Art Highlights in Russia: 2014
by Cathy Locke
Every year when I return from my summer Art Lover’s Tour in Russia, hundreds of wonderful visuals whirl around my head. In 2014 I noticed two significant changes in Russia’s major art museums – one in St. Petersburg and one in Moscow. Ranking as the most spectacular of these changes was the opening of 800 new rooms at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Celebrating its 250th anniversary, the Hermitage Museum has dedicated its newest wing solely to modern and contemporary art. The second significant change is the sizable expansion of the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. For many years this has been a sleepy little museum with a massive exhibition space that was drastically underutilized. Representing 20th-century Russian art, the New Tretyakov Gallery showcases the Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet Realism movements. This museum seems to have finally woken up and is stretching its arms from one end of its space to the next. The collection has suddenly grown twentyfold and in fact, paintings were being carted out of storage and hung while we were there. The powers that be in the art museum world of Russia are making an historic commitment. The new wing of the Hermitage Museum is quite a statement considering the 360-degree turn in policy since Stalin had this work shipped to Siberia in the 1930s. Many of these paintings including Matisse’s Dance and Music were taken off their stretcher bars, rolled, then thrown into train cars where they sat in Siberia for many years. It appears that Russia is embracing all the forms of art that have evolved over the years. Nothing is being silenced. There are no more gaps in the history of the art movements. Finally, the rich history of artists and all of their work has its place.
The Opening of the Hermitage Museum’s New Wing
What better way to pay homage to the Hermitage Museum’s new wing dedicated to contemporary art than hosting Manifesta 10, the preeminent European Contemporary Art Biennial! On June 27th, armed with my press pass, I was one of the first fifty people to walk through the doors of these new rooms in what used to be the General Staff Building. Having roamed the “old” Hermitage Museum for over a decade, I was completely shocked by the austere ultramodern architecture of this new building. How could two architectural structures be so antithetic and belong to the same museum? An open atrium four stories tall with a set of sleek marble stairs spanning an entire wall set the stage as the entrance to the exhibits. I must admit that the play of natural light on the interior architecture totally eclipsed the artwork on my first visit. Natural light pours down from the ceiling through the angles and negative spaces of this phenomenal structure casting shadows and creating art forms of its own. I roamed from room to room, floor to floor, and all I could see was a wondrous play of light. The first collection to be moved from the old building to the new one is work by Matisse. This collection now occupies the top floor – not only is the lighting superb but the walls have been painted a perfectly muted “Matisse” mauve! No longer are these paintings subjected to open windows of the old Hermitage building where they were exposed to direct daylight and pollution from cars. Knowing the long journey these paintings have endured I felt a sense of peace they were finally in a safe place. The space is so ideal that I wonder if the long-standing power struggle that has divided the contemporary collection between the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the Hermitage Museum might now be weighted in the Hermitage’s favor.
On my “third” visit to the former General Staff Building I arranged a docent tour for the group attending my Art Lover’s Tour. We were met at the first atrium by a young woman exuding “hipness” in her all-black outfit with matching black high top converse tennis shoes. (I must admit to having dabbled in similar fashion sensibilities during an earlier chapter of my life.) We learned that the curator of Manifesta 10 is Professor Kasper König. Included among his many credentials are teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf, president of Städelschule Frankfurt since 1989, and founding director of Portikus in Frankfurt/Main. Our guide went on to say that König likes the set of artists chosen for Manifesta 10 and tends to use them over and over. Being the proud recipient of many rejection notices for such art fairs this candid admission of unfair insider trading caused a wry smile to spread across my face as I mumbled a number of choice profanities.
The first exhibit we saw was a performance art piece by Belgium artist Francis Alÿs titled the Lada Kopeika Project or what I call the Green Car Exhibit. As part of his “commissioned project” he drove a 1977 green Soviet-made car from his hometown of Antwerp to St. Petersburg in order to crash it into a tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace. I wonder what Catherine the Great’s ghost thought of that! Alÿs was reenacting a thwarted trip taken by his brother and himself in 1980, when they attempted to cross the Iron Curtain into East Germany in a similar car. The exhibit consisted of a humorous video, sketches and a number of costly restaurant receipts where it looks like fun was had by all. I had to ask, “Where is the ‘art’ in this art exhibit?” I felt like a voyeur exploring the life of two young men. I wondered if it was Kasper König they had wined and dined across Europe? Later that day we saw the green car crashed up against the tree in the courtyard of the Winter Palace. It seemed out of place, but somehow it now made sense. I must admit Alÿs’s words of wisdom stayed with me : “Without an ending there can be no beginning.”
