|In our book “It Happened in
Manhattan” (Berkley Putnam 2001), the art critic Hilton Kramer said:
“Frank Lloyd Wright had always been vocal in his denunciation of
painting. . . He was determined to build a building where he was the
most important artist, and he did. In the Guggenheim, nothing could
compete with Frank Lloyd Wright.” Maybe – at least until “Russia!”
In this ambitious and exhilarating exhibition that
defines 900 years of a nation’s history through 250 paintings and
sculptures, the famous Guggenheim spiral transforms into a circular
byway through time. Its start is in the 12th century with mystical
gilt three-figure icons which, as the succeeding four centuries
unfold, evolve from a Byzantine to distinctively Russian Orthodox
By the time the visitor has ascended to the 18th
century and the reigns of Peter the Great and his successor and
daughter-in-law Catherine the Great, the waning of the church’s
power has become clear. Art is focused on secular subjects now from
flattering portraits of royal figures to epic-sized battle scenes.
At the same time, examples of Western European masterpieces from
imperial collections demonstrate Russia’s breaking out of its
Russian art of the 19th century reflects the
maturing of a national vernacular that need not rely on imitation.
There are portraits of members of the mercantile class, works that
reveal the mysteries and magnificence of the Russian landscape,
romanticized views of peasants, and expression of public conscience
that would find literary outlets in the works of Tolstoy and
Dostoevsky. Among the more memorable paintings in this category is
Ilya Repin's "Barge Haulers on the Volga" which depicts “freed
serfs” whose liberation meant a new and often worse kind of slavery
where men were literally worked to death.
But that the appeal of Western art persisted into
the early 20th century is demonstrated by examples of great French
impressionist and post-impressionist works from the collections of
Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, a pair of prominent Russian
businessmen whose world-class collections would later be seized by
The dramatic shifts of
20th century Russia are revealed in works by pre-Revolution
avant-garde painters, social realists who adhered to the
propaganda demands of the Stalin era, and experimental
contemporary artists of the post-communist present.
is art in a historical and cultural context. Many of the works
are borrowed from state museums; many are outside of Russia for
the first time. The exhibit is wide-ranging in both conception
and execution, and its setting -- in what Waldo Rasmussen (who
headed the International Program at MOMA) called in our book
“such a nutty, fascinating building” -- is ideal. The
exclamation point in the exhibit’s title is not misplaced.
“Russia!” stimulates, excites, and enthralls.
Russia! at the Guggenheim
Museum until January 11th 2006
Fifth Avenue at East 89th
Open Saturdays through
Wednesdays, 10-5:45, and Fridays, 10-8.
Photos by Harvey Frommer
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights