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RIA Novosti
May 28, 2008
Tretyakov Gallery today: comprehensive or eclectic?

MOSCOW. (Anatoly Korolev for RIA Novosti) - The State Tretyakov Gallery is celebrating its 115th anniversary. The occasion makes art lovers once again reverentially assess the private endeavor that reached the scope of a national program.

It all started in 1856, when Pavel Tretyakov, 24, an affluent Moscow merchant and patron of the arts, bought his obscure contemporary Vasily Khudyakov's painting Skirmish with Finnish Smugglers, which laid the foundation of a vast collection of Russian art.

We know the Russian merchant class of his time from Alexander Ostrovsky's classic plays as a world of bad manners, cynical avarice and militant obscurantism. Here is an illustration from real life. Two merchants saw a trained circus pig that excelled in mental calculation-the tamer's clever trick. They cornered him behind the curtains after the performance and bought the pig for an exorbitant sum-all that to take the animal to a restaurant, have it slaughtered and roasted, and gobbled it up, guffawing.

Tretyakov stood out from his social class. Before first going abroad in 1860, he made a will, which said, in part: "I bequeath 150,000 rubles in silver [a huge fortune at that time] to establish an art museum or public gallery in Moscow. Painting is my passion, and it is my heart's desire to establish a universally accessible depository of fine arts for all to enjoy and many to benefit."

This testament reveals civil maturity and disinterested love of culture rare in such a young man, which eventually helped him to make a legendary collection. It comprised two thousand items in 1898, when he died-a superb collection that included masterpieces by Silvester Shchedrin, Vasily Perov, Vasily Tropinin, Alexei Venetsianov, Fyodor Vasilyev, Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Vasily Polenov and other topmost painters of the time. Alexei Savrasov's landmark The Rooks Are Back Again was among them. Isaac Levitan's sketch for Above Eternal Peace was Tretyakov's last purchase.

Every painting in his collection was a masterpiece. Tretyakov displayed irreproachable taste and an extraordinary insight and courage in creating it. Intuition occasionally moved him to clash with his friends as, for instance, with the purchase of Valentin Serov's Girl Lit by the Sun, an Impressionist canvas that shocked many. Down-to-earth Realist Vladimir Makovsky, for one, angrily cried: "I see, dear Pavel, you are out to infect your gallery with syphilis!"

That was one of Tretyakov's many finds that looked scandalous at the start but withstood the test of time to join the treasury of world art. He was the first to buy a painting by Levitan, then a boy of eighteen, though Repin, an acclaimed maitre, smirked at him. He paid an extravagant 92,000 rubles for Vasily Vereshchagin's exotic Turkestan Series.

Tretyakov kept his collection at home before vast and elaborate premises were built for it in the idyllic Lavrushinsky Lane-an art nouveau echo of Russian Baroque, designed by Viktor Vasnetsov. It appeared in 1892, after Tretyakov presented his collection to the city as an opulent gift, not far from his own house in a patriarchal merchant neighborhood.

The Soviet years extended the Tretyakov collection several-fold with many nationalized private collections and exhibits moved from other museums, among them Alexander Ivanov's renowned The Appearance of Christ to the People, transferred from the closed Rumyantsev Museum in 1932. The gallery possessed more than 40,000 exhibits in 1970, which put it on the level of the world's foremost museums-the Louvre, the Hermitage, the Uffizi and the Prado.

The enormous size of the collection is not a godsend. On the contrary, it breeds no end of problems. One idea guided Tretyakov in his choice: he collected realistic art marked by technical perfection, psychological subtlety and verisimilitude. It was an idealized epitome of the Russian Empire, as reflected in the ideological triad of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. The gallery was a harmonious whole. The addition of Belle Epoque art and the later Russian avant-garde broke its harmony. Vrubel, Somov, Borisov-Musatov and Petrov-Vodkin clashed with the original collection. The collision was even worse with Malevich, Tatlin, Larionov, Popova and Exter.

The style and spirit of the gallery were gone with the advent of Socialist Realism, the official art of Stalin's era, which portrayed life not as it was but the way Bolsheviks thought it should be. Such versatility had good grounds - it showed the entire evolution of Russian art. Still, Tretyakov would certainly say the thing was carried too far. It would have been wiser to move nonfigurative and Socialist Realism art to other museums.

The problems acquired a new edge with the collapse of the Soviet system and the revival of Russian capitalism. The problem of icons was the most acute of all as the Church came onto its own, and demanded the priceless works of Dionysius and Andrei Rublev back where they belonged - to the altars stripped in the Communist years. Art experts and gallery custodians stood up in arms saying that icons belonged more to art than worship and should be preserved in air conditioned museum rooms rather than in crowded, candle-lit churches.

A compromise was reached with the opening of St. Nicholas' Church as part of the Tretyakov Gallery in 1989. Rublev's renowned Trinity is there now.

Deliberately shocking latter-day art was recently admitted to the gallery to make the need for a contemporary art museum evident to all as the collection became something of a patchwork quilt and its parts clashed with each other - Mikhail Nesterov's pensive piety side-by-side with Oleg Kulik's sarcasm verging on the obscene. He proudly reported his glass figures of a bull and cow mating purchased by the gallery.

Indicatively, previous Culture Minister Alexander Sokolov made a public protest against a Tretyakov Gallery exhibition in Paris, which included brazen works by the Blue Noses group.

Neither the Louvre nor the Prado purchase contemporary art. The Rembrandt House in Amsterdam can buy a newly discovered Rembrandt sketch but would never display a Kandinsky.

"I want to collect the Russian school in its development," Tretyakov wrote - words that might be interpreted as justifying limitless expansion of the original collection from medieval Russian art to 21st century experiments. For my part, I think mutually clashing present-day acquisitions would make him indignant.

The gallery jubilee brings Dostoyevsky's phrase to my mind: "We Russians are incredibly broad-minded. We'd do better with a narrower mind."

Anatoly Korolev, member of the Russian Writers Union and the Russian PEN Center, is a literary historian, playwright, essayist and fiction author of many genres.