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An Affair of State


an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, September 16, 2005–January 11, 2006

Russia! Catalogue of the Exhibition

Guggenheim Museum, 80 pp., $24.95 (paper)

The list of sponsors and their remarks in the longer of the two catalogs indicates that the Russian organizers, as well as the increasingly multinational Guggenheim Foundation empire, view this show as an affair of state.1 Vladimir Potanin, the exhibition’s biggest sponsor, is director of the huge holding company Interros,2 a major philanthropist, and probably the richest man in Russia.3 He has been on the board of trustees of the Guggenheim Foundation since 2002, is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and is involved in the joint ventures of the Guggenheim and the Hermitage, the largest of which will be the recently announced St. Petersburg Guggenheim, to be located in space given to the Hermitage in the adjacent Staff Headquarters building on Palace Square. It will be supplied at least in part with works of art from the Guggenheim’s holdings.

In his remarks, Potanin writes that “Russia!” was timed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations, so that “a broad public… [may]…discover a new Russia and through our cultural heritage see and appreciate our country in a new light.” Mikhail Shwydkoi, a former minister of culture under Putin, writes that “for almost the entire twentieth century, the work of many of Russia’s most talented artists was sealed off from the rest of the world. ‘Russia!’ offers fresh perspective and new insight on our culture.” That the Hermitage has provided works of Western European art collected by Russians serves, as Shwydkoi expresses it, to underscore “the perspicacity of Russians as art collectors and as caretakers of some of the most remarkable expressions of world culture through periods of war and peace.”4

The “innovative” and indeed unusual aspect of the exhibition’s sweeping survey of Russian art is the inclusion of Western European art, largely from the imperial collections of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and of the post-Impressionist paintings acquired by the Moscow merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, which were nationalized after the Revolution. These works give the viewer a vivid sense of the influences at work in Russian art at different times. The Hermitage section contains only a small sampling of the museum’s holdings—but the paintings by Van Dyck, Murillo, Watteau, Lorrain, and Rubens alone are well worth a visit.

Viewers will also be grateful for the icons that begin the show on the ground floor. Two of them are by Russia’s most revered icon painters: Ascension (1408) by Andrei Rublev and Daniil Chernyi, and Crucifixion (1500) by Dionysii. Another, The Virgin of Vladimir (1514), continues to have spiritual meaning for millions of people today. Apart from their sheer beauty, these icons help the viewer to understand much of what follows in the exhibition.

Until the late seventeenth century, Russia’s art was entirely dominated by the Orthodox Church. Then came the reforms of Peter the Great, who, in the words of Pushkin, “hacked a window through to Europe.” Russia’s shift to European-style painting, beginning under Peter, was abrupt and dramatic. The Tsar began to collect art, and brought Western European artists to Russia, while sending Russian artists to study abroad. Within two generations, Russian artists tried to absorb more than three centuries of Western art. In effect, they moved precipitously from the artistic practices and aesthetics of a late medieval society, based on Byzantine pictorial tradition, to mid-eighteenth-century Europe, without having experienced the Renaissance and the Reformation. Nor had Russia yet developed a merchant class with a taste for secular art. (The Russian Orthodox Church had never been the patron of the arts that the popes were, and the tsar and his court were the primary sources of artistic commissions.)

Some of the chronological juxtapositions in the show are telling: for example, we see both Dionysii’s Crucifixion and also The Entombment (1520s, oil on canvas) by Garofalo (Benvenuto Tisi), who came from Ferrara. The Russian painting is an early medieval image, its flat space and shadowless colors lacking any three-dimensional perspective; the Italian painting, completed only twenty years later, is a work of Renaissance imagination in both its composition and content, with the figures around the tomb receding in space. Or take Nikita Pavlovets’s King of Kings (1676, tempera on panel), and Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait (1622–1623). Pavlovets’s work was completed fifty years after Van Dyck’s, but it has the empty flat space and the impersonality of an icon, though its scale is larger, while Van Dyck portrays himself almost romantically, as a dashing bohemian. The two works seem centuries apart.

The enormity of Russia’s cultural dislocation during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century can be seen clearly in two oil portraits, separated by only thirty-five years or so, that dramatize the accelerated pace of artistic change. The figure of Tsarina Marfa Matveevna (early 1680s, artist unknown) in her traditional stiff headdress, staring blankly into the distance, is still static and two-dimensional, despite the painter’s attempts to render her hands, arms, and facial features in three dimensions. By contrast, in Ivan Nikitin’s Portrait of Tsarevna Natalia Alexeevna (see illustration on page 50), the buxom Tsarevna in European décolleté gazes directly at the viewer; though her shoulders are awkwardly depicted, her clothes, hair, and face are all rendered in three dimensions, and we get the impression of a distinct, somewhat stubborn personality.

Nikitin was the first artist sent to study abroad by Peter the Great; after the founding of the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in 1757, scholarships were given to talented young artists to study in Rome and elsewhere. Once Catherine II came to power in 1762, she, too, began purchasing Western European art, buying up nearly every significant collection that came on the European market in her lifetime, and beginning construction of the Hermitage Museum in 1764. As a result of the relatively sudden exposure to so many Old Masters and periods of European art, an enormous range of influences can sometimes be observed within the work of a single artist. The Russian art historian Dmitrii Sarabianov, commenting on the development of Russian art, especially in the eighteenth century, has written that

different tendencies of cultural development and diverse movements of literature and art seemed to run contrary to each other and destroyed any logical, sequential development. Movement forward became spasmodic, at times too hurried and always uneven.5

In Fedor Rokotov’s study for his full, formal coronation Portrait of Catherine II (1763), for example, the Empress is depicted in traditional academic profile, her features and elaborate, bejeweled coiffure and crown rendered in a meticulously painted, smooth surface. By the early 1790s, however, Rokotov was painting soft-focus, rather Gainsborough-like portraits such as the Portrait of Praskovia Lanskaya.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, many Russian artists were studying and living abroad for years at a time, and had become, in a real sense, European artists. Orest Kiprensky, for example, a contemporary of Pushkin, whose portrait he painted, lived in Italy for seven years, and some of his finest portraits were painted there and in Paris. Examples of his work in the Guggenheim show include the Romantic, full-length portrait of the dashing hussar Colonel Evgraf Davydov (1809)—its apparent similarity to the work of David and Géricault, as the catalog guide notes, is accidental, since Kiprensky could not have seen their paintings at that time—and the exquisite portrait of Ekaterina Avdulina (1822), whose luminous skin recalls portraits by Da Vinci and Titian, among others.

By the mid-nineteenth century, genre paintings showing humorous or melodramatic scenes of Russian daily life had become extremely popular, particularly those of Pavel Fedotov, whose picture in the exhibition of a vain, pompous bureaucrat, The Newly Decorated Civil Servant, was painted in 1846, a few years after Gogol wrote The Overcoat and Dead Souls. Some twenty years later, Vasily Perov’s genre paintings presented the kinds of social subjects that would be associated with the “critical realism” of the group called the Wanderers, or the Itinerants. His painting A Meal (1865– 1876), in which drunken priests carouse while a poor, barefoot woman and her children sit begging on the floor, is one of a great many anticlerical paintings that were very popular with the public in the second half of the nineteenth century—though it is the only such example on view at the Guggenheim. Perov’s understated portrait of a brooding Fyodor Dostoevsky (seen outside Russia for the first time) shows the emotional depth the artist was capable of.

As the number of artists and art schools (all controlled by the Academy, and thus the state) grew, a larger audience for art also began to grow, not only in St. Petersburg and Moscow, but in provincial Russia as well. The Wanderers, whose formal name was the Association of Traveling Art Exhibitions, increasingly distanced themselves from the Imperial Academy—which they viewed as imitating foreign ways. Insisting that artists should address the social ills besetting Russia, they organized traveling exhibitions devoted almost exclusively to themes from Russian life—the poverty of the peasantry, injustices inflicted on the people, the plight of women and children. Their exhibitions became extremely popular throughout the country.

