[Paleopsych] WP: 'Russian Tradition,' Old and New

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'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.

    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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