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On Art By Paulette Attie. Article Published in The New York Monthly Herald


NEW YORK MONTHLY HERALD. APR. 2006. Column of Paulette Attie


Making Matters Better (The Good News)


Behind the Scenes of Russia! the Art Exhibit

Tour the museum

Photo: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.

We believe the harmony of art, together with the strength of the human spirit, can overcome the contrariness and discord in today’s world.” This statement, made by Larissa Zelkova, Director General of the Vladimir Potanin Charity Fund, also reflects this author’s strongly held belief. The Guggenheim Museum’s Russia! is an inspiring example of how harmony and accord is alive and well, even when displaying art that can be 800 years old. It took the cooperation of an international team of like-minded experts to make an exhibit of this magnitude come to life. Russia! was also made possible by the Potanin Fund, with major sponsorship by Alcoa Foundation and Sintez. 


One of the most interesting behind the scene stories has to be how Russia! came to be. The Guggenheim Museum’s original mandate was to display non - objective paintings. This policy was strictly followed under the guidance of Hilla Rebay starting in 1929, when Solomon R. Guggenheim asked her to help him assemble an art collection. When Guggenheim opened his Museum of Non - Objective Paintings in 1939, Rebay was named its first Director, and continued in that capacity until 1952. During that time, a sizeable collection of paintings by Russian born Wassily Kandinsky was acquired. There’s a separate gallery of Kandinsky paintings from the Guggenheim’s permanent collection, with two Kandinskys also included in the main exhibition area of Russia! Another much loved Russian born artist, Marc Chagall, also merits a separate gallery. Chagall paintings were among the early holdings of Solomon Guggenheim’s collection.

Photo: Birch Grove by Arkhip Kuindzhi as seen at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. 


Each successive Guggenheim Director included a wider vision of the kinds of art that would be displayed. How fortunate for the public that the museum’s mission expanded beyond non-objective painting, otherwise their highly acclaimed 2003 show of Constantin Brancusi sculptures, for instance, could not have been presented. I was thrilled to experience the beauty, simplicity, and power of Brancusi, so well displayed there. An inspirational exchange in 2001 between Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim’s Director since 1988, and Mikhail Shwydkoi, Russian Minister of Culture, is how Russia! began. They started discussing how interesting it would be to organize a show of ancient Russian icons, which had been an inspiration to Russia’s avant-garde of the 20th century. That idea percolated, moved on to the list of possible future shows, and grew into an even larger concept. When Valerie Hillings joined the Guggenheim curatorial team in 2002, she was assigned to work on an exhibit of Russian art. The concept had expanded and would include 800 years of Russian art. Hillings had studied art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts where Robert Rosenblum, Senior Curator at the Guggenheim, was a much admired professor of hers. Her knowledge and enthusiasm undoubtedly helped her obtain the position of co-curator of the show. I was impressed with her love and familiarity of Russian art during my interviews with her.


I asked Hillings if there were any conflicts between the Guggenheim and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris in obtaining specific pieces. The d’Orsay’s “A Quest for Identity: Russian Art in the Second Half of the 19th Century,” ran at the same time as Russia! Hillings said there were only a few conflicts. Either Hillings was being diplomatic, or the period of late 19th Century Russian art was so rich, there was enough to satisfy the organizers of both exhibits. “It was very difficult, picture for picture,” Thomas Krens, Director of the Guggenheim Museum said. This was over disagreements between the Russian and American teams about which items to include in Russia! He compared it to sumo wrestling. “You kind of go into the ring and grapple with one another, and you try to push somebody to get them to agree with your point of view.” With over 275 definitive items on view, I imagine that harmony evolved as contrasting ideas came together for the good of the whole. For the d’Orsay, a much narrower focus was involved. Since major loans of art from Russia are so infrequent, I thought it valuable to include a few words about the D’Orsay exhibit, along with an earlier Russian exhibit at the Armand Hammer Gallery in Los Angeles. I didn’t attend the Paris show, but asked two dedicated museum goers to share their thoughts about that exhibit. Don Gunn of Palm Springs, California said, “I was astonished by the rich scope of the paintings, set and costume designs, artifacts, posters, graphic art, photographs, and sculpture, all from one period. Seeing that exhibit made my heart sing.” Gunn was particularly taken by artist Mikail Vroubel, who was represented by oil paintings, plus set and costume designs. He was equally impressed by two paintings of Arkhip Kouindzhi. Kouindzhi was the teacher of Nicholas Roerich, featured in my article on the Roerich exhibit, sponsored by Center for Peace Through Culture. Russia! includes four paintings by the highly respected Arkhip Kouindzhi. “At Night” (1905 – 1908), was Director Thomas Krens’ personal choice for the Guggenheim show. The painting draws the viewer into its serene and harmonious world. The exquisite interplay of light and dark creates a sense of balance and at oneness with the universe.


