians have been particularly adept at portraiture. Apparently, Orest Kiprensky's style changed conveniently with his sitter, but his exceptional picture of Ekaterina Avdulina of 1822 suggests more than a touch of Ingres. Vasily Tropinin's painting of his son Arseny possesses much of the sweet delicacy of Fragonard's work. Perhaps Vasily Petrov's moody 'Portrait of the Writer Fedor Dostoyevsky' (1872) and Nikolai Ge's intense 'Portrait of the Writer Leo Tolstoy' (1884) owe more to their subjects' personalities than to the painters' brushstrokes.

Russian art is not famous for its sensuality, so the Guggenheim show was thin on nudes. Notable exceptions were Anton Losenko's chaste 1769 neo-classical bare-chested Zeus and bare-breasted Thetis, and Alexander Ivanov's studies for the otherwise reverential 'The Appearance of Christ to the People' (1840). Mikhail Kozlovsky's graceful sculpture, 'Shepherd with a Hare' (1789), as well as other glistening bronze bodies by other artists, provided a jarring contrast to the bold, almost shocking neo-Primitivist nudes of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. Nowhere in 'RUSSIA!' is the repressed national libido more apparent than in Valentin Serov's remarkably modest 'Rape of Europa' (1911).

The Guggenheim exhibit included some lovely landscapes and amusing genre paintings, often satirical scenes of provincial and petit bourgeois life. Early in the 19th century, a new political consciousness slowly emerged in Russian paintings, demonstrated in Alexei Venetsianov's romanticized vision of serfs. His idealized peasants are as scrubbed and well-fed as Millet's 'Gleaners' of a quarter century later. The most influential group of Russian artists of the age was the Peredvizhniki (Wanderers). Bored with the dictates of neo-Classicism and Romanticism, these realists seceded from the Petersburg Academy of Art in 1863, intent on bringing art to the people. They considered their profession to be a most noble one: they believed that art should not only be popular and accessible but also socially committed, and they considered their work to be propaganda that provided an effective weapon for social change and against political repression. The master of this group was Ilya Repin. His huge, daring 'Barge Haulers on the Volga' (1870-73) is one of the cornerstones of 19th-century Russian art. The painting is a paradoxical marriage of Realism and Romanticism: it looks as if Courbet's stonebreakers have wandered into one of Turner's golden Venetian scenes. It summarized Tsarist oppression that led to the Russian Revolution.

Repin did not confine his art solely to the pressing issues of the day. As his paintings of Pavel Tretyakov and Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin demonstrate, he was also a marvellous portraitist. His picture of his little girl Nadya, painted in 1881, captures the insouciant charm of Mary Cassatt's far more celebrated and studied studies of children. Another artist associated with the Wanderers, and still very much his own man, was the romantic realist Viktor Vasnetsov who, as in his 'Knight at the Crossroads' (1878), brought Mother Russia's legendary past as well as her fairy tales vividly to life. Both men greatly inspired the next generation of Russian artists.

The Guggenheim exhibit was disappointingly weak on Mir Iskusstva or the World of Art, the internationally influential Russian art movement that captured Paris through Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. The lack of representation may have been due to its members being, by nature, decorative artists rather than painters. They designed books and bookplates, posters and postcards, sets and costumes. No Bakst, Benois nor Bilibin here. A minor winter scene and a flattering portrait of Morozov, both by Konstantin Korovin, were supplemented with Serov's portrait of Korovin. The best of the lot is Boris Kustodiev's ebullient snowscape, 'Shrovetide' (1916). It is all the more remarkable because it was the work of an invalid.

Several exceptional Russian artists, such as Mikhail Vrubel, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Pavel Filonov, defy classification. None of them fits neatly within any particular school of painting in Russia or elsewhere. Oddly, Vrubel has been called the Russian Cézanne, but he had nothing in common with the great French master. Vrubel's thick distinctive brushwork of agitated planes cannot be precisely defined as Impressionism. His fanciful subjects rendered in various shades of blue belong to Symbolism rather than to Picasso's more famous Blue Period. The influence of the once exalted but now largely overlooked Puvis de Chavannes on Petrov-Vodkin's 'On the Shore' (1908) is also evident in the translucent baleful women and children in his 'Morning' (1917). The shimmering surface of bread and fish with blue paper upon a pink tablecloth in Petrov-Vodkin's 1918 still-life contrasts beautifully with the stark minimalism of David Shterenberg's knife and plate of cherries on a bare table of the following year. Filonov was another neo-Primitivist who, with his jewel-like, naive, chaotic, almost schizophrenic canvases might be called an Outsider today. He broke all the rules of traditional Western painting and yet was not really a modernist. The Communists denounced him. He was too much of an individualist.

