In a year marking the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, several prominent New York institutions are showcasing collections drawn from the opulent days of pre-Soviet Russia.
That nation’s rise from relative isolation to global empire and its interaction with Europe, Asia and the Americas is the subject of "Russia Engages the World, 1453-1825," an exhibition of hundreds of works on paper at the New York Public Library. Another exhibition, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, celebrates the founding of Peter the Great’s imperial capital with a display of 75 luxury items either made or found in St. Petersburg.
Russian history is similarly the theme of a show of contemporary art currently on view at the Yeshiva University Museum, but the work assembled there (by 22 artists including Natalya Nesterova, Komar & Melamid, Ilya Kabakov and Semyon Faibisovich) reflects a less brilliant era and a more conflicted retrospective vision.
The paintings, sculpture and photographs on view in "Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia," at YUM through February 2004, deconstruct the cultural inheritance peculiar to Russian and Soviet artists, often by appropriating Soviet symbols: the flag, the parade, the stalwart leader.
But even in their apparent mockery, artists born and raised in the Soviet Union "also have a certain nostalgia and respect for their past," explained the exhibition’s curator, Alexandre Gertsman. "They put a lot of love in [their work] – and a lot of hate."
"Remembrance" has no organizing principle (no specific theme, style or school) save a shared engagement with memory, be it historical, political, artistic or personal.
Flipping through the exhibition’s 160-page catalogue (with essays by Donald Kuspit and Edward Lucie-Smith, among other scholars) Gertsman stops at an image of Oleg Vassiliev’s "Home With an Attic" series (1991).
Sepia-toned scenes of genteel pre-Soviet life are interspersed with black-and-white pages from the Pravda newspaper starkly punctuated with red silhouettes of workers, warriors and images of Lenin.
"It’s a revolution" (disruptive and aggressive) "but it’s beautiful," Gerstman said of the work.
Lev Poliakov frames a 1965 black-and-white photograph of parade-bound comrades so as to decapitate a Soviet leader portrayed in posters in the background. The team of Komar & Melamid beheads Stalin in the place of Holofernes in "Judith on the Red Square" (1993).
Other images play with the sudden confrontation with the West following the economic and social liberalization of Mikahil Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika and Glastnost.
Leonid Sokov’s bronze and mixed media sculpture "Stalin and Marilyn" (1990) humorously pairs two icons from East and West, one stern, one smiling. Elsewhere, U.S. trademarks enter the symbolic vocabulary: In a 1996 lithograph, Alexander Kosolapov shows Lenin and Stalin in conference under a bright red Marlboro banner.
To Gertsman, such images reveal (or betray) a reverence and respect for the old regime, which at the very least imposed order, promised a level of sustenance and offered some artists fame or, alternatively, notoriety.
"If you hate Stalin so much, why use his image for 25 years of your creative life?" Gertsman asked rhetorically.
A Ukraine native, Gertsman spoke to The Jewish Week in his home on the Upper West Side. The apartment serves as an informal gallery space for the artists whose careers he helps to promote. The hallways and living room are hung wall-to-wall with canvases by Komar & Melamid, Nesterova, Vitaly Dlugy and Grisha Bruskin.
Bruskin’s sculptures of mystical creatures fill one of two coffee tables. On the other, Gertsman lays out a breakfast of coffee, fruit and cottage cheese made in Brooklyn by his mother. (After six years in New York, she still does not trust American brands, Gerstman said.)
An energetic presence with brown curls and green eyes, Gertsman came to the United States in 1992. Then a successful architect in his early 30s, Gertsman and others of his generation felt that the progress that had blossomed immediately after Perestroika was beginning to stagnate. He left for more fertile ground in the United States, and found it in the field of contemporary Russian art.
In 1993, he founded the Society for the Advancement of Understanding Post-Modern Russian Art, a foundation aimed at exposing Western audiences to works of Eastern European artists who had been suppressed under Soviet rule.
The society had its first exhibition that year at the Krasdale Food Gallery in the Bronx, and subsequently changed its intentionally ironic Soviet-sounding name to the zippier IntArt ó International Foundation of Russian and Eastern European Art, Inc. (Gertsman remains the foundation’s president.) Subsequent exhibitions opened at Johns Hopkins University, the Bnai Brith Klutznick Museum and the National Museum of Women in Art.
Gertsman plans for an expanded version of "Remembrance" to travel to university galleries in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., then on to contemporary art museums throughout Eastern Europe.
The fascination with Russian art that had propelled the careers of artists like Nesterova and Bruskin had peaked by the time Gertsman arrived here. But he sees no lack of interest today.
"For a lot of people, Russian art started in the late 1970s, when there was the first burst of Russian artists," including many emigre Jews who left with the help of the Soviet Jewry movement, Gertsman said. But "for a lot of Americans, it’s still something new and intriguing."
"Remembrance" introduces some rarely exhibited works by famous artists and works by those less known, including the painters Vitaly Dlugy, who died in 1990, and Michael Odnoralov, who lives on the Lower East Side.
Many of the works in "Remembrance" deal with notorious aspects of Soviet life, offering a window into what was the dismal reality for millions: lines to buy sparsely stocked goods, shared apartments and forced participation in patriotic parades lead by "semi-educated peasants," Gertsman explained, barely disguising a decades-old contempt.
Of course, part of the nostalgia underlying "Remembrance" is a longing for cultural glories that were crushed, co-opted, hidden or forced underground.
Artists quote the imagery of those who ushered in the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century: Kazimir Malevich, a founder of modernism, the Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko and Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstract art (and, with the composer Arnold Schoenberg, the subject of an exhibition at The Jewish Museum).
Gertsman himself was in his twenties before he saw a painting by the Russian-born painter Marc Chagall. And that work was displayed not in a major museum, but in a small-town gallery.
Asked if there was a correlation between "Remembrance" and the exhibitions celebrating St. Peterburg’s tricentennial, Gertsman pointed to photographs by Leningrad natives Lev Poliakov and Naum Kazhdan.
He said their work does, in a way, celebrate the city. "It’s a continuation of its history."
In conjunction with the "Remembrance," IntArt and YUM present an ongoing Festival of Russian Art and Culture. On Thurs., Nov. 6, there will be a gallery talk, recital and screening of the futurist opera "Victory Over the Sun" by Kazimir Malevich. On Thurs., Nov. 20, Gertsman discusses works from the exhibition as violinist Dorothy Happel and pianist Marianne Wyman play music by the Russian composers.
"Remembrance: Russian Post-Modern Nostalgia" is on view through Feb. 1, at Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th St., Manhattan (212) 294-8330. Tues.-Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. $6, $4. For festival tickets and information, call (917) 606-8200 or visit www.yumuseum.org or www.intart.org.
"Russia Engages the World,1453-1825" is on view at the New York Public Library through Jan. 31. The Metropolitan Museum of Art shows "Celebrating Saint Petersburg" through Jan. 25.