Rethinking Russian Art

guggenheim museum exterior

As Communists consolidated their power in the Soviet Union, they demanded a style of art known as socialist realism--propaganda paintings that glorified farm collectives, athletes or political theorists, like Vladimir Lenin.

"It was designed to inspire the best thoughts about what communism and what the Russian Revolution was all about," said Thomas Krens, director of the Guggenheim Foundation

Russian-born artists we know, like Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, had to leave the country in order to paint because Soviet leaders banned abstraction and modernism.

"It was not the most hospitable place for not only Chagall but for some other artists who also chose to emigrate," said Valerie Hillings, curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

But Hillings and Krens want us to know Russian art has a long and distinguished history.
Along with a team of Russian and American curators, they spent two years assembling "RUSSIA!," now in its final days at the museum.

The exhibit is filled with works by artists whose names you probably don't know--Alexei Venetsianov, Ilya Repin, Natalia Goncharova. And that is just the point.

"I don't think that there is an understanding in the museum-going public that might know very well a lot about Italian and French and Spanish painting, and western European traditions. I don't think that you'll find the same knowledge about Russian culture," said Krens.

The blockbuster exhibit, with most works on loan from Russian museums, covers 800 years of art and history. And with so much to choose from there were some disputes between the Russians and Americans about what to include.

"It was very difficult, picture for picture," said Krens. "And so at that point it becomes kind of like sumo wrestling. You kind of go into the ring and you grapple with one another and you try to push somebody into get them to agree with your point of view."

Of course, in the cold war years, the sparing was over ideology rather than culture, exemplified in a 1959 exchange between then Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. Nixon said to Khrushchev, "Because after all, you don't know everything." Krushev replied, "If I don't know everything you don't anything about Communism except fear of it."

But how things have changed. Russian President Vladimir Putin personally came to launch the Guggenheim show.

"Because such events help in the best possible and brightest way to understand the image of a country which has a large humanitarian and spiritual values, which is Russia."

The show begins with a series of icons--biblical depictions on wood--that are perhaps Russia's best known art works. Some have never been out of Russia before, including "The Virgin of Vladimir" by an unknown artist, and the "Ascension" by Andrei Rublev, the most famous icon painter in Russian history.

When did Russian art really turn away from being purely religious to also being secular?

"It really begins under the influence of Peter the Great, in the early 18th century," said Hillings.

Hillings says that Peter, the czar who founded St. Petersburg, wanted to modernize his country, and that included sending Russian artists to study in Europe. He also introduced the idea of satirizing styles of the past:

Take the "Portrait of Yakov Turgenev."

"It's a picture of one of Peter the Great's drinking buddies, just to put it in a very unacademic way. It has some relation to icon paintings. So again, that's sort of another joke in the sense it has the Cyrillic inscription with his name that would be at the top.

"And then you have a very naturalistic representation of the face, but still some of the flat plains of color that we recognized from icons.

Peter's granddaughter-in law, Catherine the Great, who came into power in 1762, expanded on his ideas, making sure to commission lots of works of herself. One was the "Portrait of Alexander Lanskoi."

"This is a painting by probably the greatest portraitist of Russian 18th Century art, Dmitry Levitsky. and it's actually a portrait of Catherine's (boyfriend)," said Hillings. "Often it's called her favorite as a euphemism, but really he was her young boyfriend, and here she is looking down upon him.

"There's a bit of an age difference. She was certainly very ahead of her time in a certain way."

But Russian painting was about much more than portraits of aristocrats. Ivan Aivazovsky's "The Ninth Wave" from 1850 captures man's struggle to survive the force of the sea. The painting has rarely been seen outside Russia.

"Barge Haulers on the Volga," painted in the 1870's is considered one of the masterpieces of Russian art. Seen in this country for the first time, it shows the stirring of revolutionary ideas. Artist Ilya Repin really came upon this scene.

"And so then he decided that he wanted to study this phenomenon, the fact that it was cheaper to have humans haul a barge than animals," said Hillings.

Even portraiture changed. Rather than portraying an aristocrat, "Unknown Woman," painted by Ivan Kramskoy, was rumored to be a woman of ill repute. Controversial in it's time, this has become one of the most popular paintings in Russia:

"Many people just think she's sort of like Anna Karenina," said Hillings. "She has that kind of special feel, that special Russianness."

By the turn of the century, the work of the avant garde really heralded the Russian Revolution, with many painters embracing modernism, until Communist leaders put a stop to it.

But finally, as the Soviet Union was falling, artistic freedom was reborn, with pieces like a 1987 Triptych illustrating the isolation and alienation of a Moscow subway rider.

Curator Hillings says there was a deliberate decision to end the exhibition with "Flag in the Landscape," painted just this year by Pavel Peppershtein. A red banner in the midst of stark surroundings points to endless possibilities for the future of Russian art.