“TRUST but verify,” goes the Old Russian proverb, and such a maxim can apply to the Guggenheim’s current “RUSSIA!” exhibit, which seems to require further probing – further verification – to find the reason for the obvious compensation attempted by using all capital letters and an exclamation point in its title.
One should indeed trust the rumors that this comprehensive exhibition of Russian art has some of the most famous pieces from Petersburg’s lauded Hermitage and Russian Museum. Little children, I’m sure, and art aficionados in the Mother Land are crying, because so many gems have been plucked out of museums and brought to the house Frank Lloyd Wright built on 89th and 5th.
One, too, should trust the rumors that this exhibit stands as the most significant Russian art exhibition outside Russia since the end of the Cold War, but upon closer scrutiny – attempted verification – we lose our faith in the grandeur of the exhibit when discovering flaws in the curation.
It is unquestionable that this exhibit should be seen, that any slavophile or lover of art must attend; however, only the myopic couldn’t see the flaws in the curation that appear so numerous, so glaring (namely in the overload of unimportant portraiture). The shrewd eye looks at the collection as a fashion model will view herself in the mirror: though overwhelming amounts of beauty abound, one only sees the flaws, the whatcouldhavebeen.
I went to revel in Russian art. I went to attempt to verify the rumors, but came away with different conclusions. I went to meet Russian girls.
The exhibit features art encompassing the time from the 13th century to the present, as it unravels up the meandering rinds of the Guggenheim’s architecture to get to the present post-Soviet artwork, which seems an amalgamation, a po-mo blast of response to the religiosity that had existed early in Russia’s history and the suffocated tyranny of the 20th century.
The first section devoted to the age of the icon from the 13th century to the 17th century unveils the visually exciting power of the icons of the Russian Orthodox.Church, and though someone who has never been to Russia may oo-and-ahh at these Byzantine iconostasis images clad with Cyrillic Bibles and faded golden haloes, critics who have spent too much time in Russian churches listening to eunuch choirs and staring into the vast expanses of painted ceilings are loath to respond so enthusiastically.
The driest of all of the sections – and perhaps there is no greater sin in Russian than being dry – remains inevitably the second section devoted to the royal art collections of the 18th and 19th centuries, with the most impressive collectors being Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. It’s impressive for the tsars to have such rich collections and for the European paintings to be transported across the world for those in New York, but we’ve had enough of Rubens and Van Dyck. There’s an excellent Portrait of Cosimo de Medici by Bronzino, but even with my penchant for and perpetual defense of the presentation of the justifiably haughty male youth, I remained un-aroused, unmoved. Catherine’s formations of the Academy of Fine Arts in Petersburg and Nicholas 1’s foundation of the Imperial Hermitage Museum are interesting tid-bits, but the museum would lose nothing by nixing the second rate works by second-rate masters.
I personally find more interesting the fact that Catherine the Great was a German princess who studied Russian by night to become tsarina. Or better yet, I’m always intrigued by her equine pursuits in the ways Aphrodite. Nayyyy, I go no further.
If you want Russians, Russians there are aplenty. And I always want Russians. Though the demographic, I imagine, varies from day to day, half of the crowd shared deep aesthetic observations in the Slavic tongue followed by a grunted, pensive “da” from a gallery comrade.
The Russians flocked up from Brighton Beach, their Brooklyn cultural community, to the Guggenheim to see the greatest art of their motherland.
If you do wish to tune out the Slavic tongue, you can always listen to your lovely audio tour led by Laurence Fishburne’s cadent baritone.
The Russian Orthodox Church loses a lot of its emphasis on Russian art during the time of Peter’s reign in the 18th century and if you need a great yawn – I mean a true orgasmic, stretch-out-the-torso, raise-your-arms-in-a-V yawn – then just look at the royal Russian portraiture that dominates (or suffocates) this section. Pass it quickly, though Levitsky and Shubin are talent in with paint and marble, respectively. See it to see it, but tsars are most interesting when framing enemies, not appearing in paint between frames. I’ve learned few indisputable, universally acknowledged truths in my life: Freemasons are evil, labor unions are the route of all anti-Semitic plots, and portraiture in even small doses is detrimental to health, physical and mental. Just talk to my analyst!
The fourth section, rising higher to the sky, presents a delineation of aspects of 19th century Russian art with the first half of the century spangled in artistic innovations with advances and originality to produce epic scenes of Christ, macabre landscapes, details of peasant life, and (gasp!) more portraiture (portraiture that is bearable for it is slightly more inventive, looser, more Romantic). Orest Kiprensky, Alexei Venetsianov, Karl Briullov, Alexander Ivanov and Ivan Aivazovsky shine in this section of the exhibit and confirm the influence of Europe in Russian art, as many of this men spent years abroad in Italy. Aivazovsky’s “The Ninth Wave” stands as one of the most beautiful in the whole museum as a melting creamsicle of a sunset, and rising waves over men clutching to a broken mast begs the feline Schrodingerian question, “Will they die?”
