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Russia! At The Guggenheim

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!” came along.

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 look.

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 Eastern isolation.

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 Bolsheviks.

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.

This 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 Street

Phone: 212-423-3500

Open Saturdays through Wednesdays, 10-5:45, and Fridays, 10-8.

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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