The New Tretyakov Gallery and How 20th Century Russian Art was Wonderful At First

Moving along from yesterday’s sweeping generalizations-meet-travelogue, I’m shooting to offer a smidgen more of that high culture I came here to enjoy.

My Saturday walk along the river ultimately lead to the New Tretyakov Gallery, an enormous museum of 20th century Russian art overlooking a sculpture park, the river, and not far from an imposing statue of Lenin which survives, ever so sternly, to this day in a main intersection of downtown Russia.

The New Tretyakov is a huge rectangular building, four stories high, that looks, to be completely honest, like every other gigantic mid twentieth century building in Moscow. The inside is almost unsure of what it wants architecturally—is it minimalistic, or just plain plain? Other than a few interesting light fixtures on the first floor, everything was flat, square, unpatterned, untextured, heavy stone and thick glass. Yet, more in an empty, low budget way, that an ideologically sparse and stream-lined way. I guess that is only appropriate for a building dedicated to Russia’s 20th century visual arts. The only variation in the entire place was that the exhibition rooms are different colors, a touch I really enjoyed and will have to go on about later.

When I got there at about noon (on a Saturday), the place was dead. In the hour and a half I spent there, I maybe saw five or six other patrons. Most of the time, I had each exhibition hall to myself. There wasn’t even security in every room (security being a babushka on a wooden chair, yapping if you get too close to the painting). Perhaps all the cultured Muscovites are out at their dachas? (1) Or tourists, when faced with the time constraints of site-seeing in a city as vast as Moscow, skip the New imply opt to go to the (old) Tretyakov Gallery, where the gems of medieval, classical, and realist art are housed? Either way, I felt like I had the place to myself. After getting an unexpected discount on my ticket, I trudged up the stairs with my remaining energy to the fourth floor, which is devoted to the permanent collection of 20th century art. The collection on this floor alone is so vast and so interesting, I didn’t really make it to much else…

The atrium of the 4th floor is a rotating exhibition, and this one was dedicated to Russia’s victory over the Nazi’s, a holiday (The Day of Victory) which was only just recently celebrated (see car photo). In addition to a couple of tv’s playing footage of Russian soldiers’ triumphant return to Moscow, there was a monumental—and I mean, enormous—painting of the newly arrived troops standing in red square, in front of the Kremlin and Lenin’s Tomb, with the spoils of war thrown at their feet (the pictured spoils being Nazi flags and banners, not East Berlin). The troops were brave, handsome, and stood facing the equally stalwart and well-postured generals who awaited them. It was painted in a very classical realist style, so it was interesting to look at, if not altogether innovative…I must say though, for a piece of epic national propaganda, it didn’t quite stir me the way something of its proportions should have.

The fourth floor moves in chronological order, so you begin with turn of the century avant garde painting and end in late Soviet (pseudo-) realism. The first room, with walls painted a pale grey-green, is home to a collection of paintings by Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. These two were a few of the most important Russian avant-garde painters; they were married to each other, had very productive individual and collaborative careers, and both eventually left for France in a wave of artist-immigrants during Russia’s early political upheavals. Neither of them returned to Russia, and both died in Paris. They painted in a number of styles–embracing, exhausting, and discarding –isms the way the early 20ths century was so wont to do. They’re famous for bringing “European” trends into the Russian art world and expanding on them, such as painting in the tradition of neo-primitivism (think Gaugin), rayism (think a funky spin off of Italian Futurism), Cubism, or Cezanne-ism. They work is very beautiful and often whimsical, and Larionov particularly favors lots of every day scenes—the barber shop, a soldier writing graffiti on the job, a little pig crossing the road (sneaky little pigs crop up in a few of his paintings). Goncharova pulls off the portraits much better, and was ultimately (in my humble opinion) the better painter of the two.

