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08 Oct 2009, Posted by Eric Karstens in Off topic: Art, etc., 0 Comments

Classics and cluelessness at Tretyakov Gallery


The New Tretjakov Gallery near Gorky Park on the Moskva River is one of the four locations of the huge museum and dedicated exclusively to 20th century Russian art. The gigantic building’s ugly-functional Soviet-style architecture from the 1980s reminds of a trade fair venue rather than a fine arts institution. It is actually a bit deterring to visitors, and thus quite different from the Tretjakov’s more traditional main branch that was finished 1904 in nearby Lavrushinsky Lane.

Yet it makes sense to enter the forbidding block of concrete: The New Tretyakov provides an impressive overview of art in Russia since the early 20th century, and it holds a few surprises as well. An impression that struck me in particular was the asynchronous development of Russian and European art over time. The 1900-1920 pieces are very much in tune with what happened at the same time in Paris and other gravitation centres of art of the time, with the notable Russian addition of Suprematism. Then comes the era of Socialist Realism, which dominates the scene until the late 1980s.

After the fall of communism, it appears that Russian art was clueless about which new direction to take. Socialist Realism suddenly became a no-go area, but the entire artistic community that had remained in the country seems to have been so thoroughly cut off from what was happening in the west that it initially found no new starting point. What happened – at least judging from the Tretyakov exhibits – was a phase of confused and disoriented experimentation, which produced scores of devastatingly bad works. It is only since around the turn of the millennium that a slew of innovative and original voices emerged. Among others, the Russian Pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia has showcased some of them in recent years.

However, surprisingly the Socialist Realism collection at the Tretyakov is not nearly as bad as one would expect. Of course, it has the notorious paintings of Stalin accepting flowers from adoring workingwomen, or muscular peasants harvesting crops. Yet the works on display also show a remarkable variety of styles and subjects which reveal that many artists indeed put their best efforts into further developing this now-defunct style. Often, a remarkable creativity shows through perfunctory compliance with the official rules, resulting in some rather irreverent and even witty depictions of people and situations, or beautiful and compelling compositions.

And then, after walking through vast foyers, stairwells and seemingly endless exhibition spaces, visitors suddenly find themselves in front of one of the most iconic and epoch-making paintings of the entire 20th century: Kasimir Malevich’s original 1915 painting Black Square. 94 years later, it is actually not that black anymore, due to fissures in the paint, but still – in a way, it is the Mona Lisa of modern art.