I have a choice. Either to go to the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art or the Tretyakov Gallery of Russian Art. I decide on the latter. I like to see the art of a country I am visiting, to gain an insight into its culture, history and politics. I will have to go forego the world-class collections of Byzantine and Western art at the Pushkin, its Greek, Roman and Egyptian artifacts.
I start with the first Tretyakov Gallery, designed by Russian revivalist artist Viktor Vasetsov. This exotic looking boyar castle houses the world’s largest collection of Russian icons and prerevolutionary art. I search out Holy Trinity, thought to be Russia’s greatest icon, painted in 1420s by Andrey Rublyov. I stand back horrified at a painting by Ilya Repin, Russia’s most popular painter. It is of a blood stained young man slouching in the arms of his father. Ivan the Terrible has just stabbed his son.
“He never meant to kill him,” my Russian friend asserts.
I look for signs of remorse.
I move on. There are 20th century forays into impressionism and symbolism and beautiful examples of Russian art nouveau. I seek out Room 16 where my guidebook says I will find the real gems of the collection. Here I discover the work of the Peredvizhniki or the Wanderers, who, from the 1870s, addressed pressing, social issues. Most moving of all is Child Labour by Vasily Perov. Three bedraggled, ragged children heave barrels up an icy road. Perov spoke out fiercely against child exploitation in his home town, Troika. Some consider the Wanderers, in their belief in art’s social purpose, as the forerunners of social realists although they considered lyricism and beauty as important too.
The New Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val is a huge white box housing 20th and 21st century Russian art. At the entrance a man with a large hammer and sickle towers above me. I hesitate on the steps. Will I be confronted with wall-to-wall socialist realist images from the revolutionary era?
Inside a helpful student, who speaks English, assures me that the gallery assistant shouting at me is not ordering me to put my camera away. Just that I must not use flash.
I snap away. Inside the first room a man picks fruit in an orchard
and a huddled family carry bundles of brushwood through the snow.
There is an intimate encounter between a buxom waitress and a man in a suit,
a splendid Turk with a fresh catch of fish
and the interior of a Jewish house, a bride waiting in an upstairs room.
These bright, vivid neo-primitivist works, from the second half of the 19th to 1910, could be by Matisse, Cezanne or Picasso. And yet the New Tretyakov, whilst acknowledging French influence, is keen to show the distinctiveness of the Russian avant garde.
Niko Pirosmani, a self taught artist from Tibilsi, draws on the Russian icon tradition. Like a Russian saint the man in Fisherman between the Rocks faces forward. His broad hat is a halo and he is framed by mountains.
Pirosmani was discovered by the avant garde artists Zdanevic and Le Dentu. They likened his work to that of Henri Rousseau and thought he offered an alternative to Western modernism. Pirosmani did little to benefit from being discovered. He died of alcoholism and in obscurity.
Picasso’s influence on Tatlin is self evident but his work differs from Picasso’s as, ‘although being geometrically correct, it stays clear of the distortions.’ In Tatlin’s Nude the curtain folds frame the woman’s contours. They do not disrupt her voluptuous curves.
I enjoy two self-portraits of these bold neo-primitivists. One, Ilya Mashkov, presents himself as a travelling merchant, ‘dissolving the barriers between elite and mass art.‘
The other, Aristarkh Lentulov, as a flamboyant market hawker and grand artist, a ‘farcical self aggrandisement’.
Lentolov’s wonderful cubo-futurist painting of a bell tower fills one side of the gallery wall. In the centre two figures ring the bells, shaking the very foundations of the cathedral and sending the onion domes askew.
In a space between reality and fantasy Chagall flies Over the Town with his wife Bella. Is she asking to be rescued from her abductor, her hand outstretched? Or is Bella leading her husband away from Chagall’s home town, Vitebsk? This is Chagall at his best – ambiguous, surreal, wildly vivid. It is Chagall who introduced romanticism and symbolism, inspired by Russian folk culture, into the avant garde.
Aleksandra Ekster shows a Venice of 1918 with upturned gondolas and shells exploding the city into fragments. Floodlights search out the wreckage of World War 1, lighting up dashed hopes with the words, ‘Pax Tibi Marce,’ Peace be With You. Ekster, combining Ukrainian European influences, was well known for her stunning theatrical backdrops. Here she uses her talent to convey the theatre of World War 1, shattering the dream of the golden age and marking the boundary between the classical avant garde and the constructivist era.
Much of the black and white constructivist work I find austere and angular.
Far better the restored work of Natalia Goncharova, exhibited in Paris in 1922, of Spanish women on an Autumn Evening.
The Soviet Modernism of the mid 1920s to early 1930s looks to a more positive future. Heavy industry gets going
and a woman pushing a trolley looks towards a more liberated version of herself.
Social Realism, under Stalin’s rigid regime, revived a veneration of historical characters.
Stalin and Voroshilov walk together in the Kremlin after the rain. Stalin wears a simple overcoat and Voroshilov a general’s uniform. They are realistic, allegorical figures. The people and the party are one.
Pavel Korin’s majestic portrait of Gorky shows him as a lonely figure understandable, perhaps, given his break with Stalin.
I move onto the 1960s and admire a work by Dmitry Zhilinsky. Gone is the severity of the late Soviet era.
Here, in a picture reminiscent of American pop culture, a family enjoys a holiday on the Black Sea coast, something accessible to all Russians in the 1960s. Highbrow art meets lowbrow culture.
A few other works catch my attention. A group of cheerful astronauts celebrating Russia’s achievements in space.
An old woman, the artist’s mother holds her head in her hands.
I need not have feared. This gallery offers far more than socialist images of men wielding hammers and sickles, of women hard at work in farm collectives. I salute you Tretyakov. Your superb collection has more than exceeded my expectations. And yes, it has given me some insight into Russia’s rich and complex history, politics and culture.