900 years of Russian masterpieces

The blockbuster exhibition of Russian painting and sculpture at the
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City has earned the
explanation point at the end of the title. The full title is RUSSIA!
900 Years of Masterpieces and Master Collection
s. The show encompasses
900 years of art from the country now known again as Russia. It opened
September 16, and continues until January 11. The exhibition fills
the entire museum, winding upwards from a selection of Russian icons at
the bottom to Soviet and contemporary art at the top of the museum’s
signature spiraling ramp which constitutes most of the hanging space.
Other smaller gallery rooms at the sides are filled with related works,
which include the Guggenheim’s own selection of Russian masters such as
Chagall or Kandinsky. Some of the larger side galleries are devoted to
the art collections of the Tsars, and later, Russian collectors, which
serve to demonstrate European influences on the artists of Russia.

The viewer, faced with 900 years of disparate painting styles, schools,
influences and artists, will naturally want to find out what is
“Russian” about Russian art. What makes the artistic products of this
country—half in Europe, half in Asia—different from western European
art, and what aspects of these paintings and sculptures fit in with the
art history of “the West” that is more familiar to us?

At the beginning of the exhibition is a room of icons, in the forms of
paintings and fabrics, which celebrate the beginning and continuity of
Russian Christianity. The word icon is Greek for “image.” These images
of the Trinity or of saints are very different from the paintings of
Western Europe, even of similar subjects. The icon was meant to be a
“window to heaven,” a representation of a holy personage that was not
meant to be realistic or individual. The larger than life eyes were
intended to engage the viewer and promote a direct contact with the
Saint, to enable prayer. There was an established canon of proportions,
style adopted from Byzantium. The stylized and conservative forms are
not the place to look for a distinctly Russian style, although Russian
artists did develop their own schools of icon painting, which became an
inspiration to other artists of the Eastern Christian tradition

There are two treasures that are worth the price of admission alone,
because they have not traveled to the Western hemisphere before. An Ascension, at least partly by the hand of Andrei Rubylev, the most
famous iconographer in the world, is one. His greatest masterpiece is
the Trinity, which the catalogue tells us has been restored to service
in a functioning Church. The other special object is one of the most
venerated copies of the Virgin of Vladimir, the most well known Russia
icon, to which many miracles have been attributed.

The extended wall labels give the untutored a lot of valuable
information on what it is they are looking at. Specifically, the use of
icons as part of the Russian orthodox liturgy and placement in
architecture helps the visitor to understand the context for these
paintings which come from a time when paintings were not intended to
hang on the walls of homes, museums and galleries. The audio guide adds
to this for those who want to know more, but there could have been more
information on what the Christian subjects are all about, as it can no
longer be assumed that the general public knows what the
Transfiguration represents, for example. (It is also too bad, but
understandable because of space, that there are no more icons past this
part of the exhibition, since icons were continually painted to be a
part of the liturgy and worship of the Russian Orthodox Church until
the revolution.)

On the first lap of the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim, the icons
continue, and then suddenly, one sees a face of Christ, which is no
longer flat, stylized, and with the Byzantine canon of proportions.
Western influence enters Russian art in Nikita Pavlovets Icon of The
King of Kings of 1676. A face that looks like a portrait appears in
this icon, and soon to follow are portraits of the ruling class that
resemble icons.

From this point on, there is a dialogue going on between Russian art
and that of Western Europe. It is convenient that at this stage of the
exhibition, there is a gallery of European art collected by the tsars
Peter the Great and Catherine the second, which would have been
available to some Russian artists. We can see a few of the particular
influences on Russian artists, as well as a glimpse of the taste of the
Russian court.

Here the visitor naturally takes up the challenge to determine what
characterizes Russian art, and makes it different from the mainstream
of western European painting and sculpture from around 1600 on.

At first, one is tempted to identify the similarities, and proceed to
find the “Russian Impressionists,” “The Russian rococo”, the Russian
Realists,” the Russian abstract expressionists”, or even more
specifically, to compare Russian artists to more well known French,
English or American artists: the Russian Ingres, the Russian Rodin, the
Russian Eakins. With this approach, there is the assumption that Russia
is copying Western European art, and is a few years behind the major
trends. Although this simplistic approach helps the viewer who knows
something about western European art and little about Russian art to
organize the large amount of material, it denies the strong personality
of Russian art which cannot help but assert itself through the works of
many artists and schools.

