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.

After seeing “Russia!” one could be forgiven for thinking that the Russian avant-garde’s experiments were an insignificant anomaly, an odd growth on the hefty, healthy main body of Russian figurative, narrative art. In this setting, Malevich’s famous Black Square,6 its surface a dull black, its white border smudged, looks like a rather pitiful misfit. This was certainly the view voiced by Soviet critics and art historians from the late 1920s on. Their attacks on “formalism”—the code word for all abstract or nonfigurative work—usually included epithets such as “bourgeois distortion,” “infantile pathology,” and “leftist deviation,” expressions which remained common currency in Soviet publications until the late 1980s.

Malevich’s Black Square is arguably one of the most important paintings of the twentieth century. That it has a desultory look at the Guggenheim unintentionally helps viewers to understand how Malevich was initially received by the artistic establishment when the picture was first shown in 1915, as well as later, by those who came to accept Socialist Realism. Missing, of course, is a sense of how radical a shift in art was actually being proposed by the Suprematist followers of Malevich and Constructivists such as Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, Liubov Popova, and others, who were looking for a new visual approach not ruled by the “navel perspective,” as Rodchenko put it. That distinct, powerful, integrated visual world—which made the avant-garde believable as an artistic enterprise—was what one entered upon visiting the Guggenheim’s 1992 show, “The Great Utopia.”7 It was not strongly represented here.

The shift advocated by the avant-garde was every bit as extreme as the one that occurred in the eighteenth century with the impact of European painting. By contrast, what later became known as Socialist Realism was not new, and consisted largely of figurative realist art usually with an uplifting theme. The ideological pressure to produce such art began in the late 1920s and was intensified by Stalin’s decree of 1932 abolishing all independent artistic associations. It was officially crowned the “style” of the Party and nation in 1934 when the writer Maxim Gorky proposed the expression. But as the Russian art historian Boris Groys observes in the catalog book, when it came to particular paintings, the notion of Socialist Realism was quite vague. Because it had to serve as a standard for a great many different artists, and because it changed according to the different phases of Stalin’s personality cult, it is a much less monolithic style than people tend to think.

The curators make this point several times, and they have included a range of work from the 1930s, including the kind of painting now thought of as classic Socialist Realism: portraits of Lenin, paintings of robust peasants and workers, all characteristic of the “saccharine, varnished reality” (to use a post-Stalin term) that dominated the arts in Russia between the early 1930s and 1953. The only example in the exhibition of the Stalin personality cult, and of Socialist Realism’s predilection for monumental scale and exalted depictions of Party leaders—is Vasily Efanov’s Unforgettable Meeting (1937), which was based on actual photographs of Stalin greeting the wives of workers.

Yet images like this were ubiquitous during the mid-1930s and much of the 1940s and early 1950s. Just as nearly every book published during Stalin’s reign opens with a quote from the Great Leader and Teacher, his image was present in literally every public space, and many private ones as well. After his death, the quantity of these images diminished, but it was not until Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956, and then Stalin’s removal from the mausoleum on Red Square in 1958, that he disappeared entirely from museums and other public places. Soon his portrait became as taboo as the “formalism” of the avant-garde.

By the late 1950s, artists began exhibiting work in previously unacceptable styles—much of it semiexpressionist or vaguely surrealistic. But they soon ran up against the taste of Party leaders. After the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny’s famous confrontation with Khrushchev at the “Manege” exhibition in 1962, when Khrushchev angrily called him a “pederast”—innovation in art was put back in deep freeze, and the cultural thaw was over. This incident marked the beginning of a split between “official” and “unofficial” or “nonconformist” Soviet art.8

The real differences between official and unofficial art are not as clear as many Westerners seem to think, and understanding them is further complicated by habits of thought that became ingrained over forty years of the cold war. From the 1930s on, Soviet art existed in almost complete isolation from the West, developing its own iconography, which is often far from obvious to Western viewers. Several different visual languages are in play in both official and unofficial art, while each refers to different aspects of historical memory. It is in dealing with these complexities and distinctions that the Guggenheim’s “Russia!” exposes its inability to convey the subtle shades of cultural background and mood.

Roughly speaking, from the late 1950s on, Soviet art proceeded to develop along two tracks—or, as the architect and historian Vladimir Paperny argues, two cultures, each of them eclectic.9 The defining distinction between them—above and beyond any aesthetic, ideological, or thematic considerations—was one of social status. The official “track” or culture was a product of the bureaucracies of Soviet art institutions, which were run by Soviet artists who served as officials and had a vested interest in maintaining their privileges, which were considerable. Unofficial artists had no organization to support them; they lacked administrative standing and therefore access to art supplies, commissions, studios, and exhibition spaces—in short, everything that makes art a profession rather than a hobby. Though following the official “track” didn’t automatically guarantee public acclaim or financial success, it provided a living, and protected artists from accusations of “parasitism” (i.e., of being unemployed, and thus socially vulnerable), and possible prison sentences.10

