Monday, March 25, 2013

Dissidents at the Russian Museum

The Museum of Russian Art is always a good bet for a Friday morning visit, and its current duo of shows offer a fascinating aesthetic contrast. The basement of the former church holds an extensive exhibit of brass and bronze devotional icons once owned by members of the Old Believers, a diverse group of worshipers who rejected the reforms instituted during the 17th century by Patriarch Nikon involving such things as how many fingers ought to used when making the sign of the cross.

Many of the icons were cast at a foundry at a monastery on the Vyg River in Karelia, in Russia’s far north. A few introductory placards describe the strife-torn period, followed by a room full of Plexiglass cases displaying numerous examples of several themes popular at that time. Some have been decorated with enamel, others have not. Many of the objects are small—perhaps three inches square—and it requires some effort to scrutinize them carefully.

Viewed one by one, these delicate objects put one in that lovely frame of mind in which a single image can encapsulate not only the history of the universe but also its moral valence—a  shepherd, the Virgin mother offering succor, a suffering victim on the cross. But eventually, they all begin to look alike…

At that point, you might as well go upstairs into the main gallery, where “spiritual” art of an entirely different kind awaits you. This show features seventy paintings, drawings, sculptures, and installations by contemporary Russian artists devoted in one way or another to the expression of religious sentiments that were illegal in the explicitly atheistic Soviet Union.

It’s quite a privilege to stand in the presence of these works by dissident artists who risked their livelihoods and sometime their lives to exhibit in apartments and obscure store-front venues during the Stalinist era and beyond. Often the shows were closed down by the KGB in a matter of days, sometime bulldozed into oblivion. During the 1960s Tatiana Kolodzei began collecting these pieces, and the Kolodzei Art Foundation now contains seven thousand of them.

The ones chosen by the curators of the current show differ widely in medium and thrust, of course, from Dimitry Gerrman’s beautiful Giacometti-like bronze, “The Last Journey,” of a man rowing his heart out in a little boat, to paintings that capture the essence of St. George slaying the dragon or the Last Supper in a few colorful daubs.

Unlike the artifacts in the basement, relatively few of these works are blatantly devotional. Yet a religious sensibility gives the show a gravity and feeling that’s often absent from similar exhibits we might stumble upon at the Walker, stewing in their campy or ironic or self-referential juices.

Perhaps the most “Americanized” piece is a conceptual one cooked up by Komar & Melamid Inc., a duo of artists who set up shop buying souls in the United States to resell in Russia. The accompanying description helps the viewer conjure elements of Western capitalism and celebrity, the sale of church indulgences, and the Russian “soul” into a mélange that tickles the brain while going nowhere.

More satisfying is the rendering of a huge headlight by Konstantin Khudyakov. The piece is called “The Eye of an Angel” and the careful observer will notice that each of the tiny photographic images that make up the bulk of the piece is slightly different. (Bring your magnifying glass.) Regardless of such nuances, it’s a fascinating image to view in the aggregate.

 Next door to Khudyakov’s huge piece are six photos printed on aluminum panels of New York fire hydrants. The accompanying text reads like poetry.

Some of the pieces might be described as “primitive,” others “constructivist,” and there’s a tablet near the door to the gift shop—half black, half covered with minute gold script—that’s strangely affecting.

I also liked the photo of the Madonna that evokes comparisons with Dürer and Van Eck, and the video of a woman dragging a cross-shaped raft up a river and then riding it downstream, again and again and again.  

All of this emotion had given me an appetite. We stopped in at The Lynn on Bryant. Great food. Cramped quarters. I learned a great deal about a lady’s upcoming trip to India, and I also learned that she doesn’t know where Omaha is. Her daughter’s boyfriend got a job recently and Amazon, and…

 But the duck confit with red cabbage was superb, and so was Hilary’s coq au vin.   

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