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#15 - JRL 7175
New York Times
May 9, 2003
Mother Russia Nurtured Her Modern Rebels, Too

BALTIMORE It is not easy to find the peasant woman in the 1915 painting "Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions)," by Kasimir Malevich, a great name in Russian avant-garde art. But she's there. A bright red square set with slight asymmetry on a white ground, that painting embodied Malevich's new concept of Suprematism, the liberation of art from what he called "the ballast of the representational world."

Malevich (1878-1935) regarded this and his other Suprematist works as the last gasp of easel painting, a symbolic translation of three-dimensional reality (in this case the peasant woman, an emblem of Russia) into a nonobjective two-dimensional visual. Yet his concept, about as far-out as you could aesthetically go in 1910, was not derived from the French modernism that was redefining European art at the time. It came from icon painting, the most traditional form of Russian art, religious imagery in which particular symbols and colors had meanings for the faithful.

Besides icons, there were many other vernacular influences on Russian art of the early modern era: folk objects; film; the circus; lubok (popular prints); store signs; peasant fabrics, clothing and decorative arts; children's drawings; dolls and other toys; fretwork on house posts and doorways and such. The avant-gardists took them all in, melding high with low, and helping to liberate Russian art for a while from the stifling academic tradition that was its 19th-century heritage.

But as suggested in the high-spirited and enlightening "Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde" at the Walters Art Museum here, while the influence of Cubism, Futurism and other European movements on progressive Russian artists was undeniable, not enough attention has been paid to the role of the Russians' own contributions.

This show, which will be seen nowhere else in the United States, is a collaboration between the Walters and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, part of Baltimore's celebration of the 300th anniversary of that Russian city. (The connection is Yuri Temirkanov, music director of both the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.) It is a bit surprising to find this show at the Walters, which is best known for its medieval art and a collection that covers 55 centuries, a period ending at about the time the Russian avant-garde begins.

Still, with this exhibition the Walters continues its tradition of "innovative and scholarly exhibitions," writes Gary Vikan, the museum's director, in the catalog. Besides works by Malevich, more than 160 paintings and artifacts are on view, including works by Wassily Kandinsky, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Vladimir Tatlin and many significant lesser-knowns like David Burliuk. An important feature is that paintings and artifacts are placed so that connections among them are evident.

Among the more inventive explorers of folk art and folk traditions were Larionov (1881-1964) and Goncharova (1881-1962) who, before they left Moscow to settle in Paris, were crucial to the Russian avant-garde scene. The two had an impressive collection of icons, Scythian stelae, lubok prints and clay and wooden toys. Goncharova was particularly taken with the Scythian stelae, which she hailed as forerunners of Russian Cubism. "The art of my country is incomparably more profound and important than anything I know of the West," she wrote in 1913.

From 1907 to 1911 she painted in a neo-Primitivist mode, deriving inspiration from sources like the stelae, Russian painted wooden dolls and Gospel motifs. An impressive work in the show is "Peasants" (1911), a fragment from a nine-part composition that shows two squat, stylized male figures in peasant garb balancing trays of grapes on their heads as they step rhythmically across a scintillating blue ground.

Other Goncharova paintings from the same period, like "Bleaching Linen" (1908) and "Peasant Women" (1910), with their bright colors and deliberate distortions, deal in a more narrative, less ritualized way with scenes from peasant life, echoing icons, stone sculptures and decorated toys.

Larionov, Goncharova's partner and future husband, was influenced by painted shop signs, urban folklore, children's drawings and the like. He subscribed to the avant-garde concept of Everythingism, or vsyochestvo, which held that all was fair game for appropriation by artists, from icons and saints' images to graffiti. His lighthearted works in the show include "Barber" (1907), a genre painting depicting a scene in a barber shop, and "Venus" (1912), a navely drawn yellow nude impassively deployed on a bed, la Manet's "Olympia," and attended by two small winged creatures.

(Even more nave, but completely talentless, are paintings by his brother, Ivan, two of whose landscapes are pointlessly exhibited here.)

