The Guggenheim's "Russia!" exhibit is a sprawling, ambitious collection of Russian art, gathered from seven centuries of history. The curators have arranged the art chronologically, which gives the collection great momentum, coherence, and intensity. There's a unique perspective to be gained by watching a nation's history unfold through its art. If art history is the record of ideas, approaches, and subjects that have been considered beautiful or interesting, then this chronologically arranged procession of images represents the flow of consciousness and self-consciousness in the mind of the nation. It's like taking a walk through Russia's brain. The Guggenheim's spiral-shell design is perfect for this exhibit; the visitor circles through the centuries, finally emerging into the present.
The average American has only a fragmentary understanding of Russian history and culture, gleaned in scraps from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and shaped by the Cold War and the anti-Communist hysteria of the 20th century. In this respect, I admit, I'm an average American. "Russia!" does convey a feeling of greater intimacy with the culture. It also helps the viewer to understand the various shapes that power has taken over the course of its history. However, since Russia is linked in the American consciousness with the idea of abusive power, it's chilling to see the extent to which the history of Russian art is a history of subjugation to powerful ideologies and institutions.
The collection begins with Orthodox iconography, which dates from the 13th century to the 17th. Portraits of the aristocracy dominate the 18th century. Although they're blessed with the opulent and shameless prettiness common to that era, these images still represent state-sanctioned and state-commissioned images of the people in power. In the early 20th century, the images on display bear witness to the ideals of the revolution and (slightly later) the censorious hand of Stalin. Without falling into the Red Scare rhetoric in which most Americans have been steeped, one can say that it's depressing to see Russian art homogenize and sterilize itself by devoting itself entirely to abstraction and Socialist realism. However, the self-consciously important iconography of Socialist realism is remarkably similar to the earliest pieces of the collection, which bear witness to a time when Russian art was almost entirely devoted to the Orthodox Church. They share an emphasis on stiff, mannered, stylized figures, a devotion to anatomical detail, and a love for fervid, hyped-up colors and strong contrasts.
This striking resemblance brings home one of the most important themes of the show: throughout the centuries, painters and sculptors have tried to define Russia through their choice of subject, but, as in the art history of many other cultures, their choice of subject was often strongly influenced, or even controlled, by the power structure of the day. As the visitor spirals through "Russia!", he can watch the dance of art and politics.
Although the exhibit has more to do with history and tradition than with any particular images, certain periods and painters do stand out. The early Orthodox paintings are beautifully intense, and a tapestry of the martyred Christ embroidered in gilt and silver thread is remarkable for its subtle, painstaking detail; Christ has kneecaps, finger joints, wrinkles, all done with swirls of thread. In the 19th century, Russian art opened itself to Romanticism, with all the moodiness, sentimentality, and lush, morbid eroticism that the term implies. Stately portraits of royalty gave way to fantasies and landscapes, such as Alexander Ivanov's quiet, evocative plein-air pieces and Ivan Aivasovsky's remarkable shipwreck painting "The Ninth Wave," in which translucent, killing waves are painted against the annihilating fire of a sunset.
"Russia!" is big, moving, and completely exhausting. At a certain point, the brain just can't process any more images, and you leave reeling. But that's okay; "Russia!" is worth a second visit. - Sady O
"Russia!" is on display until January 11th at the Guggenheim Museum, 5th Ave. & 89th Street in New York City.
For more information, visit www.guggenheim.org, or call 212-423-3500. Ms. Sady O. is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic. She also writes the Brain Porn Culture Blog.