Artists from both tracks were educated largely in the same art schools and art academies. Both reacted against the mind-numbing aesthetics of Stalin-era Socialist Realism, what was referred to as the “varnishing of reality” in the 1960s. Some unofficial art was nearly indistinguishable from official art, however; in other cases, as with some of the unofficial art on display at the Guggenheim, artists produced works that were openly satirical about Soviet life. Most unofficial artists of the 1960s generation (Neizvestny, Yankilevsky, Kabakov, Bulatov, and Vassiliev, among those on view in this show) in fact belonged to one or another section of the Artists Union, often as book illustrators. What they considered their “real work” was not publicly shown—much of it was simply not officially accepted as art—but they did have Artist Union studios and could make a living.

A decade or so later, during the détente of the 1970s, as the number of unofficial artists grew, the art bureaucracy began to feel pressure to allow more diversity and change. But the Brezhnev era of “stagnation” was too rigid to incorporate new conceptions of art. Its officials wanted to avoid any annoying, independent cultural activity: artists who showed too much independence were expelled from the Artists Union, or never accepted in it; their studios were searched, and they were hauled in for questioning or threatened by the KGB. On September 15, 1974, when Oskar Rabin, Vitaly Komar, Alexander Melamid, and other artists organized their own outdoor exhibition, plainclothes KGB agents were sent in with bulldozers to destroy the work and disperse the artists.

Much of this history can be found in the exhibition’s two catalogs as well as on the wall labels accompanying “Russia!” The catalog book contains solid, general essays on Russian art from the 1930s through the present, many by art historians who were not involved in curating the show. There is also an excellent documentary film on unofficial art, From Gulag to Glasnost: The Art of Resistance, by the Russian curator Nina Zaretskaya, which runs continually at the museum on the lower level. It is therefore all the more odd that the choice of works for the postwar period and their installation are so confused. The trouble begins with the section “Official and Unofficial: 1940s–1980s” and the wall text accompanying it. This chronological division makes no sense: several periods with very distinct political and social characteristics are collapsed into a single blur. The wall text claims that “despite its official themes, Soviet art of the 1940s became less idealistic and bombastic than that of the 1930s,” creating the mistaken impression that an “unofficial art” existed in the USSR of the 1940s in the way it did between the 1960s and the late 1980s. It did not and could not have. Artists like Falk, Rodchenko, Filonov, and others may have painted what they liked at home, but they could not stage “apartment exhibitions,” and their works were not published, purchased, or seen publicly, whether in Russia or abroad. Foreign journalists did not write articles about them, and diplomats did not visit them. If their names appeared in print at all, it was usually because they were being attacked as anti-Soviet formalists.

In fact, the regime employed many different strategies to maintain popular support during World War II—it appealed unabashedly to Russian nationalism, and played up the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church. The art of the war period was predictably less cheerful and optimistic than that of the 1930s, but this does not indicate a softening of ideological control. A great deal of slanted or fabricated Soviet history was presented in paintings commissioned during and after the war, and they were imbued with a specific ideological idealism as well. As for bombast, one has only to look at the numerous paintings of Stalin after the war to see that it was still present.

In an artistic marriage of convenience, the Great Patriotic War continued to be the main theme of official Soviet art well into the 1980s: it provided artists with a subject that was richly dramatic, ideologically unassailable, and extremely lucrative, since offices and organizations throughout the USSR commissioned their own patriotic war paintings. Artists provided the regime’s authorities with a “visual history” of the war that they found far more useful and convincing than most of the “documentary” photographs they spent so much time and effort staging. Very little of that work is on view at the exhibition, although it includes Gelii Korzhev’s atypical Traces of War (1963–1964), a laconic, gruesome picture of a one-eyed soldier, which is almost a mirror image of Vera Mukhina’s bust of a blinded colonel, also on view. But Alexander Laktionov’s immensely popular, Norman Rockwell–like confection Letter from the Front (1947) and Alexander Deineka’s Defense of Sevastopol (1942) are the only representatives in the exhibition of a genre that was nearly as ubiquitous for some forty years as Stalin’s image had been in the 1930s.

The wall text implies (as do some entries in the catalog guide) that the “conservative period” of post-Stalinist Soviet cultural policy ended with Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982, and that artists’ problems with the state were over; by then, we are told, “holding shows in apartments had become a choice rather than a necessity.” This, too, is misleading. Many artists had no other choice than to show their work in apartments.11 Moreover, the placement of the wall text for this section of the exhibition gives the impression that Tair Salakhov, for example, one of the painters identified with the “Severe Style” of the 1960s, is somehow to be classified as an “unofficial” artist. The Severe Style (which also includes works by Korzhev and Viktor Popkov) was a product of the Thaw in its rejection of the “saccharine optimism” required of painting under Stalin, but it was in all other respects an entirely sanctioned part of publicly financed official Soviet culture. Salakhov himself is identified in the catalog guide as “an artist from Azerbaijan and currently the vice-president of the Russian Academy of Arts”; but he was, much more importantly, first secretary of the USSR Artists Union from 1973 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It is hard to get more official than that.

