Russian Art in New Zealand

20 June 2009 - 20 September 2009

Galleries and private collections in this country have examples of art from many countries apart from Aotearoa New Zealand. In every case there is a particular reason why such material should have found its way to the south of the Pacific, often far from the country of origin.

Part of our fascination with the visual is to learn the stories of these images – what part they played in their country of origin, where they were made, by whom, why are they here, what is their significance in our day and age, what meanings might they have had, why do they still have value, how do they add to the richness of our own culture?

The Russian art on display in this exhibition found its way here because of the connections many New Zealanders have had with Russia over the past hundred years – travellers, scholars, diplomats, collectors, businessmen, those fascinated by traditions of art making that are exotic to both pakeha and Maori.

Russian art is exotic. The exotic always has a fascination, an air of mystery, a flavour of difference. It makes us want to know more, to understand the why, how and what for.

These images are a long way from home. By bringing them together from different part of Aotearoa New Zealand we may, for a brief time, give them a feeling of being part of a temporary Little Russia in Dunedin.

Russia was converted to Christianity from Byzantium in the 10thcentury AD.

Until the eighteenth century all Russian figurative art was religious, images of stories of the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible or of the Saints and Fathers of the Russian Orthodox Church. These images were, at first, painted as frescos on the plaster walls of churches in Central and Northern Russia or depicted in mosaics in the cathedrals of Kiev. Smaller images on wood – icons - were hung on the screen separating the sanctuary from the congregation. Eventually this modest screen became an elaborate wall of images from floor almost to the ceiling and across the whole width of the central ailse. This wall of pictures was known as the iconostasis.

Most Russian homes also had icons placed in the ‘red corner’ of the living space. You turned to the icons, crossed yourself and bowed at the waist on entering and leaving the house, and could pray before the icons at other times. These domestic icons tended to be smaller than those in churches and cathedrals. Most of those in this exhibition are domestic icons.

Small, sometimes tiny, icons, were sold at sites of pilgrimage – like the Marian brass icon Grant Joy to Those Who Grieveor the Solovetsky Monastery icon of 1841 in this exhibition. Some of these may have been worn as pendants or carried in the pocket.

The Triptych from the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s collection was a travelling icon, the sides brought together over the centre to make it smaller and more easily transportable.

Icons were made by collectives of carpenters and painters. Some of their workshops were grand – like the Armoury attached to the Kremlin in Moscow. Most were modest, the painters being trained in the local workshop and seldom leaving the district. Some villages specialised in icon painting, particularly in the 19thcentury, when the production of icons reached vast proportions. Three villages, Palekh, Mstiora and Kholui, lying close to each other east of Moscow. became the centre of this mass production. A number of icons in this exhibition probably come from these villages.

The Russian Orthodox Church made symbolic changes to ritual and the painting of icons following the Great Moscow Council of 1666-7. Those who refused to go along with these changes became known as Old Believers, who continued to paint icons using symbols that had become traditional in Russian Orthodox icon painting. There are examples of both Old Believer and official Russian Orthodox icons in this exhibition.

Russian icons followed the conventions of Byzantine art. These principles were reinforced by Greek artists who travelled to, and sometimes settled in, Russia. It was not until the 18thcentury that icons were influenced by the changes in figurative painting from the West – there are one or two icons showing the influence of the so-called friazhskii(Frankish) style in this exhibition.

Kovshiand Ceramic Figures
Kovshi– or ladles – were originally made of wood and used for taking a quantity of liquid from a barrel or other container. They sometimes had a handle made in the shape of a duck’s head or a horse, associated with pre-Christian animism. In the Middle Ages kovshi, made of gold or silver and decorated with precious or semi-precious stones were made in the workshops associated with princely houses. They were offered as gifts to visiting dignitaries and ambassadors, or given as marks of favour to those who had rendered some conspicuous service. In the revival of Russian native crafts towards the end of the nineteenth century kovshiwere made by the great craft studios of Fabergé in St Petersburg, or in the workshops of specialists in Moscow, such as Pavel Ochinnikov or Nikolai Alekseev, where our exhibited examples were probably made at the beginning of the 20th century. The sugar bowl with swing handle belongs to the same workshop.

In 1907 Pavel Kamensky was commissioned to design a series of figurines of ‘The Peoples of Russia’, based upon the collection of costumes and artefacts in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St Petersburg. Over a ten-year period Kamensky designed 146 figures that were cast in porcelain and painted with overglaze enamels at the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St Petersburg. The two figures in this exhibition come from this series and both bear the mark of the Russian Imperial warrant.

