Russian Reflection

Walters exhibits examine the origins of avant-garde as well as frothy Faberge

Baltimore Vivat!

February 12, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The artistic ferment that swept Europe at the turn of the 20th century saw young artists everywhere reject the tradition of elaborate realistic depiction - a tradition epitomized by the art of the official French Salons - in favor of the bold forms and bright colors of so-called "primitive" art.

In Paris, Picasso and Braque invented cubism inspired by their discovery of African sculpture. Gauguin and Matisse emulated the qualities of Japanese prints, the decorative arts of Oceania and the Near East, and children's drawings.

In Russia, avant-garde artists also proclaimed their rejection of the official salon style taught in the art academies of the country's cultural capital at St. Petersburg.

But while keenly aware of the exciting new developments taking place in Western Europe, the restless younger generation of Russian artists - many of whom had studied in Paris - felt no need to look outside their own country for models.

Inspired by an intense nationalism and love for the rich heritage of Russian folk art and religious icons, they instead sought to transform the centuries-old traditions of peasant culture and recast them as vibrant statements of the modern age.

This is the story brilliantly recounted by Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde, a stunning exhibit that opens today at the Walters Art Museum as part of Vivat!, Baltimore's citywide celebration of the 300th birthday of St. Petersburg. The show brings together masterworks by some of Russia's most important artists from the first three decades of the 20th century - including Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Natalia Goncharova - plus dozens of examples of traditional Russian folk art, religious icons, peasant costumes and popular prints.

This show helps explain how modernism developed in Russia out of the native artists' deep regard for their country's diverse ethnic cultures and folk traditions, which they used as a springboard for an avant-garde style that owed its uniqueness largely to indigenous sources.

The argument unfolds through presentation of some 70 paintings, religious icons, examples of folk art, peasant costumes, works on paper and even commercial signboards and household utensils that demonstrate the fascinating intermingling of "high" and "low" art that nurtured Russian modernism.

One of the highlights of the exhibit is the attention given to Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, who met as students at the Moscow Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in 1901 and became lifelong artistic and romantic companions.

It was Goncharova and Larionov who, both together and separately in their work, championed the style known as Neoprimitivism, a synthesis of Russian folk art and French Post-Impressionism and Fauvism.

Goncharova and Larionov were also instrumental in forming the first independent exhibit group in Moscow, which they called "The Jack of Diamonds." In Russian, the phrase is a sly reference to the kind of roguish behavior - their repudiation, in particular, of established ideas of technical skill in favor of deliberately crude, even bawdy imagery - that was calculated to shock the bourgeoisie.

In Peasants, for example, Goncharova's depiction of Russia's long-suffering rural agricultural workers, the two stylized male figures are given monumental form in the manner of Gauguin's Tahitian portraits, set against a shallow dark background of earth and sky rendered in exaggeratedly somber shades of green and blue.

The painting manages to convey both the harsh conditions of peasant life and a stark beauty that highlights the poignant dignity of these deeply burdened figures.

It also shows how Goncharova did not simply copy the naive forms of Russian folk art but transformed them into a thoroughly modern statement of the Russian spirit.

Ironically, at the very moment Russian avant-garde artists were discovering these possibilities in the indigenous folk cultures of their country, the way of life they celebrated was fast disappearing as industrialization and urbanization lured millions of peasants off the land and away from their ancient traditions. It was a way of life that would soon disappear forever in the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, along with the careers of many of the artists who were inspired by it.

A delightful companion exhibit also opening today at the Walters, The Faberge Menagerie, is as frothy and lighthearted as Origins is contemplative. The show features a veritable zoo of more than 100 of the fabulous jeweled animal sculptures created by the celebrated St. Petersburg firm of Faberge, which also produced spectacular Easter eggs and other luxurious objects for the Russian imperial court.

Faberge's meticulously crafted dogs, cats, rabbits, mice and other familiar animals - along with more exotic zoo creatures such as camels, rhinos and hippos - epitomize the tradition of luxury decorative arts for which the firm was famous. There are also marvelously detailed examples of the company's jeweled insects, including a Siberian cicada made of nephrite and a charming ladybug box studded with enamels, diamonds and gold.

This is an exhibit that will surely delight children of all ages - and the child in every adult.

The Walters

What: Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde and The Faberge Menagerie

Where: The Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St.

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $12 adults, $10 seniors, $8 students. Tickets sold for specific times by Ticketmaster and at the Walters box office; Origins through May 25; Faberge through July 27

Call: 410-752-1200 or 800-551-SEAT

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