(It should be mentioned, first of all, that Russian art is not always
lagging two steps behind that of Western Europe. Vasily Vereschagin’s Defeated: Service for the Dead, 1878-9, looks forward to the
International Symbolist movement of the late 1880s and 1890s. The
Suprematists, best represented by Kasimir Malevich’s The Black Square,
1930 (but his first version of this was painted in 1915), made
statements about form, color, and existence, that got the jump on
American abstract expressionists by 30 years or more.)

As several writers in the catalogue point out, one of the circumstances
that make Russia different culturally from Western Europe is the lack
of Classical roots. Russia’s pre-Christian roots are rather in various
pagan traditions in less developed ethnic groups ranging from Siberia
to the arctic to the steppes of northern Asia. If one wanted to
characterize stylistic trends in the history of Russian painting, I
would suggest two elements: first, a love of symmetry and balanced
composition, which are evident not only in the art of Russians, but in
the paintings that Russian collectors selected from western European
artists. Second, many Russian artists seem to be fascinated—more than
those of Western Europe—by the dramatic effects of light. One example
of the latter is the gigantic The Ninth Wave by Ivan Aivazovsky. A
group seeking rescue from a shipwreck is clearly influenced by the
famous Raft of the Medusa by the French artist Theodore Gericault in
the Louvre. In the Russian seascape/drama, the figures are a central
but diminished part of the composition, and the dramatic, almost
otherworldly light of the sky and sea become the focus.

In subject matter, Russian artists cling to a fascination with their
Christian past, more than their western European counterparts. Many of
the genre pictures—and sculptures—of the late nineteenth century
celebrate the presence of religious ceremonies as part of the life of
the Russian people, as we can see in Taking of the Veil by Mikhail
Nestorov, 1898, or Before the Confession by Alexei Korzukhin, 1877.

The question of the identity of Russian art is taken up by some of the
essays in the exhibition catalogue (most of which were written by
Russian art historians.) Mikhail Shwydkoi quotes Thomas Mann’s insight
that there is a notion of “holiness” in Russian literature that
Shwydkoi applies to Russian culture as a whole. It seems a true
characterization of both Russian art (as seen in the works presented
here) that everyday life is sanctified by human effort and faith.

Although some of the nineteenth century pictures depict middle-class
villagers, there is also a fascination with the serf or peasant, which
relates to the political struggles that led to the freedom of serfs in
1861, erupted again in the revolution in 1911, and helped define the
communist state of most of the twentieth century. One compelling
painting is Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga of 1870-3, where
men are harnessed like animals to pull a boat. Their faces are
individualized variations on the theme of human toil and misery while
retaining the dignity common to all mankind. The youngest boy is not
yet beaten down by life, and adds a touch of hope, as his face turns
upward, rather than toward the ground.

The face of the Worker is notable in the room devoted to “Social
Realism.” The constant in the paintings here is the facelessness of the
common man, whether through a kind of idealism that creates a generic
face for a man or woman, or represents people from behind, as in
Alexander Deineka’s Future Pilots, 1938, or Yuri Pimenov’s New Moscow,
1937. The exceptions to this are the faces of the political leaders
Lenin and Stalin, who represent a new kind of elite, with an iconic
status not so different from the Tsars of Imperial Russia.

The most contemporary works, from the fall of the Iron Curtain to the
present, again show a strong interaction with western art, and give us
insight into the future of Russian art. Many of the works are
multimedia, and use the written word as an element of expression. Many
reflect on the artistic and political past of Russia. Although there is
a lot of variety in these works, one sculpture stands out as making the
statement, “Where do we go from here?” A small work by Leonid Sokov, The Meeting of Two Sculptures of 1986 shows a realistic Lenin looking
at a Giacometti-like emaciated man striding boldly towards him. An
installation by Vadim Zakharov's 2003 called The History of Russian
Art–from the Avant-Garde to the Moscow School of Conceptual Art
reflects the scope of the current exhibition and begs the same
questions about Russian art, past, present and future that confronts
the visitor to the Guggenheim.

The scope of the exhibition is bold to say the least. There are more
than 250 works displayed, and many disparate schools and periods
represented. However, the organizers have succeeded in presenting an
overwhelming amount of material that is not impossible to take in—if
the viewer allows the time. After a twenty-minute wait on the
sidewalk—on a lovely Saturday morning—one should allow at least two to
three hours even for a cursory visit. The classic malady of “museum
fatigue” could be avoided by breaking the visit into several sessions.
The price of admission with the audio guide is $24 for adults. Not bad
for a virtual trip to Russia.

Sarah Phelps Smith is an art historian and critic who has
taught at the University of Delaware and Swarthmore College. She lives
in Ohio with family of eight children.


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