Icons were often covered with metal to protect the painted surface. These decorated metal covers are called ‘oklady’ (singular – oklad). The metal was designed so as to leave openings to reveal the faces and hands of the depicted figures. Okladywere generally made of silver gilt, though more modest coverings were made of stamped tin that had the semblance of silver. There were also very rich okladymade of gold and silver embossed with precious and semi-precious stone, particularly varieties of pearls, often embellished by layers of gifted adornments over time. Many of these icons had their coverings removed in the austere reforms of the 17thcentury. Some okladywere so elaborate as to become art objects in themselves – the 19thcentury Christ the Almightyin its glass case in this exhibition is an example of this type of ‘over-the-top’ oklad. At the end of the nineteenth century there was a revival of Russian filigree work and enamelling, both processes being used to enhance oklady.

The okladalso protected icons from the smoke of the offertory candles lit before them and the incense from the censers swung in their vicinity. From frequent exposure to smoke the linseed varnish over the painted surface of the icons became dark, so that often the image was all but obscured. There are examples of these dark surfaces in the exhibition. It was not unusual for icons to be ‘renewed’, repainted over the linseed oil and re-varnished, so that some ancient icons could have many layers of paint and varnish, which were then covered by an  oklad.

One of the many difficulties in dating icons lies in the fact that 19thcentury okladywere often attached to images painted many years before.

Icons are almost always painted on pine or limewood boards. The simpler nineteenth or early twentieth-century domestic icons, of which there are a number in the exhibition, are painted with commercial colours directly onto the treated board. The more elaborate, and the older icons, have a carved central recess for the image (kovcheg), leaving the edge as a frame. Horizontal grooves are cut into the back of the board to hold the splines (shponki) that prevent the board from warping – though that is not always successful. Many of the icons exhibited have these splines on the back of the board.

The more elaborate icons have a piece of linen glued to the recess, which acts as a ground for the gesso (ground chalk or alabaster mixed with glue) that acts as a type of plaster surface – remember that icon painters in the past may also have been fresco painters. The outlines of the image, often taken from a pattern book (podlinnik), were incised into the gesso surface with a stylus. The board was then ready for painting. One member of the workshop was entrusted with filling in the background – in earlier icons in gold, the colour of the divine world, and the landscape, buildings, drapery. The most senior members of a workshop painted the hands, feet and heads. Yet others added the written inscriptions. Linseed varnish was added to give a tonal unity to the image, as well as to protect the paint from damage.

Some icons had parts painted by different workshops and at different times and in different places. The four-part icon from the early 19thcentury, with The Virgin Orans, St Nicholas, Sergei of Radonezh by his Parents Ttomb and Sergei and German, has this sort of complex history.

The icon may then have been covered by an oklad, a metal protector.

At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth Russian artists became intimately connected with developments in the art world of Western Europe – Impressionism, Fauvis, Cubism and so on. Russians read articles and studied the illustrations of a whole range of art magazines that came on the market at this time in France, England and Germany. Russian collectors visited Paris and bought artworks directly from the studios of artists such as Picasso and Matisse. Young Russian artists brought together the revival in their own traditions, including that of icons, with the innovations of Western Modernism, bringing their richly hybrid images for exhibition in the avant-garde world of Western Europe.

Natalia Goncharova and her partner Mikhail Larionov were prolific artists and energetic leaders of the Russian avant-garde. Diaghilev brought their work to Paris in 1906, together with the art of other members of the Russian avant-garde, as well as a rich exhibition of newly restored icons. In 1909 Diaghilev promoted the first season the Ballets Russesin Paris, employing a whole generation of the Russian avant-garde as set and costume designers, including Larionov and Goncharova.

In 1909 the sculptor Alexander Arkhipenko moved from Russia to Paris where he immediately became caught up with the cubist style, making the two sculptures in this exhibition during that period, before emigrating to the United States in 1923. During his years in Paris his studio became a centre for the many Russian artists who visited, exhibited and studied for short periods in the French capital. Osip Zadkin was also a part-Russian sculptor working in Paris in the cubist style. Both Arkhipenko and Zadkin were also accomplished print-makers.

Kandinsky and Chagall were prominent members of that colony of Russians in Paris, but they also took part in the many exhibitions of Modernist work in Russia, returning home in 1914, only to emigrate again to the West in the early 1920s.

