A Little Touch of Moscow in Seattle

Arts festival - a spinoff of the Goodwill Games - offers a potpourri of Soviet and other cultures

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

WALKING through ``Moscow: Treasures and Traditions'' is like discovering a new country. This major art exhibition at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center - a part of the 1990 Goodwill Arts Festival - reveals that the Soviet Union has its own Impressionists, Cubists, and Photorealists. But they never became widely known in the West. There is a shock of finding these familiar styles filled with new subjects. And that's a main thrust of the Goodwill Arts Festival - to reveal the Soviet Union through its culture to the rest of the world, as it passes through the Seattle area this summer.

The festival, held in conjunction with the Goodwill Games being held here July 20 through Aug. 5., is a potpourri of film, visual arts, theater, music, opera, and dance. Some 1,300 artists and 200 performances and exhibitions come from such countries as the Soviet Union, Canada, several Arab nations, Japan, and others.

While the festival draws artists from all over the globe, the focus is on Soviet arts, because of the festival's original aim. Planning for the event started four years ago, when the political climate was much different. The impetus then was to try to open up lines of communication between the two nations. But with the rapidly changing political climate, this year's festival has turned into more of a celebration.

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The Bolshoi Ballet kicked off the festival July 2 with an unfortunately flat-footed production of Yuri Grigorovich's ``Ivan the Terrible,'' to music by Prokofiev. It was long on spectacle, short on fiery dancing.

But if that disappointed, ``Moscow: Treasures and Traditions'' at the Convention & Trade Center through Sept. 30., was a delight. A sumptuous exhibition that takes the viewer through 500 years of art from this city, it tweaks many long-held stereotypes about Russian culture as heavy and somber. Lightness and delicacy are found in many of the paintings, textiles, icons, and jeweled pieces. Colors are vivid; paintings glow. Many of the items have never been out of the USSR before.

The presentation is marvelous. In helping design this installation, Michael McCafferty, the Seattle Art Museum's exhibit designer, took color swatches to Russian museums and residences and has re-created the colors here so the paintings look right at home. The gallery walls behind the icons, for example, are a deep forest green, and the walls get imperceptibly lighter as you move through the exhibition. By the time the viewer reaches the modernart section, the walls are neutral.

Sure, there are sturdy monuments to the Soviet worker, but there are also delightful Norman Rockwell-esque slices of family life. One Soviet favorite that pleases Americans is ``Poor Grades Again,'' a 1952 painting by Fedor Pavlovich Reshetnikov depicting the reactions of family members to this sorry news.

This exhibition was organized by the Smithsonian Institution's Traveling Exhibition Service and the USSR Ministry of Culture. Its treasures, unlike the other touring exhibits and performances, will return directly to Moscow after the showing here.

This show, together with three other Soviet art exhibitions, forms the centerpiece for the festival, says Jarlath Humes, vice-president of community relations for the Goodwill Games.

Seen in succession, they give an extraordinary look into the culture and lives of the Soviets. Works in the four shows run the gamut from a jewel-encrusted cross that Ivan the Terrible gave to a monastery, to theater set designs from the Russian Constructivism period after the Revolution, to a 1987 surrealist painting of a wedding.

``The goal is to provide insights for Americans into the Soviet Union through art,'' says Mr. Humes. ``Combining the four principal exhibitions accomplishes that in a way that has not been done in the US.''

The other exhibitions:

``Russian America: The Forgotten Frontier,'' at the Washington State Historical Society Museum in Tacoma, is a collection of Alaskan artifacts daring from 1741 to 1867, when Alaska was a Russian territory. The 400 artifacts include works of art, archaeological finds, diplomatic documents, and goods from the China trade. It will travel to Anchorage; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington D.C.

``Art Into Life: Russian Constructivism 1914-1932,'' at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, addresses an artistic period that has been largely off limits to the West for the last 50 years. The artistic forms, from painting to machines, document an era when Soviet artists' energies were devoted to propelling the state forward. This exhibition travels to Minneapolis.

``Between Spring and Summer: Soviet Conceptual Art in the Era of Late Communism,'' at the Tacoma Art Museum, focuses on a group of conceptual artists and architects whose work reflects life as changed by glasnost. This is perhaps the best place to see what concerns today's Soviet artists. It will travel to Des Moines and Boston. (For more information on scheduling, contact One Reel Productions at [206] 622-5123.)

There is a great deal of collaboration between Soviet and American artists in other festival events. ``War and Peace,'' Prokofiev's epic opera version of Tolstoy's masterpiece, is the festival's pull-out-the-stops extravaganza. Produced by the Seattle Opera, it will feature a combined cast of 200 Soviet and US artists. It opens July 22.

But the festival seeks to break down more stereotypes than just those about the Soviet Union. The Arab Film Festival is another cross-cultural venture meant to broaden the perspective of Americans. According to Rajaa Gharbi, festival curator, the event's 22 films were chosen for their artistic and cultural representation of the eight nations that supplied them.

The opening-night entry was film the Moroccan film ``A Door to the Sky,'' directed by Farida Ben Lyazid. It deals with a young Moroccan who had emigrated to Paris but returns to her home in the ancient city of Fez to attend to her dying father. Starting as a tough adopted Parisian convert, Nadia gradually becomes attracted to the old ways and starts a spiritual journey ``home.'' She saves the family palace from being sold by her brother and turns it into a home for dispossessed women.

The film, which won a bronze medal at the Mediterranean Anab Film Festival in 1989, has surprises for both Western and Arab audiences. Westerners may be astonished to find that the Parisian woman, Nadia, could be so fulfilled wearing a kaftan and living a cloistered, women-centered life. The film also brings out a warmer side of Islam than one normally hears about. But Arab audiences may be shocked at such images as Nadia and her new love kissing while a tape of a man reading the Koran plays.

Many of the films in this batch of Arab hits - humorous, passionate, political, and mystical - have not been screened for years and never outside their own countries.

In a nod to Seattle's growing Asian influence, the Grand Kabuki Theatre of Japan is making a three-day appearance that continues through tomorrow. And the French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil is visiting (through July 22), with its acrobats and trapeze artists. Other festival events include a play about Native Americans, and a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

And so as not to forget that the impetus for the festival is the Goodwill Games, there will be a joint exhibition of 120 photographs celebrating sports in the Soviet Union and the US. It's called ``Sports Feelings,'' and will be held at the Museum of History and Industry from July 18 through Sept. 9.

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