I once quoted in full Pushkin’s “Ya Vas Lubil” to a girl from Moscow on the beach by Brant Point in Nantucket. Dasha was this blond temptress who bussed tables at Vincent’s to pay for her stay on the expensive island where she had come for the summer to improve her English. We had a few moments of glory, but I had a ferry back to the mainland the next day, and a missed opportunity – that quick slit of Fate’s knife – closed in the brackish air too soon for me to make any sort of move. I stood on the prowl in the exhibit for a blond Russian to complement the artistic beauty surrounding me.
The so-called Wanderers (peredvizhniki) who appear in the second half of the 19th century form the seeds of the social and political commentary which will come to dominate the art of Soviet propaganda and post-Soviet criticism. Art, with the Wanderers, no longer serves just the function of presenting the beautiful or the interesting, but rather artists in the group such as Ilya Repin found the use of arts as a vehicle for social change integral to its essence.
And so there I was, reading the Cyrillic and checking the English to make sure I had translated correctly when up walks a stunning girl of Eastern European descent – the curves in her lips, the blue of her eyes, the highness of her cheekbones pointing to her as a Ukrianian. We are looking at the same painting; we are making love through looking at the painting. My analyst talks to my often about the chimera of my perceived intimacy, but right there, no doubt, with our gaze meeting on the canvass of Repin’s “Barge Haulers on the Volga” with peasants struggling on golden sands to pull about symbolizing the way this damsel and I had struggled through labor of the artistic variety to allow for a safe port to house our love.
But then her boyfriend shows up. They kiss in front of the painting shamelessly. It’s a ménage-a-trios, because soon enough we’re all looking at the painting, making love through the canvas. I come to my senses and inch forward to block those in the painting from seeing their continued kissy-poo, but it’s too late, and I storm off frustrated – sexually and otherwise.
The sea sprays and harsh peasant life of the Wanderer paintings seem to evaporate in the cushy, tedious section filled by the works in the collections of Moscow businessmen Sergei Schukin and Ivan Morozov. The Picasso and various Cubist, Post-Impressionist paintings in this section seem strikingly out of place and another lame excuse for the Guggenheim to diversify the arts in the chubby exhibition by linking the European paintings to Russians. Whip this exhibition into shape; whittle down the love handles of various insignificant private collections. Give me the muscle, the meat.
Though a smart curator would have realized the large room of the merchants’ paintings to be distracting rather than enlightening, the influence of these paintings pans out in the Russian art that moves away from the religious and folky to symbolism. Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square of 1915, which suggest nothing but vacuity in its simplicity of being a black square surrounded by white, exemplifies most the leap to symbolism taken from the movements of the Europeans.
Two treats present themselves in the form of an entire gallery devoted to Chagall and another to Kandinsky. As fly-by hors d’oeuvres with little nibbles, we receive the nutrition of some of Chagall’s surrealism with, for example, his 1913 “Paris Through the Window” and the intricate, psychedelic geometry of Kandinsky.
Social Realism rings true in the art of the 1930s paintings – essentially artsified propaganda – that celebrates the factory worker, the collective farm worker, the happy figures of Father Stalin’s Russia, replete with grassy fields and idyllic glades. In one intimate picture of Lenin, he sits casually, legs spread, emphasis on the crouch, the stretching of his pants, and though so human in this portrait, he has a divine quality, his prominent forehead continuing forever.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, greater freedom appeared in artistic expression, and the exhibit balloons into the avant-garde with conceptual art. Ilya Kabokov’s “The Man Who Flew into Space” (1981–88) tells the story of the Soviet everyman and decorates his little apartment with inane objects, as if some sort of flight has left behind this constricting Soviet system. Another installation art piece shows the model of a man waiting for a subway care and next-door the cut out of the man after he has left on the train, as if some sort of freedom has made his presence ephemeral.
It’s all there, the fingerprints of Russian history manifest in the art, but the Guggenheim hardly chooses pieces that play with each other in aesthetic symbiosis, opting instead for a calendar-influenced arrangement of all pieces. The continual interplay of the movements throughout history gets lost in the rigid chronological separation of the exhibit. Russia now has a vibrant contemporary art scene with up-and-coming galleries, and to see how the art bobs and sways with the social change view this exhibit as a consummate road map for social and historical changes within Russia.
The exhibit continues until January 11 to close out a four month run in New York, and though its greatness may not be verified upon attempt, its uniqueness and importance are indisputable.