There were three notable artists who were part of Manifesta 10 that integrated the building’s architecture into the design of their exhibits: French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Dutch artist Erik van Lieshout and Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn. Gonzalez-Foerster created the Handkerchief Opera, which was comprised of giant fabric backdrops from various operas made of translucent material that spanned at least sixty feet and hung from the ceiling of one of the atriums in the building. As you enter the work the handkerchiefs float a few inches above your head and the sound of various operas drift through the fabrics inviting you to explore more of Dominique’s work. The visually stunning exhibit invited you in and kept you there with a wonderful dose of surprise.
Erik van Lieshout’s work entitled Basement exposed the bowels of the Hermitage Museum. During the reign of Empress Elizabeth cats were brought into the Winter Palace to keep the rodent population at bay. Throughout the reign of Russia’s tsars the “Hermitage Cats” were given a monthly budget, but after the 1917 Revolution these cats were stripped of their budget and are now cared for through the generosity of the Hermitage staff. Lieshout spent a month living on an old army cot in the basement of the Hermitage amongst these cats. There he made a video, took pictures and came up with a number of notable feline-inspired sayings like: “Free is boring. Problems we need.” and “I bit Russia. Russia bits [sic] me.” For his exhibit at Manifesta 10 Lieshout built a tunnel spanning two atriums and continuing straight through a mammoth 30’ x 12’ door. Inside the tunnel he created crude graffiti using various political figures (OK, it was mostly Putin) surrounded by his feline words of wisdom. I was surprised Putin allowed such social commentary, but since he was apparently the star of this tunnel I guess all was good. I don’t know if I would call this artwork, but it was cathartic if nothing else.
Artist Thomas Hirschhorn is best known for large works that transform exhibition spaces into all-encompassing environments that address issues of “justice and injustice, power and powerlessness, and moral responsibility.” For Manifesta 10 Hirschhorn created Abschlag, an apartment building made out of cardboard, with its front fascade cut off to expose a block of six, identically-sized “living rooms” reminiscent of communal apartments of the Soviet era. Inside this faceless building were living spaces with their individual wallpaper, furnishings and constructivist paintings still hanging on the walls. These were not any constructivist paintings, but the real deal; paintings by Malevich and other constructionist painters that were on loan from Russia’s museums. Did this expose the inner thoughts of pre-revolutionary Russia? Perhaps in its grandest ideal, but on day one of this exhibition I saw a tall, young, well-dressed woman in 10” platform shoes walking through the cardboard debris as if she had lost an earring. There was no respect for this form of “high art” that day, only a woman on a mission or perhaps simply lost. Our docent did tell us later that Hirschhorn doesn’t actually do any work creating his art, he has a team that does it for him. Maybe this woman was part of “the team” and Hirschhorn just sent her over to mess up the debris? Another thing I wondered is why “the team” didn’t just use reproductions of the constructivist paintings? As a viewer of this exhibit I really couldn’t see these paintings, but when I went to the museums where they usually hang I certainly noticed that they were gone. Excuse me, but just how arrogant is this Hirschhorn to take these paintings out of public view to be used as props in his house of cardboard?
The Expansion of the New Tretyakov Gallery
The second notable change in the major museums in Russia was at the New Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Housed in one of Stalin’s ugly attempts at architecture, this museum has always been on my hit list even though it’s a bit of a trek to get over there. In the past only a small percentage of this mammoth Soviet structure has been utilized. I am happy to report that has changed! There was roughly twenty times more art on display during my 2014 visit than ever before. The museum has expanded upon its opening exhibition by the real rebels of the Russian avant-garde, the Jack of Diamonds. Representing the early members of this group, work was included by Natalya Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Ilya Mashkov, Petr Konchalovsky, Aristarkh Lentulov, Alexander Kuprin, Robert Falk and Vasily Rozhdestvensky. Their work helped change the history of Russian art through their exploration of new concepts such as Neo-primitivism, Cubo-futurism, Rayonnism, Suprematism, Constructivism and even a movement called “Everythingness.” Two of Mikhail Larionov’s early Rayonism paintings, Bull’s Head (1913) and Rooster (1912) are now displayed side by side. By examining these paintings you can see how Larionov simplified representational form into rays, creating an early form of abstract art. Larionov was actually painting the radioactive energy and ultraviolet rays that reflected off of these animals. Work representing two radical groups that followed, the Donkey Tail and Target, are now also on display. These two groups were influenced by French Cubism and Italian Futurism. Alexandra Exter’s Venice (1918), a large Cubo-futurism piece, now commands a very important place next to Aristarkh Lentulov’s ground-breaking Russian Cubist paintings. The placement of all these paintings leads the viewer through a magnificent story and evolution of art by these exciting young Moscow artists.
