Urban Scenes and Landscapes by Russian Artists: Questions for Curator Bettina Jungen

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. 

Bettina Jungen, curator of Russian art

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.

Sunbathed Moldavian rural scene. Mikhail Larionov (Russian, 1881–1964). Landscape with Wagon, 1909. Oil on canvas laid on fiberboard. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.20

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.

Picture of ambivalence. The artist loved this spot in the countryside but hated the Soviet government. He was deprived of citizenship and expelled in the late 1970s. Oskar Rabin (Russian, b. 1928). Spring in Priluki, 1967. Oil on canvas, applied paper elements. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.346

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.

red houses
The neighborhood where Goncharova had her studio, over a decade before the October Revolution of 1917. Natal’ia Goncharova (Russian, 1881–1962). Red Houses in Moscow, 1904. Oil on canvas. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.13

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.

Abstract geometric works are what many Westerners think of when they think of early 20th-century Russian art. Wassily Kandinsky (Russian, 1866–1944). Kleine Welten I (Small Worlds I), 1922. Color lithograph on Japanese paper. Gift of Richard G. Bump, in memory of Elmo Giordanetti, 1985.75

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.

Benois 2
Benois frequently painted his home city of St. Petersburg from memory while living in France. Alexandre Benois (Russian, 1870–1960). View of the River Okhta in St. Petersburg, 1959. Watercolor and graphite on medium weight wove paper. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937), 2001.418

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

Participatory Art: Amherst College Family Weekend 2015

On Family Weekend this fall, staff at the Mead enlisted the help of Amherst students and their families to produce a painting of the museum on a three-by-five-foot canvas set up in front of the building. Over a two-hour period, participants collaborated on this single work of art, each bringing unique style, vision, and experience. As experimental artist Oliver Herring has said, “Participatory art is one way of accessing not just art but, through art, your own creativity.”

The Mead’s event also included costumes and props to make photo-booth-style snapshots.

Painting 3

Painting 4

Paint 17

Paint 15Paint 16

Paint 8

Paint 7

Family Day_3

Paint 9

Paint 10

Paint 11

Pain 12

Paint 13

Family Day_5

Family Day_4Paint 18

Was Justice Done to Tom Brady? Amherst Experts Weigh In

Tom Brady has so far played for the New England Patriots his entire 16-year NFL career.
Tom Brady_courtroom
“I want a million bucks” for the sketch, said courtroom artist Jane Rosenberg, quoted in The New Yorker.

Forget about “Deflategate,” the seemingly endless discussion of New England Patriot Tom Brady’s suspension for having “general awareness” of the deflating of footballs. What about Brady’s role in the major art moment last August in Boston? You remember—the drawing of Brady by courtroom artist Jane Rosenberg. Did Rosenberg’s sketch during Brady’s hearing do the handsome quarterback justice?

In the Internet brouhaha immediately after Brady’s hearing, mashups like this one of the Brady sketch with Edvard Munch’s famous Scream (1893, 1910) went viral.

The sketch immediately earned a place in popular art history—right next to (online at least) Munch’s Scream. It also promptly became a hot property. The Sports Museum in Boston wants to borrow it, and potential buyers are bidding for it. Is the artist going to get rich on this?

“I have not decided what I’m going to do with it,” Rosenberg told Time Magazine. “I don’t have a clue what it’s truly worth. This isn’t a normal sketch I’m selling to some assistant US attorney. It might be a different arena entirely — sports memorabilia.”

Should this art event go uncommented on by the Amherst community?

We didn’t think so. We asked Amherst’s experts to weigh in.

Reece Foy

Reece Foy, Class of 2018, quarterback on the Amherst football team: “I love the drawing because I don’t like Tom Brady. If you can get a little chink in his armor, why not try?”

Brady and his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, at the 2014 Met Gala
Brady and his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, at the 2014 Met Gala

DL 10David E. Little, director and chief curator of the Mead Art Museum: “Brady definitely looks bad: a sour expression with gray hair and a rumpled suit aren’t how we’re used to seeing him at all. The courtroom artist might consider Professor Carol Keller’s drawing course this semester.”

Bill McBride

Billy McBride, assistant athletic director-diversity & inclusion/senior coach: “Is it obvious that Jane Rosenberg is not a football fan? Or has she just had enough of the Patriots winning too much for her own consumption? As in, ‘What’s a New England Patriot’s favorite snack?’ ‘Cheetos!’ Implying that behind the glamour is this filling but tasteless identity.”

Rachael AbernethyRachael Abernethy, Class of 2016, history major and member of the Amherst women’s soccer team: “Finally! A work that intersects the realms of art, sport, and politics. It is fully within Rosenberg’s creative agency to highlight certain light and shadows on Brady’s face as she so chooses. Whether her choice accurately illustrates the live figure is an aesthetic judgment I do not make lightly. And yet, here it is: Tom Brady is more handsome in person.”

Popova gouache
This Russian work in the Mead’s collection may help viewers make sense of the Brady sketch. Liubov’ Sergeevna Popova (Russian, 1889–1924), Geometric Composition, ca. 1921, 2001.52

BettinaBettina Jungen, senior curator and curator of Russian art, Mead Art Museum: “Maybe Brady wishes himself into the utopian dimension of Popova’s Composition. He certainly looks as if he wanted to be somewhere else. The artwork’s alternative space, which does not reflect the real world, is an expression of the Russian avant-garde’s energetic tension and hope for new life and art. In the courtroom the party is over. What remains are the angular shapes and the brown paper.”

BaileyBradley Bailey, curatorial teaching fellow, Mead Art Museum: “I wouldn’t call it a faithful rendering. It has a Toulouse-Lautrec air about it. In Toulouse-Lautrec’s [19th-century] pastels people appear monstrous because of the Parisian gaslights, and perhaps the fluorescent bulbs of the courtroom are the 21st-century equivalent.”

Does the Brady sketch have
Does the Brady sketch have “a Toulouse-Lautrec air about it”? One of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s (1864-1901) many portraits of French can-can dancer Jane Avril, 1892

Written by Sheila Flaherty-Jones