Russian art at its best; The Tretyakov Gallery -- Moscow: The Russian Painting, introduction by Vsevolod Volodarsky, translated from the Russian by B. Meyerovich. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc. $30.

Except for the fact that it tends to be a bit heavy-handed and rather anecdotal, Russian art is something we know very little about. Help is on the way, however, in the form of a large and handsomely illustrated book on the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and its important collection of Russian art.

Begun in 1856 by Pavel Tretyakov, the collection originally consisted of 19 th-century paintings and numerous commissioned portraits of famous figures of the period. Presented to Moscow in 1892, the collection was later expanded to include all aspects of Russian art, and now stands as the most important museum of Russian and multinational Soviet art in the world.

The book opens with the non-Russian "The Virgin of Vladimir," an icon brought to Kiev from Constantinople early in the 12th century; continues on through a succession of important Russian icons; then moves into Russian art of the 18th to early 20th centuries; and closes with examples of recent (1961) Soviet painting.

A one-page essay detailing relevant historical and technical information accompanies each illustration. These, unfortunately, are rather simplistic, even a bit patronizing, and contribute little of real value beyond cold facts. The illustrations, however, especially those in color, are first-rate, and should add a great deal to the American reader's understanding of how and why Russia n art differs from that of the rest of the world.

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