Paintings from L to R: #1.Vasily Kandinsky: Composition 8, 1923. #2.Marc Chagall: Paris through the Window, 1913.

Dorothy Olim made two pilgrimages to Russia to see the art there, including studying at the Hermitage Museum for two weeks. She attended both the Guggenheim and d'Orsay shows. For her, there were numerous times when she was mesmerized, standing before a masterpiece. “Viewers are instinctively stopped in their tracks by greatness,” she said. One “show stopper” moment for her was at the Guggenheim, looking at the large embroidered icon, called “Shroud of Christ.” “That piece alone was worth the price of admission,” Olim said. Like Don Gunn, Olim found that being surrounded by artifacts, sculptures, and paintings from one particular and glorious period of Russian art, made her d’Orsay experience that much the richer. The show at the Armand Hammer Gallery in Los Angeles was called, “The Treasures of Catherine the Great.” I saw that exhibit in 1997, and still carry the memory of several exquisitely decorated Fabergé eggs, and especially the carriage in which the Empress traveled, minus the horses. The carriage took up the major space in one large gallery, allowing room for viewers to circle the carriage and see it from all angles. Very impressive.    Culture is the signature of a people. With Russia!, we see many powerful signatures, reflecting the changing times and attitudes of the Russian people. We also sense the commanding influence their leaders had in shaping that art.

Peter I (1672-1775), grandfather-in-law to Catherine the Great, better known as the Czar who founded and made St. Petersburg Russia’s capital, was intent on modernizing his country. He sent Russian artists abroad to study European painting and culture; the better to incorporate in their works of art. It was a resourceful way to introduce his people to more progressive ideas.  Catherine continued Peter the Great’s process of Westernization. She too gave grants for artists to study abroad and commissioned the building of the Hermitage, now the State Hermitage Museum. During her reign, the Imperial collection went from twelve to three thousand nine hundred twenty-six works of art. The tradition of collecting art, begun in Catherine's time, became the state policy. Her appreciation of art filtered down to Russia’s citizens. What the Empress liked, her subjects liked too. Even today, children are made familiar with Russian masterpieces from their early grades in school. Many works on display are from the private Imperial collections, like the bronze bust “Portrait of Peter I” by Florentine artist Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli. He was invited to come to Russia by Peter I, and remained there for the rest of his life. For “Portrait of Peter I,” Rastrelli started by making a wax mask of Peter’s face. We see what the Czar actually looked like in Rastrelli’s detailed, baroque rendering. The portrait came to stand for the entire epoch, with Peter embodying the start of a westernized and modernized Russia. It is considered the finest sculpture of Peter executed during his reign. 


Photo: The Guggenheim, a 350,000 square foot colossus.

The picture that graces the cover of the Guggenheim Guide is titled “Unknown Woman. This painting was originally on the request list of the Musée d'Orsay. As each Museum narrowed down their requests, “Unknown Woman,” by Ivan Kramskoy, was dropped by the d’Orsay, and then requested by the Guggenheim, and for good reason. It is spectacular for its sheer beauty, leaving you in awe of the painter’s ability to so accurately reproduce every detail of the woman’s clothing.  If the viewer were not prohibited from touching the art, he would be tempted to finger the pearl and feathers in her hat, or stroke the fur on her coat. How could they not be real? Then, there’s the audacious look in the woman’s eyes as she stares out at the viewer. The artist’s frequent patron, Pavel Tretyakov, turned down the painting because he considered it indecent. A woman should show more decorum and modesty in public. This kind of forthrightness was scandalous for that time (painted in 1883).




Unknown Woman, by Ivan Kramskoy.

Valerie Hillings, Co-Curator of Russia! said, “Unknown Woman” was far from unknown in Russia. She was believed to be the mistress of a member of the Imperial family. Hillings took pleasure in adding that for the exhibit, “Unknown Woman” was hung next to the portrait of Pavel Tretyakov, who originally denied her entrance in his Gallery. Her painting was later added to the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, but not during Tretyakov’s lifetime. After the revolution, it was bought by a Moscow collector, then later moved to the Tretyakov. “Unknown Woman” is an honored icon in Russia. As a result of Russia! and Kramskoy, she is now a respected figure throughout the world.   

Peasant Lunch, by Mikhail Shibanov.

