For many of us, Russian art is like the Russian landscape — large swaths of uncharted territory. But this year’s exhibition at the Amherst Russian Center, titled “Journeys in Space and Memory: Urban Scenes and Landscapes by Russian Artists,” makes the art and landscape of Russia accessible even to the uninitiated.
We talked recently with exhibition organizer Bettina Jungen, the Mead Art Museum’s senior curator and Thomas P. Whitney, Class of 1937, Curator of Russian Art, who assures us that not all Russian art is abstract, and not every landscape is buried in a whiteout of snow.
In addition to its English title, you’ve given the exhibition a Russian name: ПОД ОТКРЫТЫМ НЕБОМ. What does that mean? It means “Under Open Skies.”
When we hear the phrase “Russian landscape,” most of us picture Siberia, with its desolate steppes and arctic temperatures. Is that what people can expect to see in this exhibition? Not at all. The “Russian” artists in the exhibition were born and lived in many places throughout the Russian Empire, Europe, and the United States. The exhibition features this geographical diversity in a wide range of views, including Mikhail Larionov’s sunbathed Moldavian rural scene, Robert Falk’s sunny boulevard in Paris, and Marianne von Werefkin’s Latvian landscape in vibrant purple and blue tones.
Nearly all the artists represented in the show were born in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union but immigrated to France or the US, fleeing, I assume, political persecution under the Soviet regime. But the works in this show don’t strike me as politically charged at all. What did the Soviet authorities find objectionable about such art? The fate of each artist in the exhibition is different. Some were abroad and could not return when the October Revolution hit Russia [in 1917]. Others left Russia for economic and political reasons after the Revolution, and one artist, Oskar Rabin, was expelled by the authorities.
Censorship and repression became acute in the 1930s. Art was under attack either for not being relevant to the Soviet system or for not reflecting the “happy” Soviet life, or simply for its modernist formal approaches. The most direct political example is Rabin’s Spring in Priluki, which looks like winter with its gray tones and black outlines. This painting addresses the artist’s disagreement with the Soviet system.
One of the paintings on view, Red Houses in Moscow by Natal’ia Goncharova, sounds like a map of where the Communist Party leaders live. But that’s not what it is at all, right? While red is the color of the Soviet flag, it is also the color of the many brick buildings in Moscow. And red is a dominant color in Russian visual culture. It appears prominently in icons, crafted objects, and traditional clothing. Goncharova painted Red Houses to capture the neighborhood in which she had her Moscow studio.
I think of twentieth-century Russian art as abstract, just shapes and lines, like a Kandinsky painting. But in this exhibition I see paintings where trees look like — trees. Many Russian modernist artists who are barely known in the West worked in a figurative manner and are — in Russia — recognized as important contributors to the development of Russian art. Amherst’s Thomas P. Whitney, Class of 1937, Collection of Russian Art, from which this exhibition is entirely drawn, takes this characteristic of Russian art into account.
The Russian artistic movements that pursued geometrical abstraction in one way or another fit better into the Western art-historical canon, and therefore are better known and appreciated in the West. For Russians and Russian art historians, however, the scope of great Russian art is much larger.
Do you find paintings of familiar objects and places easier to understand than abstract works? Not necessarily. Figurative works can be tricky. You think you know what they show, but you don’t always. Or you don’t know what to make of the subject because it’s from a different cultural context. It’s true that familiar objects are often more accessible at first sight. This was one of the reasons for the establishment of Socialist Realism and its subsequent popularity.
Back to the show’s title — what are “Journeys in Memory”? As I mentioned earlier, many artists left Russia at some point between the late nineteenth century and the 1970s, with no option to return. They took journeys back home through their memories. Alexandre Benois, for example, depicted his birthplace, St. Petersburg, over and over while living in his new home in France.
You were raised and educated in Switzerland, and have been working in Amherst — far from your home country — for many years. Do you feel sympathy with the Russian émigré artists whose memories are of a distant home? Well, I certainly do from an intellectual point of view. I am not a refugee, however, and hope that I will always be able to return to my country. This is the essential difference.
Journeys in Space and Memory: Urban Scenes and Landscapes by Russian Artists is on view in the Russian Center Art Gallery, Webster Hall, 2nd floor, at Amherst College through spring 2016.
Interview by Sheila Flaherty-Jones