The Guggenheim has been at the forefront of the recognition of the Russian avant-garde with such celebrated shows as the George Costakis Collection in 1981; 'The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932' in 1992; Russian women painters ('Amazons of the Avant-Garde') in 2000; and 'Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism' in 2003. 'RUSSIA!' included a smaller but still admirable selection of the earliest masterpieces of Russian abstraction. These radical artists changed the very nature of modern art. Malevich stripped painting down to its basic geometry, and Alexander Rodchenko pushed it to its limit in 1921 with his colour field studies of pure, flat red, yellow and blue. The colour geometry of Olga Rozanova's 'Objective Composition: Suprematism' (c. 1916) anticipated Albers and Rothko. The basic black outline against judiciously placed blotches of orange, magenta, pink, purple and white that makes up Pyotr Miturich's stunning portrait of the composer Arthur Lourie, the poet Anna Akhmatova's lover, looks as fresh today as when it was painted 90 years ago.

Vasily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall are, perhaps, too well known in the West to add anything new to an understanding of Russian modern art. There were so many other brief and conflicting experimental movements that came and disappeared with the whims of aesthetic and political change. Rayism for example, as seen in Goncharova's 1913 'Cats (Rayist Perception in Rose, Black and Yellow)', had little impact on other contemporary painting. Constructivism was barely evident in 'RUSSIA!' Only Vladimir Tatlin's dynamic 'Counter-Relief: Material Selection' (1916) in wood, iron and zinc stood out. If this section seemed a bit scanty and scattered at the Guggenheim, it was because so much of Russian avant-garde art was dedicated to printed propaganda, designed for cheap reproduction for wide distribution to the masses rather than to be isolated in effete gallery exhibitions. 'I think that our time is more graphic than painterly,' insisted the painter Alexander Deineka in a speech in 1933. 'This is determined by the structure of our life, new architecture, technology and so forth.'1

Deineka is evident in the somewhat embarrassing selection of Stalinist Social Realism. This seemingly endless and notorious period in 20th-century art was relegated largely to a side gallery at the Guggenheim. It was treated more like a lengthy footnote than a major movement. It does not matter whether the dictator was Stalin, Hitler or Mao - all totalitarian art looks alike. Recent apologists for such poshlust as Isaak Brodsky's 'At the Coffin of the Leader' (1925), Vasily Efanov's 'An Unforgettable Meeting' (1936-1937) and Sergei Gerasimov's 'A Collective Farm Festival' (1937) insist that the government put many artists to work, but also put them in prison. Some died there, others were executed. Such glorifications of the Soviet Union are as kitschy as they are dishonest. Viewing all the happy, healthy peasants and aggressively buff athletes of Social Realism grows tiresome as quickly as it does with Fascist art.

And yet, if one can possibly ignore their political content, these paintings are often not that different in style from American advertising and magazine illustration at the time. Vasily Kuptsov's 1934 picture of the airplane, 'Maxim Gorky', and Gelii Korzhev's 'Raising the Red Banner' (1957-60) might have been torn from issues of Collier's or Life. The perfectly proportioned gymnasts who Dmitry Zhilinsky so precisely rendered in 1965 could have graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post.2 The lack of inspiration and invention, as well as shameless capitulation to the state's demands of acceptable subjects for official painting, can almost be forgiven for their unmistakable technical mastery. Viktor Popkov's five ruggedly painted portraits that make up the blandly named but monumental 'Builders of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station' (1960-61) suggest Velasquez and his disciple, Manet.

Visual irony dominated the Guggenheim's representation of non-conformist art, the so-called 'second Russian avant-garde' that slowly gained momentum after Stalin's death in 1953. Leonid Sokov wittily introduced one of Giacometti's reed-thin modernist figures to Lenin's solid stolid form in 'The Meeting of Two Sculptures' (1986). Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid are already famous in the United States for their amusing pastiches of neo-Classicism and Social Realism. Grisha Bruskin's stainless steel 'Young Pioneer with his Little Red May Day Flag' says far more about late Soviet society than Jeff Koon's smug 'Rabbit' (1986) does about America. Of course, such self-consciousness in Russian art, as in its Western counterpart, ultimately leads to a dead end. 'It's clever, but is it Art?' wondered Rudyard Kipling over a century ago. What form it may next take is anyone's guess. The Guggenheim exhibit has done much to raise one's curiosity about future developments in Russian art.

RUSSIA! was organized by the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation in collaboration with the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography of the Russian Federation, the State Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Hermitage Museum and the ROSIZO State Museum Exhibition Center. Funding was provided by the Vladimir Potanin Charity Fund, the Alcoa Foundation and Sintezneftegaz Co., Lazare Kaplan International, the Thaw Charitable Trust, the International Foundation of Russian and Eastern European Art, the Trust for Mutual Understanding and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The accompanying 450-page, four-colour catalogue, RUSSIA! Nine Hundred Years of Masterpieces and Master Collections, includes essays by noted Russian and American scholars.

Michael Patrick Hearn

1. From a speech Alexander Deineka gave at the Club of the Masters of Fine Art, 23 January 1933. Quoted in: Nikiforov B. A. Deineka. Leningrad, 1937: 54.
2. The rendering of realistic detail in an earlier painting, Vasily Vereschagin's 'Mortally Wounded' (1873), looks amazingly like Frederic Remington's magazine work.

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