Mikhail Shibanov captured the typical Russian scenes of his time. In his 1789 “Peasant Lunch,” he shares a compassionate glimpse of the dignity and simplicity of the peasant’s daily existence. Shibanov had first hand knowledge of peasant life, having been born a serf. He was the first Russian painter to depict genre scenes of the serfs’ life, breaking away from the tradition of using rulers and noblemen as subjects for portraits. If you saw the exhibit in New York, this article may serve as a reminder of the beauties and gems therein. If you missed it, the good news is that Russia! opens on March 28 at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, and remain there through September 3. Whether you’re near or a considerable distance away, I urge you to attend. These paintings are best appreciated in person, like the magnificent “The Ninth Wave,” by Ivan Aivazovsky. It loses much of the detail in reproduction, but the impact of this massive painting - 222 by 332 cm, and the large groups of people who constantly circle the painting, speaks for its popular appeal.

Ivan Aivazovsky was born in the Crimea, to an impoverished family of Armenian merchants. With the help of people who recognized his talent, he was able to attend the prestigious Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, where he won the Major Gold Medal in 1837. He traveled extensively and had exhibits in Rome, Naples, Amsterdam, and London. While in Paris, he received the French Legion of Honor.


Photo: The Ninth Wave, by Ivan Aivazovsky

The Ninth Wave” is a seaman’s expression, meaning a single wave larger than the others. There’s the foreboding seascape. The radiant light breaking through the clouds represent faith and hope. Adding another dimension are the almost insignificant people clinging to their makeshift vessel as “The Ninth Wave” approaches. Another reason to go to the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is that “The Ninth Wave,” is one of several masterpieces rarely seen outside of Russia.



The Volga Boatmen,  by  Ilya Repin.

Life isn’t easy for “The Volga Boatmen” either.  Its painter, Ilya Repin, was a member of The Wanderers, a group of artists dedicated to using their art as a tool for social commentary and reform. With “The Volga Boatmen,” also called “Barge Haulers on the Volga,” we can feel the oppression and the disregard for human life. The haulers were comprised of mostly liberated serfs. Yet their opportunities for work remained limited. Serfs continued to represent the largest part of Russia’s population (painted 1870 – 73).  Socialist realism was the politically correct form of art in the Soviet Union around the time Joseph Stalin became General Secretary of the Communist party. These paintings glorified farm collectives, athletes and revolutionary political figures. The Guggenheim labeled this period the art of ideology.


An Unforgettable Meeting, by Vasily Efanov.

Looking at “An Unforgettable Meeting” (1936-37) by Vasily Efanov, we see an intentional attempt to influence the hearts and minds of the Russian people. In the mid 30’s, a highly publicized series of meetings were held where Joseph Stalin and party members met with workers and peasants. Here, Stalin is depicted as a benign father figure. That would certainly have to be memorialized in a beautifully executed work of art, as it is in Efanov’s imposing 270 x 293.5 cm. painting. Some Russian visitors at the exhibit showed discomfort in seeing the propaganda art from this period. I appreciated that the curators included such excellent examples in this section. These paintings were conveniently placed in one of the side galleries, perhaps to accommodate the sensibilities of those who might be offended. As Stalin’s power grew, greater restrictions were placed on all forms of artistic expression. Artists knew that if they wanted to survive, they had to conform to the government’s demands. There was a gradual easing of control in the post Stalin era of the late 40’s and early 50’s. In the late 60’s, Khrushchev saw an exhibition with the works of several young artists and became enraged. This led to the return of stringent government control. Still, underground art continued. 1974 was a water shed year for the underground movement. Underground artists had the courage to present a public exhibition of their works. The government closed the show. Internationally covered in the press, the government was then obliged to reverse its position. An outdoor viewing of the exhibit was permitted, but only for four hours. 

Photo: Portrait of Arthur Lourié, by Pyotr Miturich.

Museum goers paused in appreciation before Pyotr Miturich’s “Portrait of Arthur Lourié.” Accounts from contemporary memoirs tell about Miturich’s 1915 visit to his artist friend, Lev Bruni. Bruni was in the process of painting a portrait of composer Arthur Lourié. Miturich asked for a canvas and palette and finished his painting of Lourié within an hour.  The painting is reminiscent of Matisse and also anticipates techniques employed by American pop artists some fifty years later.  Triptych No. 14: Self-Portrait (Memory of the Artist’s Father), is one of six triptychs on display that was created in the 1980’s. Using three panels to show different aspects of the same subject is usually identified with religious works of art. It’s interesting that this form has continued to hold a fascination for Russian artists, with the 6 large examples created by Russian artists born in the 1940’s. In his mixed media piece, Vladimir Yankilevsky places a figure wearing real clothing, with a real briefcase at his feet, in the center panel.

