Monday, June 2, 2008

Moscow: A Spectacular Art Day

Up early Saturday morning for the usual hotel breakfast, and out at nine-thirty for the day’s activities. A brilliant art day, though with an unpromising start at the Park of the Fallen Heroes Sculpture Park—the back lot of the Tretyatov municipal gallery. Outside the park, on the Moscow River bank, a monumental (I mean here, several stories high) memorial to Peter the Great by the artist Zurab Tsereteli,

his giant figure astride a sailing ship, strictly academic in execution, imposing in stature if not, to this observer, in sculptural interest. Too much artist ego imposed upon the citizen’s eye (my judgment!)

Across the road, we were provided tickets for the park, which started life as the graveyard for statues of the leaders from social-realist days, and was subsequently annexed by artists looking for a public place to put their work—the results of which proved to be uneven at best.

Ellie and I chose to walk around the corner to take a look at the neighboring church and gardens, where she thought to have attended one of the first Orthodox services allowed during perestroika, back in 1989. The church was closed, but the gardens were quite beautiful. Heading back into the sculpture park via a different gate, we were yelled at—no, screamed at!—by one of those fierce, unsmiling woman ticket office officials, who grabbed our stubs and, at first, refused to give them back. We finally managed to rejoin our group.

(The best sculpture in the park... kinetic!)

A longish bus ride through the streets and some of the super-wide boulevards of Moscow,

with commentary by Bella along the way. Here’s my picture of Tolstoy (he’s hiding behind that kiosk: this can be a problem taking photos from the bus!)

There are certainly some very beautiful old streets, lined with mansions once occupied by the wealthy and the privileged, now for the most part converted into offices or apartment buildings. In one of them, we arrived at the Pushkin Museum, where we had a full forty minutes (including wait time at the ticket office) to explore one of the greatest treasuries of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early Modern paintings in the world. A small museum, but incredibly rich—the result of the eye of a handful of collectors in pre-Soviet Russia, whose passion for French painting was unrivaled anywhere in the world. Cezanne, Gaugin,

Van Gogh,

Degas, Monet, Sisley, all represented by absolutely choice samples of their work. You walk into those galleries and swoon… Oh, and Matisse and Picasso. Galleries full of the stuff.

(My picture of the Tolstoy memorial sculpture. He's hiding there behind the kiosk... The perils of taking pictures from the bus! On the other hand, it does occasionally produce a nice Monet:

... don't you think?)

On to lunch, at a curious restaurant at the outskirts of town,

tucked at the base of a Stalinist highrise building. Outside, a nest of baroque cabins (presumable used as dining areas, in warmer times) constructed out of woven willow branches,

with odd benches and fountains; inside, a rich mish-mash of Victorian era art and knick-knacks, including numerous birdcages complete with parrots and songbirds. A quite charming environment, but I think most of us found the food to be equally rich and heavy.

Back in town, we arrived at the front door of one of those renovated mansions, now converted into a spectacular gallery space,

and were greeted by the gallery director, Ruth Addison. (I was delighted to discover that she was a fellow Geordie—that, for the uninitiated, is a person born on the banks of the River Tyne in north-eastern England. I lived there only for the first year and a half of my life, but I’m still very proud of being a Geordie!)

Not only was the space spectacular. She had some pretty impressive art there, too. The current exhibit, in the first two galleries, was one Sergei Chaika,

a young artist from the Ukraine showing for the first time. Dark paintings, with glittering surfaces from many coats of varnish—mostly of single objects, portraits, nude figures, still life objects made impressive in large scale—in heavy chiaroscuro: a human heart on a plate, slightly surreal and spine-chilling in its sheer, almost palpitating presence, was one of the most powerful for the pictures, in my view. In other areas, we found the fanciful, disturbing white aluminum sculptures of A E S + F, the collaborative group whose studio we were to visit next; and a gallery of their photographs of children

from the “Last Riot” series—a vision of the future in which the bloodless violence of digital games has taken over the world.

Coffee and delicious, tiny pastries in the gallery’s graceful bar, then on to the studio of AES + F in the small eighth floor apartment of a building largely occupied by artists. We greeted with easy charm by two of the collaborators,

who signed the large catalogues of their work that were generously handed out to each of us at the gallery, showed us their newest digital video work, and told us something of their history as a group.

The work is quite extraordinary, a blend of digital imaging and games, sci-fi futurism and fantasy, and provocative, non-narrative stories. I was impressed with the modesty of the space in which this internationally-celebrated group manage to operate, and by their friendly reception of a motley gang of art enthusiasts from distant California.

A final art stop for the day in the apartment/studio of Francisco Infante, where Ellie and I were delighted to recognize work we had seen twenty years ago; and remembered having met Francisco at that time, when we were working on our artists’ exchange program. He modifies natural environments—landscapes, skyscapes—with geometric constructivist fabrications and photographs them in cibachrome, creating superb, crisp images that harminze artifice with nature.

In his crowded living area, every square inch of wall space was hung with his work, and a brief glimpse into his working studio offered insight into the way he makes his constructions with nylon wire stretched in large frames.

All in all, an excellent art day, from beginning to end. Somehow, though, my recollection of dinner has faded in the time that has elapsed between then and now, as I write this, already on board our Finnair flight for Helsinki, en route to London, where we spend another week. Let’s hope I remember what happened yesterday, Sunday, our last day in Moscow…

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