The blurring of categories in the exhibition and the show’s confusing and misleading juxtapositions of artworks multiply rapidly, as do plain mistakes.12 The selection of artists from the 1960s to the present includes many Russian artists who established significant international careers before or since the collapse of the USSR—for the most part, they were émigré unofficial artists prior to 1991. However, we are not told where, and thus under what social and political conditions, a work was produced. The two paintings from Komar and Melamid’s well-known mid-1980s “Nostalgic Socialist Realism” series—works of political satire often featuring Stalin and Lenin surrounded by red velvet draperies in settings and poses taken from Old Master paintings—were made in New York some six to eight years after the artists left the Soviet Union.13

The exhibition could have usefully juxtaposed the officially accepted Severe Style with “unofficial” works made at the same time, like Mikhail Roginsky’s stark yet moving 1960s paintings of humble, everyday objects from Soviet life—a primus stove, the door to a communal apartment. Or it could have contrasted the introspective works on personal themes and pre-Revolutionary history made by artists in the left wing of the Moscow Artists Union with unofficial “Sots Art”—which treated Socialist Realism satirically. The exhibition missed the opportunity to provide the kind of insight into recent Russian culture that it made possible for earlier centuries by including the foreign works from the Hermitage.

Ilya Kabakov recreated his well-known 1981–1988 installation The Man Who Flew into Space for this show.14 However, it is unclear why his Answers of the Experimental Group (1970–1971)—which consists entirely of blocks of Russian text and is only one piece of a larger series—was transported all the way from Moscow when many of Kabakov’s key early works are in the US, some, indeed, in New York City collections. One begins to wonder whether what was really at issue here was not the work itself, but the desire to demonstrate that Russian museums have “their own” Kabakovs—even though he never had a public exhibition in the USSR before the Sotheby’s auction in Moscow in 1988, just a month or so before he left the country for good.15

Nor is it clear why the Guggenheim is presenting works like the ones on show in “Reflections: Socialist Realism and Russian Art” (exhibited separately in the museum’s Sackler Center) as a “special companion to ‘Russia!,'” to quote the press release. The twenty-five paintings from the private collection of Raymond and Susan Johnson, now housed in the Museum of Russian Art established by the couple in Minneapolis, are a random selection of lackluster realist canvases by official artists (including Gelii Korzhev, who is in “Russia!”) that seem to have been rescued from the trash heap of Socialist Realist history. Nevertheless, the Guggenheim’s Web site says that they demonstrate

the ways Soviet artists inventively negotiated the boundaries of Socialist Realism, producing works of subtle beauty that managed to question the style’s utopian message while also expressing a unique creative vision.

In this same Web text, we are provided with a definition of this “utopian vision” from “the words of one of its leading spokesmen, Andrei Zhdanov.” This “spokesman” is the same Andrei Zhdanov who was secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee from 1934 until his death in 1948, and is probably best known in the West for his persecution of Anna Akhmatova and other writers after World War II. In the words of the 1997 edition of a one-volume Russian-language encyclopedia, he was “one of the most active organizers of the mass repressions of the 1930s–1940s.”16

“Russia!” is an exhibition well worth seeing. Visitors who know little about Russian art will see many important works and come away with a more complex view of the country and its culture. But the question remains: What “new perspective” has been provided on the “new Russia”? An unpleasant suspicion hovers over the exhibition that the art and its history were secondary considerations for the organizers and that the main point was that the “exhibition was realized under the patronage of Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation.” Was it all, in effect, a big advertising campaign, a mammoth photo-op designed to establish the bona fides of the new Russian patrons of the new Guggenheim global museum while providing America’s former rival with a glamorous opportunity to exorcise fifty years of stereotypes (unsmiling commissars, the Gulag, the KGB, bad teeth, long lines, admirable but irritating dissidents, mafioso “New Russians” in leisure suits dripping with gold jewelry, commandos in black masks, tanks on city streets…)?

Two weeks after the show opened, the front page of the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times seemed to suggest an answer. Against a bright red background with the headline “RUSSIA!” printed in gold there was an inset picture of President Putin at the Guggenheim opening; below him were photos of Russians in New York—a menswear designer, a beautiful young “supermodel,” and a young “heiress.” The headline said: “New Slavs of New York: All Bling [Flash] and No Borscht.” The patrons and sponsors of “Russia!” were no doubt pleased with the publicity as well as the exhibition; those concerned about the accurate presentation of art and history, which should be the Guggenheim Museum’s mission, will feel differently.

This Issue

January 12, 2006