The abstract figures to the subject’s left and right are mirror images of the same person, possibly suggesting his past and future. A life’s journey is underway, as the subject holds onto the handlebar in a subway. Another significant behind the scenes decision was how the Guggenheim would display the art. They chose Parisian interior designer Jacques Grange to create an ambiance for the entire exhibit. Grange felt it was important to see how art was displayed in Russia’s museums and grand palaces. He went to Moscow and St. Petersburg with Valerie Hillings, and came back with a concept for the design of the exhibition. Each of the nine periods in Russia! has its own background color. Grange’s time palette goes from taupe and brown, for the early religious icons, has mid-green as a background for the 18th century and two successive blues for the early and later 19th century. Socialist Realism is gray with one red wall, and Grange chose white for post World War II art. He was allowed to hide the fluorescent lights that are part of the museum’s architecture. Per Grange’s vision, the Guggenheim’s lighting specialist came up with a bold, theatrical light design, adding a sense of drama to the exhibit. 

Photo: Russian Mitre, (headdress) worn by an Orthodox Bishop for ceremonial services.

Some twenty-two items from “Treasures from the Kremlin Museum,” seen at Guggenheim-Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas, will also travel to Bilbao. One of those treasures is the mitre (headdress) worn by an Orthodox Bishop for ceremonial services.  With its tall, rounded crown, this mitre is distinguished by a resplendent array of precious stones and pearls. Enamel medallions, gold, silver, brocade, and taffeta add to the opulence of the piece. The superior workmanship was a hallmark of craftsmen from the Kremlim workshops in the 17th century.


The Guggenheim Museum, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s singular masterpiece on Fifth Avenue, opened in 1959. It caused a sensation then, and remains a subject of lively debate to this day. The way the museum is laid out, most patrons start at the top of the exhibit area and wind their way down. This leaves the religious subjects for last, and it works out very well that way. We sometimes forget that Russia is a highly religious country, known and appreciated for its religious icons. The Russian people commemorate their faith in works of art, often painted by their own countrymen. Most of the works included in this section date from the 15th century, ca. 1497 is the center panel of five on display that once adorned the walls of the Cathedral of the Dormition at Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery. “Christ in Glory” reflects the style of icon painting developed in Moscow in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Vivid colors were used, like the striking vermillion surrounding the Christ figure. Curved lines and a less stylized, more sensitive rendering of the face contribute to the appeal of this fine piece.

Bilbao, Spain has become a destination for travelers since the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao opened in 1997. Architect Frank Gehry has created another singular sensation, both inside and out. What Wassily Kandinsky is for New York’s Guggenheim, Richard Serra is for Bilbao. Serra’s series of themed sculptures, “A Matter of Time” opened in 2005. That installation is on permanent view. Russia! and Serra. An unbeatable double bill!   Great works of art serve as good will Ambassadors for their country. Russia! represents its country extraordinarily well and also serves as a history lesson that could take years to acquire anywhere else. In another show of good will, Russian President Vladimir Putin came to launch the Guggenheim show in New York. Savor this once in a lifetime exhibit. As Valerie Hillings said, “It will probably take another hundred years before an exhibit of this proportion will be mounted again

The magical architecture of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain.













































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The building itself is an extraordinary combination of interconnecting shapes. Orthogonal blocks in limestone contrast with curved and bent forms covered in titanium. Glass curtain walls provide the building with the light and transparency it needs. Owing to their mathematical complexity, the sinuous stone, glass, and titanium curves were designed with the aid of computers. The glass walls were made and installed to protect the works of art from heat and radiation. The half-millimeter thick "fish-scale" titanium panels covering most of the building are guaranteed to last one hundred years. As a whole, Gehry's design creates a spectacular, eminently visible structure that has the presence of a huge sculpture set against the backdrop of the city.





The space of art
Eleven thousand square meters of exhibition space are distributed in 19 galleries. Ten of these galleries have an almost classical orthogonal look and can be identified from outside by their stone finishes. Nine other, irregularly-shaped galleries present a remarkable contrast, and can be identified from outside by their unusual architecture and the covering of titanium. By playing with volumes and perspectives, these galleries provide huge interior spaces that somehow manage not to overwhelm the visitor. Large-scale artworks are housed in an exceptional 30 meter wide, 130 meter long gallery free of columns and with flooring specially prepared to cope with the comings and going of visitors and museum staff, as well as the sheer weight of the works on display there. Seen from the outside, this gallery slides underneath the Puente de La Salve and runs up against the end of the tower that embraces the bridge and brings it into the building. There is a harmonius tie between the architectural shapes and the contents of each gallery. Undoubtedly, this simplifies the tour inside the Museum while the atrium, in its very center, and the walkways that link one gallery with another - showing different perspectives of the exhibitional spaces - facilitate the location of galleries and services at any time. As visitors enter the Museum they learn that under the external complex appearance of the architectural shapes, there lies a neat, clear world where it is easy to find one's way around.