Now, I’ve studied these guys in class before, and so I had a few ideas and images and key terms floating around in my head already when I went into the exhibit. However, what was interesting and so delightful about actually wandering around my own private room of Goncharova was that in person, it was so much more compelling and also so much harder to categorize. Obviously, slides don’t capture texture, or scale, or the mood of a real live oil on a real live wall. But there was something more—the painting in real life was simply more captivating. It was fiercer, more energetic. This is true for many of the pieces I saw that day, but most striking when I thought about pieces I’d looked at at length on a screen or a page. For example, the label on this painting (below) included it in Goncharova’s “neo-primitivism” phase, a period during which the Russian elites imitated folk style painting (think simplistic, color blocks and lots of outlines) and painted Russian ethic minorities and peasants, as a homespun alternative to traveling to far away locales like their French neighbors (who says fetishism can’t start at home?).

Natalya Goncharova, Jews in a Street, 1912

And yet, this painting of Jewish women (who would have qualified as somewhat exotic, and certainly outsiders, because of the predominantly highly segregated social classes of Russia) is hardly primitive at all. These women don’t look like totems or fertility goddesses, they don’t look even fetishized. Yes, yes, there’s a rejection of realism, a “folk-like” stacking of perspective, etc etc—I’ll spare you. And jump in if you think I’m wrong, but I was struck by how much more humanity there is in Goncharova’s subjects that in her European counterparts. Even if this painting was part of a project of primitivism and folk imitation, the actual result is far more emotionally complex than what is normally called neo-primitivism. Each woman has a different expression, and each expression hints at some personality and emotion, there’s a different kind of spark or sorrow in each one.

The following rooms had works by many of Larionov and Goncharova’s collegues, who were all members of myriad groups, collectives, and associations that would spring up, explode, and merge in the first fifteen years of the 20th century art world. As I walked along, the paintings stayed—in my mind—delicious and captivating for the next twenty years. There were a few Chagalls, including this favorite (we’re now in a blue-colored room, which plays well off of the work of the 1910’s and early 20’s). Look at the little goat and the man curled up on the wall. Peep her delightful petticoat and heels! The hints of cubism in the costume of the two unleashed lovers make them all the more flightful, instead of the sad kind of cubism where everthing turns brown, heavy and flat and distorted (I’m giving away my general lack of love for too much cubism…)

Marc Chagall, Over the Town, 1914-1918

I am an absolute SUCKER for portraits, and so I have to just include a few of my favorites that I saw. If you like 20th century European painting, you’ll probably like these, if not, my bad, this post just isn’t for you…

Mashkov, Portrait of E. Kirkaldi, 1902

Ilya Mashkov, Self Portrait, 1911

Konchalovsky, Portrait of the Artist Georgy Yakulov. 1910.

Konchalovsky, Portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold, 1938

(NB: THe Tretyakov had this info on the above work: The portrait was created by Konchalovsky during the time of the mass repressions and not long before the arrest and death of Vsevolod Meyerhold, the theatre director and reformer. With the objective of showing the conflict between the individual and the surrounding reality – at this time Meyerhold was already removed from his job – the artist has chosen a complex solution in his construction of the composition. The background, which is a carpet with multi-coloured ornamentation, provides a decorative, ornamental plane, while the figure is drawn in volume and held to a monochrome tonal range. The clash between flat plane and volume, the contrast in the spots of colour, the fractional forms of the ornamentation and the figure of the model – all of this creates a special emotional tension which reveals the content of the image. This is how Vsevolod Ivanov described the painting: “A man is reclining on a sofa. It would seem that he is resting. The handsome carpet and calm dog seem to support this view. But his creative thought does not cease for a moment. It is as tense and disturbed as the design of the carpet…”)

All of the sudden, after all these brilliant, playful, soulful portraits (and occasional landscapes), we arrived at Minimalism and Suprematism, and the exhibition room went white. Stone, cold, white. Malevich’s Black Square was front and center, (2) Tatlin installations were in the corner, and there was hardly a color to be found amidst the sharp corners of black and white and the occasional grey. Sigh…it just seemed so strict and lifeless and mournful after the color and texture of the avant-garde. It was a mechanical, reductionist ideology in paint, a rejection of the oddity of life and the complicated, rich dual legacy of European high culture and Russian peasant culture in Russian art. Now Russia’s art descended into metal plates and spokes, right angles and the worship of manufacturing. Alas, alas, alas. But that’s just my opinion. Quick, someone explain to me why I should love this stuff!

