Sir Winston Churchill, one of history’s most quotable characters, once described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The Anglo-Polish novelist Joseph Conrad summed it up as “an Asiatic monster with a European veneer,” while the English writer Rudyard Kipling had a slightly more nuanced, but no more positive view: “The Russian is a delightful person till he tucks in his shirt. As an Oriental he is charming. It is only when he insists upon being treated as the most easterly of western people instead of the most westerly of easterns that he becomes a racial anomaly extremely difficult to handle.”
These quotes all reflect a long history of misunderstanding and often justified suspicion of the Russians, an impression that was strengthened by the Cold War, when reliable information about the Soviet Union could only be gleaned from the long-distance forays of American U-2 spy planes.
Since then a lot has happened, but the old image persists, making it imperative for the country to have something of a public relations makeover and rebranding, just like any other major institution that has undergone drastic changes and altered its name.
As China discovered during its application to host the 2008 Olympic Games, one of the best ways to curry international favor is to get your art out there. By showing a combination of traditional Chinese art and cutting-edge modern works that hinted at cultural freedom, the People’s Republic was able to sufficiently suggest that it had turned its back on its totalitarian past.
Now it seems to be the turn of the former Soviet Union, with several exhibitions in Japan showcasing its rich and varied culture, and its human face.
The two most notable are “The Greatest Treasures of the Russian Czars,” now at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, after a run at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo, and “Masterpieces of the State Russian Museum,” which closes on July 8 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, before touring the country until March.
Although there are areas of overlap, the essential difference between these two shows is that the former focuses more on objects such as jewelry, weapons and church regalia — and covers the period from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century — while the latter is dedicated to paintings by Russian artists from the mid-18th century onward.
As a consequence, the first exhibition tends to present an authentically Russian face, while the second shows a Russia that was self-consciously trying to ape and assimilate influences from the West. Take away the names of the painters at “Masterpieces of the State Russian Museum,” and there would be some doubt about where pictures like Oleg Kiprensky’s “Young Gardener” (1817) or Ivan Aivazovsky’s “Moonlit Night” (1849) originated.
Stylistically they owe a great debt to Western art. Kiprensky’s sentimental portrayal is full of the romanticism then prevalent in Western European art, while Aivazovsky’s work is a workmanlike tribute to European art’s mid-19th-century obsession with realistic effects. The point is made all the more strongly by the fact that “Young Gardener” was actually painted in Italy, where Kiprensky, whose parents were serfs, had gone to imbibe Western artistic influences at the source.
Such paintings and painters — as in the case of Kiprensky, who escaped from serfdom — stand as a testament to the work of Russia’s two great 18th-century modernizers, Czar Peter I and the Empress Catherine II. It was their wish to take the feudal, superstitious and semi-Asiatic Russia that we see in “The Greatest Treasures of the Russian Czars,” and to Westernize and modernize it. The overall impression created by “Masterpieces of the State Russian Museum” suggests they succeeded.
But European art of the period was all about illusionism: creating the image of reality, rather than representing the reality itself. Similarly, the apparent Westernization of Russian society that this art presents sometimes has a hollow ring.
A case in point is the impressive “Portrait of the Empress Catherine II” by Dmitry Levitsky, the son of a priest. Rather than being an authentic, organic work by an indigenous artist painting in the Western style, it is actually a skillful pastiche. According to the exhibition catalog, it is essentially a copy of parts of two earlier portraits of the German-born ruler by French and Danish painters. Perhaps this is why there is a subtle disharmony between the head and the body.
The tension between the Potemkin village — the false front — of a happily modernizing Russia, and the country that still clung under the surface to its native traditions and inclinations, provides the real fascination of this exhibition. After ticking the boxes for all the influences of Western art, what stands out are the uniquely Russian elements.
The three excellent works by Ivan Kramskoi, an artist who started his career working as a retoucher with a traveling photographer, reveal someone who had mastered the tricks of realism then so valued in European art. But Kramskoi invests his imported gifts with a characteristically Russian sense and symbolism. The obvious veneration with which he depicts an old, straw-bearded peasant, “Mina Moiseyev” (1882), echoes the writer Leo Tolstoy’s concurrent exaltation of the Russian peasantry — something that resonated with the country’s long tradition of valuing the simple, the pure and the impoverished, often ritualized through Orthodox Christianity, but also to the fore in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
As this chronologically arranged exhibition approaches that fateful date, changes in Russian art become apparent that reflect the revolutionary artistic currents elsewhere in Europe. But in the almost tribal colors used by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin in “Mother” (1910) and Philipp Malyavin’s “Verka” (1913) — which contrast the stolidity of age-old young peasant girls with the impulsive vibrations of the colors and light on their clothes — we get a very real sense that something was about to blow, something deep and primal that would remind people once again that Russia wasn’t as Westernized as it sometimes made itself out to be.
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