[Paleopsych] WP: 'Russian Tradition,' Old and New
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Sat Jan 22 15:15:10 UTC 2005
'Russian Tradition,' Old and New
[This is a fascinating exhibit, though I'm not nearly as enthusiastic as
the reviewer. Many of the paintings show what Soviet artists did for their
own pleasure, when not having to paint in the Soviet Realism mode. There
was a lot of imitation Impressionism and the like, but I can't say they
represent much of a glorious evolution of what might have been. I saw too
much mediocrity, really. And I can't say I could really see a "Russian
flavor." I had hoped for something as rewarding as an exhibition of 19th
century German paintings held a year or so ago, very worthy art, indeed,
and much too neglected in American museums, which heavily concentrate on
French, British, and American art for the 19th century. Still, I will be
going back repeatedly to reflect on these Russian paintings.]
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 14, 2005; Page WE48
THERE'S A STICKY little question at the heart of "In the Russian
Tradition: A Historic Collection of 20th-Century Russian Paintings,"
on view at the International Gallery of the Smithsonian's S. Dillon
Ripley Center and featuring works from the State Tretyakov Gallery in
Moscow and the Museum of Russian Art in Minneapolis. To wit: What
tradition, exactly, are they talking about?
By including examples of Russian impressionism; socialist realism
(especially the so-called severe style of this movement);
cubist-futurism; work sanctioned and unsanctioned by the Soviet state;
a propagandistic still life singing the praises of the Russian
canned-food industry; romanticized portraiture; pretty, snow-covered
landscapes; angular, moody and allegorical interiors; plus several
other miscellaneous styles, subjects and mini-movements (most notably
a few works by members of the avant-garde Jack of Diamonds group, but
nothing, oddly enough, from the better-known suprematists), the show
might just make one wonder what these works have in common, aside from
their country of origin.
As you can see, a sticky question, but not one that is unanswerable.
The answer, after all, is there in the title. It's not so much the
"Russian" part either -- what does Russian art look like anyway? -- as
it is the "tradition." For these paintings are all fruit that, in one
way or another, hasn't fallen too far from the tree of religious icon
painting and 19th-century realism. That's why you won't find any
Kasimir Malevich, El Lissitzky or Alexander Rodchenko here.
In fact, you won't find many household names at all.
Outside of the painter Nikolai Fechin, an emigre renaissance man whose
house-turned-museum in Taos, N.M., I had once visited, I was only
dimly aware of a handful of the 46 artists represented. And that's one
of the best things about this show. The work may look familiar
stylistically, but the names are mostly new.
Take, for the sake of argument, the eight artists whose works
incorporate snow (an element, that in its almost cliched prevalence,
is probably the most "Russian" thing about this show): Rotnitski,
Grabar, Gritsai, Popov, Timkov, Tutunov, Yuon, Ugarov. They're not in
the Western canon yet, but maybe they should be.
Perhaps paradoxically though, it isn't a chilliness that unites the
artists of "In the Russian Tradition," as one might expect, but rather
a surprising warmth. It's there whether figurative or landscape. It's
there in the unintentionally prophetic symbolism of Kuzma
Petrov-Vodkin's 1912 "The Bathing of the Red Horse" and in Nikolai
Baskakov's literal depiction of laughing girls in "Milkmaids, Novella"
from 1962. It's there when the canvas is ripe with naked flesh, as in
Geli Korzhev's portrait of the early-Soviet-era worker, "Marusya"
(nude save for work boots and a red kerchief), and it's there when the
canvas is devoid of the human presence, save for the smoldering
ashtray and rumpled sheets of Mai Dantsig's "Unmade Bed."
Outside of Russia, I suspect that many of us tend to think of the
country and its people as still in need of some defrosting -- this
despite the post-Stalin "thaw" and the glasnost (or openness) of the
1980s. Such stereotyping isn't helped by the knee-jerk notion that
comes to our minds when a lot of us look up 20th-century Russian art
in art history books: the icy minimalism of suprematism on one page,
the detached abstraction of constructivism on another.
"In the Russian Tradition" tries to crack that frozen image, by
reminding us that painting -- not just Russian painting but all
painting -- has its most ancient roots in the desire (decadent and
anti-Soviet though it maybe) to illuminate and celebrate the human
condition in all its frailties and many wondrous forms.
IN THE RUSSIAN TRADITION: A HISTORIC COLLECTION OF 20TH-CENTURY
RUSSIAN PAINTINGS -- Through March 20 at the International Gallery of
the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW
(Metro: Smithsonian). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-357-1729). Open daily 10
to 5:30. Free.
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