Russian treasures dazzle at Walters


October 16, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

For the past few weeks, there's been a crush of people on Centre Street waiting to get inside the Walters Art Gallery for an exhibit of medieval Russian Orthodox religious art.

Most mornings this week, about 500 people have passed through the doors in the gallery's opening hour. It's not a record crowd for the museum, but it does illustrate the pull of one of downtown Baltimore's major cultural institutions.

"Gates of Mystery: The Art of Holy Russia" is a quintessential Walters exhibition, the kind of show synonymous with this venerable place. The art is splendid and removed by time; descriptive labels are long and chock full of historic detail. Much credit goes to curator Gary Vikan, who wrote the descriptions. You leave the place knowing more than when you walked in.

Many of the Russian paintings and needlework pieces are ancient, more than 700 years old. They make for a moving experience, immersed in the mystery, spirituality and piety of the Old and New Testaments. Visitors remark they have returned two and three times to see the works. Some will stand transfixed before the image of a saint so vividly rendered in Slavic red and gold. Others have come to see the religious treasures so long disfavored by Soviet communism.

The public's emphatic response to "Gates of Mystery" caught the Walters staff off guard. Early on, museum-goers cleaned out a 10,000-copy press run of the "Gallery Guide," a publication that explained the show. A full-color catalog was not ready for sale at all. Such is the price of being the first U.S. institution to display these treasures.

The exhibit opened the last week in August, a time when the city was only beginning to emerge from the summer vacation season. After a successful opening for members, the show made a quiet debut. There was nothing like the shouts of publicity that accompanied a Monet exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art a year ago. Attendance began to climb after Labor Day and peaked this week. The exhibit closes Sunday, and will move on to other cities.

The high attendance at the exhibit can be attributed mostly to word of mouth. Although the Walters placed some advertisements -- in newspapers, on radio and on Mass Transit Administration buses -- and invited the art critics, the show has drawn such high numbers because this moving and fascinating subject matter has people talking.

Baltimore is a still a word-of-mouth town. People who are too busy to read something will be spurred into action if their family and friends talk about it.

More than one person who saw the exhibit had the feeling of being in a Russian cathedral during a Lenten vesper service. Recorded monastic chants amplified throughout the galleries add to the spirituality of the exhibit. Only lighted beeswax candles and smoking incense are missing.

It isn't difficult to envision 16th century women in convents lovingly stitching gold thread on damask to make one of the burial palls displayed here. Or to imagine an artist painting the horse on which St. George rides as he slays a dragon.

Howard White, the Walters' chief of publicity, says the show received a gratifying boost when a National Public Radio reporter toured the exhibit after East Coast newspaper art critics had hailed the works.

The day the three-minute segment was broadcast across the country, the museum had inquiries from Maine to California. "The calls kept coming in on a cycle that reflected the time zones in the country," White says.

"Gates of Mystery" closes Sunday at the Walters Art Gallery, Charles and Centre streets.

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