Goncharova and Larionov were forces in the influential Jack of Diamonds, a Moscow-based group of progressive artists who first exhibited together in 1910. (The title, thought up by Larionov, means a rogue or a swindler in Russia.) Particularly active between 1910 and 1913, the group, which believed in a festive attitude toward life and art, advocated a return to the primitive styles of work by children and artisans.

Before petering out, Jack of Diamonds staged a series of provocative and scandalous exhibitions in Moscow and was influential in the establishment of Russian Futurism. A particularly impressive entry in the group's first show was a truly wonderful painting that is also happily on view in this one: "Self-Portrait With Pyotr Konchalovsky" (1910), by Ilya Mashkov (1881-1944), another founder of the group.

In that painting the artist shows two muscular young men clad only in tight briefs: himself, seated next to an upright piano and holding a violin, and his friend, the artist Konchalovsky, grasping a piece of sheet music titled "Fandango," while a Spanish bullfight march is ready for play on the piano. Atop the piano sit a Bible and a book on Czanne, refinements contradicted by two gushy floral paintings on the wall (originally portraits of the artists' wives, but painted out at their last-minute requests).

The spoofy canvas, depicting two young members of the Moscow culturati playing music between sporting activities, parodies the falling in of Mashkov and his fellow intellectuals with such fashionable preoccupations as post-Impressionism, sports, music and film. (The whole setting suggests a scene from a popular movie of 1910, "Max Has the Boxing Fever.") At the time, the scale and parodic style of the painting were revolutionary developments in Russian art, and even today the canvas, while not so provocative, is a sharp and witty tableau.

The thrust of the avant-garde in Russian art, along with the rich peasant culture that helped to feed it, died with the establishment of Bolshevik rule. But a significant exchange had taken place, and this show evokes it vividly.

"Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde" remains at the Walters Art Museum, 600 North Charles Street, at Center Street, Baltimore, (410) 547-9000, through May 25.


#16 - JRL 7175
TV1 Review
Compiled by Luba Schwartzman (luba_sch@hotmail.com)
Research Analyst, Center for Defense Information, Moscow office

Thursday, May 8, 2003

- Muscovites prepare to celebrate Victory Day. The streets of the capital have been decorated with posters, banners and flags. Concerts will be held on Red Square after the parade in honor of the 58th anniversary of Victory in World War II.

- Russian President Vladimir Putin placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall. Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Russian Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov and a number of Cabinet members, State Duma deputies and other leading figures participated in ceremonies in honor of Victory Day.

- Moscow State University students met with veterans. The May 8th meeting is a long-standing annual tradition.

- President Putin visited the Tula Weapons Design Bureau and spoke at the banquet given in honor of the 58th anniversary of Victory in World War II.

- The final rehearsal for the Victory Day Parade were held in Grozny.

- Prime Minister Kasyanov chaired an emergency meeting of the Russian Cabinet, dedicated to the prevention of the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Russia. Kasyanov ordered ministers to work out recommendations on a program temporarily reducing the number of border crossing points in the Far East.

- The Russian Ministry of Health may soon register first case of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Russia Two of the five tests performed in a Moscow laboratory on blood samples of a man in a Blagoveshchensk hospital came back positive. Russia will become the 30th country where SARS has been registered. About 14-15% of the people diagnosed with SARS die from the disease.

- The administration of the Maritime Region has closed five visa- free checkpoints on the border with China. The Amur Oblast and the Khabarovsk Krai closed all such checkpoints earlier.

- Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov met with Kim Holmes, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs to discuss the post-war reconstruction of Iraq, and the role the UN will play in the process.

- 58 schoolchildren in the Omsk Oblast have been poisoned with an unidentified gas.

- Private Sergei Zavetaev, who stole a gasoline tank truck and drove through the streets of Moscow in an attempted getaway, has been charged on two counts: illegally taking possession of a vehicle and threatening the lives of law enforcement officers. The second charge carries a punishment of up to 20 years, or even life, imprisonment.

- Restoration of the Amber Room at the Yekaterinsky Palace in the suburbs of St. Petersburg will be completed shortly. Over 6 tons of amber were used in the restoration.

- Over 50,000 hectares of the taiga are on fire in the Chita Oblast.

- Five settlements have been cut off from the mainland by spring flooding in the Tyumen Oblast.

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