Exhibit ‘A.’ Russian Art: Collections, Exhibitions and Archives, 21-22 March 20


Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Ilia Repin, Portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, 1901 (detail). Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Organised by the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre (CCRAC) in collaboration with the Moscow Lomonosov State University, the two-day conference Exhibit ‘A’. Russian Art: Collection, Exhibitions and Archives was remarkable for its inclusiveness. Papers ranged in scope from the very first collections of icons in the sixteenth century to contemporary exhibitions like Lissitzky-Kabakov: Utopia and Reality, on view at Kunsthaus Gratz until mid-May.  Such historical variety was matched by geographical comprehensiveness, as papers focused on art collections from the Central Asian Republics and the ‘Soviet East,’ as well as on artistic centres such as Moscow and St Petersburg. Among the speakers were academics, curators and art collectors, each contributing a different professional viewpoint.

Reflecting this inclusiveness, the conference was organised around themes rather than historical periods. Thus, the first session opened with Dr. Engelina S. Smirnova’s paper on the sixteenth-century displacement of sacred icons from regional centres to Moscow, and finished with Dr. Valery S. Turchin’s analysis of avant-garde artists’ fascination with folk prints, or lubki. Given in Russian, this paper was accompanied by a very clear English translation and by fascinating images, including a photograph of Kandinsky’s Munich apartment with framed lubki on the walls. All the papers in the first session questioned patrons’ motivations in creating a collection. For example, Dr. Alexandr S. Preobrazhenskii analysed how nineteenth-century members of the ‘Old Believers’ religious group used painted marks of ownership to express both their piety and their connoisseurship of valuable icons.

Similar questions informed the second session’s first paper, dedicated to eighteenth-century collections of Russian portrait engravings. Zalina V. Tetermarzova explained that such collections were created to illustrate the country’s history through the personality of its key historical players. One such player was Count Kirill Razumovsky, famously portrayed by Pompeo Batoni in a painting of striking grandeur. A recently rediscovered inventory enabled Vera S. Naumova to reconstruct his extensive art collection. The session was concluded by Dr. Rosalind P. Blakesley’s paper ‘Exhibiting Russian Success?,’ which used the methodology of performance studies to reveal tensions between nationalism and patriotism at the 1770 exhibition of St Petersburg Academy.

The conference’s second day opened with ‘East-west in dialogue in Imperial Russia.’ This session was very heterogeneous, encompassing topics as diverse as Alexandr Ivanov’s painting The Appearance of Christ before the People (1837-1857), the interior decoration of Moscow Museum of Fine Arts, and the legacy of Natalia Goncharova. Most interesting was Louise Hardiman’s discussion of the fascination for Russian decorative arts in late nineteenth-century London. As noted in the paper, this interest was greatly stimulated by the Great Exhibition of 1851, when Russian decorative arts were first displayed in England. Although foreign collectors prized Russian art for its alleged ‘national character,’ the exhibition began a period of real communication and exchange between the South Kensington Museum and the Stroganov School of Technical Drawing in Moscow.

The following section, ‘New State, New Art,’ discussed the importance of artistic tradition in the first decade after the revolution. Dr. Natalia Murray described the reorganisation of St Petersburg’s Winter Palace into both a ‘Palace of Arts’ open to all and a ‘Palace of the Poor’ for orphans. Chronicling the post-revolutionary exhibitions of  ‘Silver Age’ groups such as Knave of Diamonds and Fire-Colour, Dr. Alexandra P. Salienko revealed the rich diversity of the 1920s art world, by no means limited to the Constructivist avant-garde.

The next session ‘Centre and Periphery: representing the Soviet nationalities in Moscow’ explored the reception and display of artworks from the USSR’s many cultures during the 1920s and 1930s. Galina E. Abbasova described the popular festivals ‘Decades of National Art,’ which showcased art and theatre from the central Asian republics. Similar in scope was the Museum of Oriental Cultures, whose history was reconstructed by Jenn Brewin. Founded as ‘Art Asiatica’ in 1918, the museum only found lasting state support in 1926, when it became an instrument of Stalinist russification. Concentrating on the Agricultural and Domestic Crafts Exhibition held in Moscow in 1923, Dr. Alina S. Platonova described the less coercive encounter of different cultures and architectural styles in the experimental context of a vast temporary exhibition.

The conference’s last session, ‘Russian Art Abroad,’ was among my favourites. Nicholas Bueno de Mesquita’s paper was particularly interesting as it described an exhibition held at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. Titled Art in Revolution, the show opposed a purely formalistic interpretation of avant-garde art. Thus, it both facilitated the rediscovery of politicised avant-garde architecture and tangibly revealed Cold-War tensions, witness a closed-down reconstruction of El Lissitzky’s Proun room.

All together, the conference was a fantastic opportunity to discover many different facets of Russian art. Focusing on collections and exhibitions, it revealed the importance of art in personal and national self-representation. Encompassing both the production and the reception of artworks, it also offered insights on changing interpretations of Russian art in England and Western Europe.


Utopia III: Contemporary Russian Art and the Ruins of Utopia

Ilya Kabakov, The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment, 1968-88

In February, I attended the Utopia III conference held through the Cambridge Courtauld Russian Art Centre. The conference was the third in a series addressing the theme of ‘utopia’ within Russian art, with each focusing on a different time period; Utopia III focused on contemporary art. This was the first of the conference series I was able to attend, and it left me regretting that I had missed the previous two.

Days later, I still found myself thinking about the idea of utopia, both as it concerned Soviet art and as it connected to other realms of my academic and non-academic interests— particularly, my penchant for reading dystopian novels, which normally constitutes a wholly non-academic escape. I found the keynote speaker, Mikhail Epstein, particularly intriguing in this respect. His topic, ‘The Philosophical Underpinnings of Russian Conceptualism’, drew parallels for me between the concept of the utopian he described, which he argued was grounded in philosophical ideas predating Soviet ideology, and the philosophical exercise that seems to be at the heart of many dystopian novels. Central to the genre, of course, is the desire to posit the ramifications of Soviet-era politics and totalitarian moments of 20th century history, but also often motifs drawn from classical-era philosophies of government.

Though by a strict definition, ‘utopian’ and ‘dystopian’ are opposing ideas, they exist in tension, with the second reliant upon the first to exist. Both are united in a joint exercise in constructing an alternate version of reality: one optimistically plausible, the other existing in order to identify the fundamental flaws in the former. Though the term ‘dystopia’ was not investigated at this conference, I often detected the blurry line between the two. One example, used by multiple speakers, was Ilya Kabakov’s “The Man Who Flew Into Space from his Apartment.” This installation artwork depicts the aftermath of the apartment belonging to the eponymous man in space. His cramped living quarters, wallpapered with Soviet propaganda, are now furnished by the aftermath of his successful space mission. Through the work’s highly narrative composition, the viewer is able to infer the action that preceded the current tableau, while simultaneously detecting the cracks in a supposedly utopian Soviet society: the propaganda feels suffocating, and must be escaped.

Epstein proposed that conceptual art is the visual counterpart to philosophy, and has been understood this way by some of the artists themselves. This proved somewhat controversial in the Q&A portion following his talk, although I found his argument fairly convincing. In my understanding of dystopian literature the connection seems apt: conceptual art, like literature, becomes a method of exploring abstract ideas in a concrete sense, as if running a simulation to prove exactly where grand theories, in our imperfect reality, will fall short.