Sunday, January 17, 2010

Russian Art in Minneapolis

Exterior of church-turned-museum with banner reading Explore the Art of Russia
Not many people know that Minneapolis is home to the "only museum in North America solely dedicated to the preservation and presentation of Russian art and artifacts." Founded in 2002 and opened in this renovated church during 2005, the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) is a shining example of what a small museum can be: focused, immaculately kept, and well curated.

Growing up in Cold War America, I learned almost nothing about Russian art. At some point, I picked up the idea that it was all Socialist Realism, depicting happy workers in photorealstic detail, and that such a genre had no value.

TMORA shows that this stereotype is not accurate, exhibiting pre- and post-Soviet-era work, as well as Soviet-era work that's not about workers. However, I do find that I am drawn to the works that would be classified as Socialist Realism, particularly the ones showing women. The paintings I like best are not photorealistic, though, tending instead toward a more impressionist approach.

A tall vertical painting of two women shown at the front of a church-like space
One example is Yuri Pimenov's "First of May Celebration" (1950), a large canvas effectively displayed by the museum staff in the former church's apse. The 8.5' tall painting is on view in the U.S. for the first time.

Painting showing one woman standing on a ledge above another
In it, two young women work high on the facade of a building above a street where a triumphal parade will soon occur. I imagine the painter chose to show women instead of men because it provided a contrast with the U.S. way of life (not too many women were working up on our buildings in 1950), making a statement about equality under the Soviet system.

As they hang a red flag, they seem serious and even a bit dowdy, their hair wrapped up tight and their overalls baggy. But each one wears a black belt that cinches in the waist of her denims, and I couldn't help wondering if that belt was functional or meant to reveal a bit of vanity. I didn't see any tools hanging from the belts, and the painting clearly shows all four sides of one woman or the other, so if there were tools, they should have been visible.

Three milkmaids in white with kerchiefs lounge on grass against a fence, laughing
Another painting that stood out for me is Nikolai Baskakov's "Milkmaids, Novella" (1962). This is one of the most popular paintings in the museum's collection. Clearly, these are happy workers, but it's a human moment, not an artificial one.

A woman in a white kerchief shades her eyes
One last painting that stopped me was Vasili Kirillovich Nechitailo's "Team Leader" (1965). This isn't the whole image -- it's a full body image, down to her feet, as she pauses for a moment in the field. This is one woman in the exhibit who doesn't look happy -- heroic, in a sense, but not happy. The accompanying text quotes the painter's wife, remembering the day as very hot, yet the women workers were in a celebratory mood because of the harvest.

Entry art for Photographer to the Tsar
Despite being distracted by the women of Socialist Realism, the reason we went to the museum was to see the photographs of Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, who invented a way to shoot color photographs around the turn of the 20th century. He spent ten years photographing people and places throughout the empire for the last czar. The images in TMORA's exhibit are all from the trip he took along the Silk Road, which runs from Iran and China.

His method involved taking three separate photos at close intervals, using different filters to capture red, green and blue light. This means that if a picture has people or animals in it, you can sometimes see examples where there was motion between the three shots, which looks like blurs of blue, red or green.

Red and green double doors with blue trim
Buildings and landscapes are pristine, however, such as these gates to a tomb in Bukhara.

Colorful tile wall with patches of mortar in spots
The tile detail is beautiful, but the deterioration is almost as striking.

Nomadic man, woman and child sit in a field with their belongings
There are 26 photos in the exhibit, each shown as a large, backlit transparency. Almost all the images portray either buildings or men. Only two show women, as in this one of a nomadic Kyrgyz family on the steppe.

Young woman stands in front of a yurt, a red carpet at her feet
The only other woman is actually a girl, "the younger wife of a Turkman" in front of her yurt home in Merv. The red rug was made by Turkmen women, whose weaving skills were highly prized. "The distinctive red dye came from the boiled root of the madder plant, which grows wild in the desert," according to the accompanying text.

The photo exhibit is fascinating, and makes for a nice contrast with the paintings in the museum's collection. Because the photo subjects had to hold still as much as possible, they sometimes look less real than the people in the paintings. But the diversity of people and ethnicities in the photos, evidenced by their dress and the places they inhabit, is very different from the vision of Russia that is shown in the paintings.

More photos by Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii:
On a website called
On the Library of Congress site


Blythe said...

TMORA is now on my "Must in Minneapolis" list. Twenty-some years ago I saw a traveling exhibition of Russian art in Seattle. It started in prehistory and progressed through time to the present--with examples of architecture, ornament, clothing, ceramics, and visual arts. By the time I left I was wrung out. I hadn't brought my notebook and I didn't buy the catalog--stupid me. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self: Remember the name of this painting; you will think of it often. TMORA. I will go to TMORA because I can't go back in time.

elena said...

My mother took me to TMORA last year, and I was impressed. Such a great redesign/reuse of the church. The photos look very interesting, and yes - nice contrast to the paintings.

Ah, an afternoon in a museum. Thanks for giving us a virtual tour!

Ms Sparrow said...

I still haven't been there but your
sample of the offerings has given me a lot of incentive. I'm putting it on my to-do list!

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I've known about this for a long time, but your post really makes me want to get there to see it! Thanks.