Ilya Repin (1844–1930) began exhibiting with the Wanderers in 1874. His extraordinary talent as a painter and keen psychological insight are often best seen in his portraits—among his favorite sitters were his wife, Vera, and Leo Tolstoy. In his portrait of the powerful manufacturer and philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov, who gave the Tretyakov Gallery to the people of Moscow, Repin shows him deep in thought. His long slender fingers, splayed to reveal a slight, perhaps arthritic, deformation, suggest a refined, even artistic, personality.

Repin was best known for his large, sweeping historical canvases. The Russian court, and later the Soviet authorities, were enthusiastic about big, multifigure compositions on historical Russian subjects; and the public also loved such scenes as Vasily Surikov’s Capture of a Snow Fortress (1891). The more action the better. Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–1873; see illustration on page 48), while fairly tame by comparison to Surikov’s painting, is a wrenching depiction of the brutal life of freed but landless serfs. One of his most famous works, it is lacking in the melodrama that typifies some of his paintings on historical figures such as Ivan the Terrible. Repin died in Finland in 1930, having lived long enough to witness the rise and fall of the Russian avant-garde, and to be celebrated as a Soviet national treasure despite his refusal to return to Russia after the Revolution.

In “Russia!,” the story of the Russian avant-garde is given a new twist by the inclusion of works from the Moscow collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, among them some of the paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Cézanne, and Monet that inspired young artists in the early twentieth century who rejected both the realism of artists like Repin and the elegant, urbane Russian “art moderne” of the World of Art group. Many of the members of this group, such as Alexander Benois, designed for the Ballets Russes. (Their work is almost entirely absent from the Guggenheim show.) Avant-garde artists, who sought to create a more “truly Russian” art, drew on Russian icons, combining their bright colors, pictorial language, and metaphysical spirit with the crude energy of the Russian folk prints called lubki.

  1. 1

    I refer to Russia! Nine Hundred Years of Masterpieces and Master Collections as the “catalog book” and to the shorter Russia! Catalogue of the Exhibition as the “catalog guide.” The latter contains information on individual artists and artworks, and also includes entries on the objects in “Russia! The Majesty of the Tsars: Treasures from the Kremlin Museum,” on view at the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas from September 1, 2005 to January 15, 2006. The New York show will travel in different form to the Guggenheim Bilbao next spring.

  2. 2

    Interros includes the powerful Rosbank and Norilsk Nickel, among other holdings.

  3. 3

    Since the trial and sentencing of Yukos director Mikhail Khodorkovsky earlier this year, Potanin’s private fortune is said to be the largest in Russia. Through his foundation, Potanin has since 2000 spent approximately $10 million a year on educational and cultural programs. Unlike Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia Foundation, Potanin’s Charity Foundation has been careful not to support civil society initiatives or human rights groups. For more on Potanin and other Russian foundations, see my article “Russian Philanthropy,” The Carnegie Reporter, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Fall 2004), accessible on-line at www .carnegie.org.

  4. 4

    The subtext to this statement is two-fold: during World War II, the devoted staff of Soviet museums, including the Hermitage, evacuated collec-tions vulnerable to German attack, thus saving them from destruction. After the war, however, the Soviet army confiscated huge quantities of art from German museums and holdings that the Nazis had seized from public and private collections (often of Jews sent to the camps). Known as “trophy art,” these works were hidden in Soviet museums for nearly fifty years, and their existence denied. The Hermitage and Moscow’s Pushkin Museum finally exhibited some of them in 1995. The ownership of these works is a matter of international dispute; as minister of culture, Shwydkoi was known for advocating the return of much “trophy art,” but the Russian Duma passed a law declaring it national property. The topic is very sensitive in Russia. See my article “Displaced Art,” Art in America, September 1995.

  5. 5

    Dmitrii Sarabianov, Russian and Soviet Painting, catalog of the exhibition (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1977), p. 15.

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