Sunday, July 29, 2012

20th Century Art and a Little Night Music

I've been having an artsy couple of weeks here in the Twin Cities. First I stopped by the Museum of Russian Art to see their latest, titled From Thaw to Meltdown: Soviet Paintings of the 1950s–1980s.

The curators did a great job of giving context to a set of eight paintings that form the core of the exhibit. The works, all from the time after Stalin's death, were part of "the process of renegotiation" of what art was in the Soviet Union. "The paintings demonstrate that many Soviet artists, rather than being passive recipients of dominant ideas, used their art to reopen public discourse that was virtually non-existent under Stalin."

I especially loved this juxtaposition:

In case the yellow headings aren't readable, the one at left says Swaggering Males, while the one at right says Disgruntled Females. The painting at left could almost be an ad for Abercrombie and Fitch, while the woman in orange overalls at right is almost anti-feminine.

Another favorite painting of mine from the exhibit contradicts the Disgruntled Female analysis:

This huge canvas (Yuri Ivanovich Bosko's "A Woman of the Volga," 1967), lit theatrically, shows a grinning woman in bright clothes, working barefoot in the sun on a boat deck. In the background are what look like battleships.

Heroic portraits of individual workers, usually men, recur throughout the exhibit. This painting by Tamaz Ambakovich Dzhincharadze, titled simply "A Miner" (1962), fills the place of honor in the first-floor gallery. (The museum is a former church, so the most prominent spot in the gallery is on the back wall of the altar area.)

What struck me most about this painting was that it didn't romanticize the worker or work. He just looks exhausted.

Soon after, I got to see the Minnesota History's Center's installation of 1934: A New Deal for Artists. Originally organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, "1934" includes paintings from the Public Works of Art Project, which ran for just six months in the early years of FDR's first term. "Artists were asked to depict 'the American Scene,' but they were encouraged to interpret this idea freely. They painted regional, recognizable subjects -- ranging from portraits to cityscapes and images of city life to landscapes and depictions of rural life -- that reminded the public of quintessential American values such as hard work, community and optimism. These artworks, which were displayed in schools, libraries, post offices, museums and government buildings, vividly capture the realities and ideals of Depression-era America."

There are 56 paintings in all.

I couldn't help seeing "Juan Duran" by Kenneth M. Adams as a contrast with the worker portraits from the Soviet-era show.

Another picture that particularly appealed to me was "Tenement Flats" by Millard Sheets, where the density of life in the lower part of the painting contrasts with the fancy houses on the hill above. The strong geometry of the composition draws the eye and invites exploration of all the details. The clothes hanging out to dry are clearly meant to communicate the poverty and disheveled nature of the tenement inhabitants. But to me, it looks like a sustainable way of living in a cohesive community that we should be thinking about bringing back.

Finally, last weekend I got to see Mu Performing Arts' production of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods. I wasn't familiar with the show, and was a little afraid it would be juvenile, but of course it wasn't at all. The stagecraft was first-rate (especially the way the giantess was handled) and the costumes, drawing from a range of Asian cultural traditions, were fun.

Katie Bradley in Japanese-inspired costume as the witch
The production has gotten great reviews all around town. I especially liked the performances of Sheena Janson as the Baker's Wife and Katie Bradley as the witch. (The two princes' renditions of "Agony" and its reprise were also great.)

It's only open for the next week, though, so if you want to go, go soon! Bonus: There's not a bad seat in the house at Park Square Theater.

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