Other new surprises at the New Tretyakov Gallery included a lovely cubist piece by Marc Chagall, Over the Town (1914-18), and nearly an entire room of paintings dedicated to the early development of Analytical Realism by Pavel Filonov. Also known as universal flowering, Filonov’s paintings show a blending of representational form and abstraction. The faces in Filonov’s painting Composition. Faces. (1915-16), seem to actually unfold like a flower evolving into small abstract shapes. Several large rooms have now been opened to display paintings by the Society of Easel Painters. Founded in 1925 by students from Vkhutemas (Higher State Art Technical Studios), this group was committed to returning easel painting to its former glory. Working with themes of modern Soviet life their subjects included sports and urban development. Two interesting paintings dealing with urban construction were Alexander Deineka’s Before Going Down the Mine (1925) and Yuri Pimenov’s Get Heavy Industry Going! (1927). In both paintings graphic shapes are made the dominant feature by downplaying color and highly designing each element. Pimenov’s joyful painting, The New Moscow (1937), depicts a novel scene of a woman driving a car through the streets of Moscow at a time when women had just been allowed to drive in Russia.
For the first time in the last decade of going to the New Tretyakov Gallery the political subject matter of the Soviet Realism section is now growing. Numerous large paintings of Stalin in his happy, grandiose, Soviet world have been hauled out and are now on display. Once an embarrassment to post-Soviet Russia, it seemed eerie to see so many of these paintings now on display. One such painting, probably around 12’ tall x 20’ long, has been hung beside a window of similar measurements. When you stand back so you can see both the window and the painting side by side a new meaning becomes clear. Perfectly framed by this window you can see the Kremlin where Putin’s office is located. The correlation between Putin and Stalin is evident to any Westerner viewing this scene. I also wonder if there isn’t a greater statement being made by the sudden appearance of these paintings or is it just the desire of the museum’s curator to represent all art movements in Russian history?
Another emotionally charged painting is a portrait of Maxim Gorky by Pavel Korin. In this painting Gorky towers over the landscape below reflecting on his past accomplishments. Before his death Gorky said that this was his favorite portrait of himself because it showed his disappointment in the revolution and all they had hoped to accomplish. Equally powerful are two portraits by Mikhail Nesterov. Banned from his sensitive religious paintings in the Soviet years, Nesterov became strictly a portrait painter. His soft touch and light pastel colors have been replaced by dark powerful paintings of people all wearing black. In the last few rooms that we had time to explore we saw some much lighter-themed work by Arkady Plastov, Alexei Tkachev and Sergei Gerasimov. These artists painted subject matter of the Russian countryside and its people. In 1917 Plastov left Moscow to work in his native village of Prislonikha. Free from political pressures Plastov was able to paint themes of village life. Hanging now at the New Tretyakov Gallery is Plastov’s joyful Haymaking (1945), described as “a colorful anthem of ensuing peace and joy, at a time when the hardships of war were just ending.”* In 1946 this painting along with Plastov’s painting The Reaping were awarded the Stalin Prize.
The Full Story Exposed
Russia is embracing its unique history in art through its expansion of both the Hermitage Museum and the New Tretyakov Gallery. In a country that has witnessed huge gaps in the story of art over the years, I am exuberant to see such liberation now taking place. Russia’s prosperity during the late 1800s allowed collectors such as Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) to be in a unique position to purchase priceless works from the impressionists and post-impressionists. Their massive collection is now one of the most valuable collections of French art in the world as well as Russia’s exciting chapter of avant-garde art that was embraced by a new government that nurtured its growth. It was a time when the Russian art world was buzzing with excitement, constantly developing new forms of art. Each time I go to these museums in Russia I am so overwhelmed by how much they have to offer. It is certainly a life’s work studying these rich collections.
- *Source: http://www.plastovawards.ru/bio
- Source: Moscow – Treasures and Traditions, Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service Washington, D.C. in association with University of Washington Press, Seattle and London