Monday, June 2, 2008

Art Tour: The Last Day

(Note: The art tour entries will be edited in the next few days into a sequential narrative and posted as a separate entry for viewing on The Buddha Diaries. Please watch for it. PaL)

Hardly a day of rest—though we made a late-ish start, at a quarter to ten. I’ll let Ellie take over from here for the first half of the day, since she was on scribe duty and took ample notes. I’ll take dictation as she writes:

Amazing, no traffic! Russians spend their weekends out in the country in their dachas. For us, it was chop, chop, chop, forty-five minutes to see the Tretyakov museum, an encyclopedic repository of Russian art from the 19th and 20th century, and up to the present day. We were privileged to be guided (at a full run!) by a very hip and knowledgeable art consultant who talked too fast as we scurried through the late 19th century to the present, starting with the early, more derivative Impressionists with Russian overtones through the justly celebrated avant-garde movement, including some works of enormous historical importance like Malevich’s “Black Square,”

a three-dimensional Popova construction, a beautiful Tatlin sculpture, an eye-popping wall of Vasily Kandinskys,

and some fine Rodchenko photographs. In these works, the artists were exploring the relationship of shape and non-figurative images to express their view of the new world, creating such well-known –isms as Suprematism and Constructivism (my favorite).

(Forgive the poor composition of these pictures. They were "shot from the hip", to eascape the watchful eye and the wrathful "nyet, nyet" of the Russian guard women. Everyone else was taking pictures, I reckoned, so why not me? A poor ethical argument, I'll admit, but I'll suffer the guilt while you look at the pictures--PaL)

By the early 1930s, with the new Soviet regime under Stalin, these art forms generally gave way to Social Realism, which glorified the state with images of happy peasants tilling the fields, industrial workers wielding hammers, naked women basketball players,

massive history paintings with titles like “Get Heavy Industry Going” and “The Defense of Petrograd,” and portraits of Lenin and Stalin and other communist leaders in grand settings of power.

We were also surprised, however, to see that this was not the whole story, as art history too often teaches. There were many artists working in less party-line modes, creating sophisticated works in relative isolation in defiance of then prevailing academic norms.

(Also a chilling video of Uncle Joe...)

The first of the downstairs galleries were devoted to artists like Francisco Infante, llya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov who, starting as early as the 1960s were quietly defying the approved art of the system and who, after perestroika and the decline of the Soviet regime, began to achieve international recognition.

Influenced by the work of Western artists like Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol,

they were a new avant-grade working with mixed media, ready-mades, word-art and the incorporation of everyday objects. Their work influenced that of contemporaries like Oleg
Kulik, whose performance work (in one instance, living for three days as a dog)

was of particular appeal to our group. Many of these artists have received international attention through inclusion in art fairs and, in some instances, the Venice Bienale.

If this wasn’t already enough for at least a day we hurried off to visit the studio of Valery Kashlyakov, one of the artists in the group of Russian contemporaries described above. His paintings are huge, using at times easily collapsible cardboard on which he often paints antique ruins covered over with drippy paint.

His interests are to show us that past time has left us something.” For him, there is “no distinction between rubbish and the antique.’

PC continues, unaided: I will now confess that after lunch on this last day, I fell down on the job. My mind went numb. My little notebook ran out of space. My pen ran out of ink. Do I need more excuses? I remember that we went to a crowded cultural center, where loud rock music was being played and where we visited some three or four galleries; it seemed to me each of the gallery representatives was eager to lead us through the entire contents of their back room.

I disremember (may the artists forgive me) a very large number of paintings, some of them surely good; but I do remember one interesting show in a large building filled with shops and galleries, with an artist using recycled wood to evoke classical structures and making lovely “drawings” out of printed material laced with patterned perforations.

I also remember hearing—yes, I confess, with a sinking heart—that our bus was next to take us to a “city of art”, and the drive out to another part of the city; I remember being led by an art-loving Russian oligarch (yes, friends, I do shamefully forget his name, if not the reputation of his wealth) to a very small suite of rooms in magnificent disarray, a place where ancient computers and electric typewriters, desks and filing cabinets evidently meet their last reward in tumble-down chaos, and where the full complement of twenty-something of us crammed into a space about the size of a broom closet and listened (well, yes, I confess to having caught barely a word: mea culpa) to the story of the oligarch’s purchase—so I thought—of a whole town in the Ukraine and running a foundation and a multi-year artist residency program there. I remember (yes, I confess it) wishing heartily for escape, release, sleep, oblivion… And I remember finally making it back to the bus, and the bus finally getting us back to the hotel. I remember having a blessed hour or so to pack my bags and watching news of the Democratic party’s latest fiasco on CNN… Ah, yes.

And I do remember the final dinner of our tour, a half-hour’s walk from the hotel. Being greeted by a footman in 18th century livery and a waitress in 18th century dress. I remember a fabulous rococo dining room with a white-wigged chamber orchestra playing Mozart and Handel in 18th century costumes whilst we dined on a fine salad, a delicate pate de foie gras, a shrimp and scallops main course, and a pastry dessert, accompanied by a choice excellent red and white wines. I chose both, which may in part explain what happened to my mental faculties. I remember a distinguished member of our group falling in love with the beautifully designed white dessert plates

and trying to buy a set of twenty of them (plates, not desserts) to take home. I remember an extravagant men’s room with discreet urinals and toilet pedestals done in Delft-like porcelain.

I remember taking a picture… Ah, yes. We did get a wee bit tiddly.

And I remember, close to midnight, a very pleasant walk back to our hotel with Ellie through the darkened Moscow streets, remarking that we had, strangely, not seen darkness for a while, because it stays light so late. And I remember falling into bed, exhausted… and remembering to set the alarm for six o’clock in preparation for an early departure for the Moscow Airport. And falling asleep. Ah, yes.

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