As its exclamatory title announces straightaway, the exhibition called Russia! at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is an event that commands attention. Fortunately, it’s also an exhibition that rewards however much attention we can give it. For newcomers to Russian art—a large and complicated subject that involves politics and religion almost as much as art itself—the show provides a comprehensive survey: It encompasses achievements in Russian art and art collection from the 13th century to modern times. Even for those of us who acquainted themselves with Russia and its art in the Soviet era, this is a show featuring a good many works that were not then accessible to foreign visitors.
Russia! is, in fact, not a single exhibition but a series of small exhibitions that together trace in chronological order the principal interests and accomplishments of Russian art. It commences, inevitably, with the Russian Orthodox Christian icons that dominated the country’s art from the 13th to the 17th century, setting an artistic standard that continued to be admired even in the Soviet era, when Russia was officially declared an atheist state.
The impact of Western European secular painting on Russian art doesn’t manifest itself until the 18th century, but this section of Russia! is unfortunately dominated by portraits of sundry princesses and countesses and other upper-class figures that are less interesting as paintings than as documentary glimpses of a social class that hadn’t yet been called to account for its unearned privileges. These portraits are, in any case, derived from European prototypes that are themselves anything but compelling.
It’s with the art of the 19th century that Russia! gets to be really interesting, if only because it focuses upon a period of Russian social history that many of us are acquainted with from reading 19th-century Russian novels. The problematic condition of the wretched underclass emerges as a subject of sustained interest for artists dedicated to an unsparing realist aesthetic.
The artist who best represents this development in Russian art is the painter Ilya Repin (1844-1930), whose Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73) is the single most impressive work in the exhibition. It certainly makes one curious to see what an exhibition entirely devoted to Repin would look like. He belonged to a group of painters who called themselves the Wanderers—artists whose vocation was dedicated to a frank depiction of everyday Russian life beyond the great metropolitan centers.
The staunchest supporter of the Wanderers was the collector Pavel Tretyakov, who acquired a large collection of their works that later became the nucleus of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, a national gallery much favored by Lenin and successive cadres of dedicated Bolsheviks.
For me, the single biggest disappointment with Russia! is its skimpy representation of the Russian avant-garde that flourished in the early years of the 20th century. While it’s true that examples of Malevich, Rodchenko and other votaries of the Russian avant-garde can nowadays be seen in many of our art museums, that’s no excuse for the rather casual treatment they’ve been accorded in this otherwise comprehensive exhibition. After all, no other chapter in the history of Russian art has exerted as much influence on our own modern art. There are many so-called “experimental” artists at work today who are still living off the precedents established by Suprematism and other radical innovations of the pioneer Russian avant-gardists. That singular distinction needed to be given a shar-per focus than it has received in this ambitious undertaking.
Well, never mind. Short of visiting Russia itself, the Russia! show is the next-best opportunity for the art public to acquaint itself with Russia’s artistic accomplishments. It remains on view at the Guggenheim Museum through Jan. 11, 2006.