Iron Curtain lifts on Russian art

First Spirituality. Then utopianism. Finally, a crackdown and desperation. Russia's soul is laid bare at New York's Guggenheim Museum.

After touring a massive exhibition of Russian art, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, expressed confidence that American visitors to the Guggenheim Museum "will feel the soul of the Russian people." If anything can represent the vastness of the steppes, it's this comprehensive show, on display until Jan. 11, 2006, exuberantly titled "Russia!"

The 275 objects, drawn from 800 years of Russian art, offer a window into Russian history. Arranged chronologically, they show the evolution of cultural identity, from extraordinary 13th-century icons reflecting the religiosity of the Middle Ages, to contemporary works that satirize repression before the Iron Curtain lifted in 1991.

Besides indigenous Russian works, the show highlights masterpieces of Western art by the likes of Rubens and Van Dyck, collected by the czars, and works by modernist masters like Picasso and Matisse bought by collectors in the early 20th century. The top-quality paintings are culled from premier Russian museums - all caviar and no cavities.

"With this exhibition, Americans will understand us," says Mikhail Shwydkoi, head of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography in Russia. Not only will viewers "see the Russian imagination," he adds, but, through the art, they'll "discover the spiritual life of Russia."

Spirituality was indeed on the front burner for artists, since the church was the main patron commissioning tableaux for Russian Orthodox churches, until the late 17th century. When Peter the Great became czar in 1682, he switched the focus. A Europhile, he not only built St. Petersburg to rival great French and Italian cities, crammed with Baroque palaces, but he swiveled artists' eyes toward secular subjects. History painting, pompous portraits of nobility, and mythological scenes persisted through the reign of Catherine the Great in 1796. The art of this period disappoints since the works mostly imitate frothy European styles.

The 19th century, with the liberation of the serfs in 1861, saw the advent of populist realism. Russian art came into its own with a group of artists called the Wanderers. These painters rebelled against stuffy salon painting and embarked on a social mission: exposing brutal living conditions among the poor. An antiwar painting that virtually commands you to halt is "Defeated: Service for the Dead" (1878-79) by Vasily Vereshchagin. He portrays a military officer and a priest presiding over a mass grave of soldiers. Their bodies almost merge with the waving golden grasses, as ethereal light rains down on the field, dotted by the heads of the dead like tragic jack-o'-lanterns.

The 20th century brought political and artistic revolution. Russia's main contribution to world art came from abstract artists like Kazimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, and Vladimir Tatlin, who burst on the scene with new forms for a new era. Their goal: liberation. Their method: formal innovation. Artists manned the vanguard of the 1917 revolution, an age of experimentation and heady utopianism.

Then came the crackdown under Stalin, who declared easel painting decadent. Communism required an official art of propaganda known as Socialist Realism. One of the discoveries of the show is the ardent Leninist Gelii Korzhev. His giant canvases seize one's attention with the graphic impact of posters. In "Raising the Banner" (1957-60), a revolutionary with a feral look of desperation hoists a Red flag dropped by his fallen comrade.

The contemporary pieces are by artists already known in the West, like Ilya Kabakov and the sly satirists Komar and Melamid. Kabakov's installation, "The man Who Flew into Space" (1981-88), depicts a cell-like room plastered with agitprop slogans. In the center is a bungee-cord apparatus used to catapult through the ceiling to escape a stifling, totalitarian world.

Russia, seen through its art, is like those nested dolls hawked to tourists - seemingly a monolithic chunk but composed of manifold layers from past to present.

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