In 1969 the Russian print-maker Yury Podliasky (1923-1987) visited Dunedin as part of a Soviet goodwill mission. Whilst in the city he made a gift of twenty contemporary Soviet prints to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. There seems no reason why Dunedin should have been singled out for this particular favour. At the time gifts of Soviet prints were regarded not so much as goodwill, but as a soft manifestation of Cold War propaganda. It was a gift some in the West might not have welcomed!

The prints lay, for the most part, unexhibited in the vaults of the Gallery for forty years, but more recently they have been seen, in a sense, as unique. They are the only clutch of such prints in Australasia. They are representative of Soviet domestic art from the 1950s and 60s, competent, unremarkable, conservative. The collection includes the work of some senior Soviet print-makers and academic teachers of the period, including Georgy Vereisky, who represented the Soviet Union at the Venice Biennale in 1924, and Aleksei Pakhomov, who also represented his country at Venice in 1932.

The subjects range from the landscapes of Zvontsov, Ushin and Podliasky himself to Vilner’s street scene and the more overt propaganda of Kovalev. Only Nikolai Kostrov’s Russian Teahas faint echoes of the French avant-garde colourist Matisse or his Russian adherent Pavel Kuznetsov.

This collection of prints, taken as a whole, is representative of an era, highlighting human aspects of Soviet life, the quiet modesty of the Russian landscape, a sense of the now almost forgotten positive aspects of Soviet achievements.

In the last twenty years Russian art has experienced all the ups and downs of post-Soviet fortunes. Artists have rushed to embrace the latest trends from the West – conceptual art, abject art, installations, multi-media assemblages, electronic arts, post-everything expressionism. There has also been a return to well-established Russian traditions, such as the icon and neo-primitivism, as well as, more surprisingly, aspects of Soviet art that had previously been unremarked – the circus and masquerade (which themselves had their roots in Russian folk theatre) and a sceptical urbanism reminiscent of the 1920s, what might more generally be called  Soviet retro, linking these paintings with the Soviet prints in the collection of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

These retro styles are uniquely represented in this exhibition by works that have a particular relationship with New Zealand as all the artists have shown their works in the early years of the 21stcentury at the Mindovsky Mansion, home to the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow.

The most significant of these artists is Elena Cherkasova, who was born in Moscow in 1959. She studied art as a young woman before turning to the Orthodox Church in 1980. She worked exclusively for the church until returning to the painting of images in 1996. Two years later she had her first exhibition in Moscow, since then her reputation has grown both in Russia and overseas. She held an exhibition in the Mindovsky Mansion in 2005, from which the five works based on the theme of ‘The Nativity’ are shown here were purchased. Cherkasova’s style is based on a blend of primitive painting style found in early Russian frescoes and provincial icons, and the neo-primitivism of Goncharova. Cherkasova is scheduled to have a solo exhibition in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow in November 2009, a rare honour for a living artist.

From the 1990s Liudmila Varlamova has shown her work around the world from Rome to Indiana. She also held an exhibition at the Mindovsky Mansion in 2005. Her chic sophistication is reminiscent of many Soviet artists of the 1920s, particularly the school of Artur Fonvizin and Nikolai Tyrsa.

Yevgeny Rastorguev, a painter and ceramicist now in his late eighties, also belongs in this milieu of Soviet retro, reminiscent of Aleksandr Tyshler, in his more boisterous, knock-about circus studies. Rastorguev has become something of a cult figure, seeming to represent ‘old Russian’ values, a link with lyrical folk tales, a grass roots integrity that feed a deep national nostalgia under the skin of any Russian. Rastorguev’s exhibition at the Mindovsky Mansion was held in 2004. Natasha Pankova’s bright flower painting brings to mind the decoration on Russian trays and scarves, the perpetual optimism of folk art. She works in Nizhny Novgorod but has also exhibited internationally.

Yury Ryzhik is a much acclaimed senior Russian print-maker, represented by galleries not only in Russia but also overseas.  He was born in Moscow in 1936, where he worked for many years as a book illustrator. In the last twenty years he has turned complex, composite works based upon his reading of favourite authors, including Heinrich Heine, Kafka and Andrei Platonov. These etchings are not so much illustrations as imaginative musing upon themes from books and mythology, expanding to create complex representations of a dream world entirely of Ryzhik’s own.

Cumulatively the work of these artists look back to Russian native traditions, to the icon, to the pre-revolutionary avant-garde in its neo-primitive manifestation, to Soviet domestic art – in contrast to Revolutionary propaganda, to a quietist Russian sentiment quite at odds with the brasher rough and tumble of other contemporary Russian art that owes more to the current fashions of Western post-industrial visual culture.

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