At least though, the Suprematism was still about something in terms of art (we can hash out what that means later!)—it was still seeking some visual purity, some liberation for the artist, something mysterious and illusive that could be communicated in (lack of) color and shape. The work of art was a unique medium to express something that evaded drama, literature, or even music (they did try to use supremist ideas in dance actually). It’s no real justification that perhaps the goal was nothingness, and art should never be about nothingness, but at least they thought art had within itself something powerful and fragile that needed to be taken care of, cultivated. After Suprematism, the exhibition devolved into Soviet kitsch. Technically, kitsch is not the name of the movement(s), but oh, was it kitsch. We’ve all see the photos of the strapping lads and lasses, with an obfuscated but pounding sexuality, generic faces and good citizenship written all over them. Imagine room after room of this. What’s really the sad thing about this, is that it’s nothing but types, completely boring archetypes. There’s no individual, no spark, no whimsy. If the avant-garde was painfully self-indulgent at times, the Soviet Momumentalism portrays the person personality-less and lacking any inner life. One very important exception is the work of Soviet painter Petrov-Vodkin, who did some very Soviet, very interesting stuff, below. The Tretyakov described his “neo-classicism”: “[It is] the combination of two contrasting aspects: clearly marked movement and captivated stillness as well as a decorative clearness and troubled sharpness of colors which transmit to the viewer an anxious perception of time and a premonition of something unknown.” Ohhhh……

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin Petrograd Madonna, 1918

In one room, there was a really exceptional statue. I loved it from afar. It’s of two soccer players, and one of them is kicking the ball out from the other one, who is almost perpendicular to the floor as he slides towards the ball. There are no extra (structural) supports for the players, so they pose totally suspended by their feet which connect to each other, to the ball, to thus to the base of the statue. There’s a fantastic, powerful sense of movement and presence. I felt like, hey, well, there’s a real silver lining to Soviet Momumentalism afterall. Plus, its World Cup season, and so this moment of physical prowess seemed so realistic and impressive at the same time.

But no! I walked up closer, and there it was again—the Soviet flaw: no single strong character ever has a convincing expression (sometimes those suffering at the hands of injustice or capitalism have convincing expressions of sorrow or hunger). The strong only express strength. Perseverance. Patriotism. The two soccer players, legs nearly entwined, arms outstretched, ball, trapped between the two of them, were sporting entirely stoic faces. If the eyes were closed they could have been asleep, dreaming peacefully of communal labor and daily exercise. I had just watched the America-Slovenia game the night before, and I couldn’t forget the expression on the Michael Bradley’s face when he scored our second goal. The ecstasy, the elation, the wide-open mouth and crazed eyes. That’s how a soccer player should look. Not like a judge in small claims court with a month left till retirement. Damn.

Enough mouthing off about mid-20th century art. My first day of class is calling, and I’m sure I’m testing patience with a multi-page entry on a museum visit….

(1) Dachas are Russian summer homes, and remarkably common for most working class, middle class, and upper class people. A recent poll actually showed that over 30 percent of Russians also rely on food grown in their dacha garden.

(2) Funny factoid: When Malevich and others were busy being avant garde, breaking artistic norms, shocking the public, etc, they were so incredibly competitive with each other, that they actually back dated their own work. That is, they would paint something, then date it earlier that the actual completion, so that they could look even more cutting edge and innovative than their peers.



Filed under Art History, Moscow, Visual Arts

4 responses to “The New Tretyakov Gallery and How 20th Century Russian Art was Wonderful At First

  1. Emil

    Damn, damn, damn! You are so damn smart and perceptive and such a good writer! I’m reading your descriptions of the city, the museums and what not and I’m constantly amazed at your witty and hilarious observations. There is nothing else I can say other than keep on writing!

  2. Good to hear something positive about the Tretyakov. Nice post!

  3. Argh… I also felt astonished by the 2 soccer players. Infortunately, we didn’t pay for our ticket to have the right to take pictures. So I don’t even know the name of the artist, and I am desperatly looking for a picture of this incredibly statue !
    Would you have the name or a picture ? That would be a great help for me. Thanks 😉

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