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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

Museum of the Month

Painting Classes
An afternoon at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Petrovka becomes a lesson on the history of Russian art in the 20th century.
By Michele A. Berdy

 The courtyard of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

After the great avant-garde innovations of art during the Revolutionary period, officially-sanctioned art in the USSR was Socialist Realism: glorified workers and peasants bringing peace and prosperity to the Soviet people. Over the years the glorification aspects faded, but art remained largely representational and decidedly middle-brow: landscapes, still lifes and portraits. “Non-conformist” art (anything that was non-representational and did not conform to official canons) was banned from public exhibition, and non-conformist artists were persecuted, jailed, incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals or exiled.

For some artists with a knack for dissimulation, life was not utterly miserable. If they were members of the artists’ union, they got steady monthly salaries in return for producing a few works a year (landscapes for Worker’s Clubs, sculptures for parks), and could earn even more doing special commissions. They usually had studios and free time to create what they wished. True, they couldn’t publicly exhibit their innovative art. But they could arrange “apartment exhibitions” and sell their works privately to collectors, both Russian and foreign.

During the 1960s-1980s, many of the Soviet Union’s greatest works of this underground art were sold to a handful of insightful private collectors, like Norton Dodge and Tatiana Kolodzei. If at first the authorities tried to halt these purchases, over time the official line softened: if foreigners wanted to waste their money on abstract junk, that was their problem, and if these sales and a few sanctioned exhibitions of non-conformist art kept the lid from blowing off the simmering dissident art movement — it was worth closing official eyes to “suitcase art” as it left the country.

Of course, many art specialists in the Soviet Union didn’t think this was “junk” at all, and even curators at the Tretyakov and other Russian museums used state funds to buy some works. But it wasn’t until the Sotheby’s auction of Russian contemporary art in 1988 that everyone sat up and took notice: a painting by an unknown artist, Grisha Bruskin, sold for over $400,000. Russian museums must have scrambled to see what they could acquire. But by then the train had left the station. The best artists had been slipping out of the country by various means throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. When the reforms of the Gorbachev years threw open the country’s doors, many artists left with their works or signed exclusive contracts with foreign galleries. Even if the museums had had money to spend on art — and by the end of the Soviet era, they didn’t even have money to pay their staffs — there was little non-conformist art left to buy. Several generations of contemporary art had disappeared from Russia.

And then came Zurab Tsereteli to the rescue. He donated his personal collection of 20th century Russian and foreign art to found a new museum, the Moscow Museum of Contemporary Art. The collection, which was opened to the public in December 1999, is housed in a beautifully renovated 18th century manor house at 25 Ulitsa Petrovka.

Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli takes a tour of his own museum.

It is an uneven collection, to say the least. There is perhaps more of Tseriteli’s own work than one might want (particularly in the courtyard), very little of the brilliant period of Russian art from the 1960s through the 1980s, and the space, while fresh and bright, is too small for many of the monumental works. But the curators are trying to fill in the gaps, and there are a few treasures that art lovers shouldn’t miss.

The first floor may be of interest to fans of conceptualist art. If you are not one, head immediately to the second floor. The first room on the left and the first two rooms on the right house the museum’s collection of early 20th century art, including works by Rodchenko, Kandinsky, Falk, Burliuk, Goncharova, Larionov, Tatlin, Exter and some truly excellent Malevich canvases. Many of the paintings are secondary or early, but there are a few gems. There is an entire room of works by Pirosmani and several canvases by Chagal. There is also a sketch of a ballet costume by Leon Bakst and a costume lit brilliantly in a case.

Although there are a few works scattered about the museum by the great artists of the “underground art period” (look for Zverev in particular), only a few paintings (including one by Oscar Rabin) could be considered worthy representatives of the era. On the second floor, a new work (2003) by Komar and Melamid, masters of SotsArt (a kind of tribute to and parody of Socialist Realism), is so atypical you wonder if the name card is wrong, but on the third floor you can find a drawing they made of Lenin’s mausoleum with a flashing advertising screen along the top. This was their contribution to a witty group project on “what to do with Lenin” held over a decade ago. Here the title is rather bland and misleading, but the sketch gives you a sense of their exuberance and irreverence.

Before you leave, be sure to stop at the small kiosk by the entrance. You can buy avant-garde t-shirts (230 rubles), wild hand-painted ties (1200 rubles) or some interesting jewelry.

WHERE: 25 ul. Petrovka. Metro: Chekhovskaya. Walk or drive down Strastnoi Boulevard from Pushkin Square (toward Trubnoi Square), and turn right on Petrovka. The museum is on the right side of the street.

WHEN AND HOW MUCH:  The museum is open every day except Tuesday, from noon to 8pm (on Monday it closes at 7pm). The entrance fee is 150 rubles for foreigners, 30 rubles for Russians and 10 for children. For more information, call 231 4405. Web site:

LANGUAGE FACTOR:  All the works are described by cards in Russian and English. There is no floor plan.

Kid factor:  Do your kids like New York’s Museum of Modern Art? If so, they might like this. If not — better hire a babysitter.

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