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Art: Review: Russian Impressionism and Social Realism

Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery warms the winter with Russian art

By Sarah Stephens · December 19th, 2007 · Visual Art
  N.V. Nesterenko's �Chicken Farm� is one of many �Socialist Realism� works in the current exhibition at Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery.
N.V. Nesterenko's �Chicken Farm� is one of many �Socialist Realism� works in the current exhibition at Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery.

I have to admit that before visiting the Phyllis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery's current exhibition, A Rare Painting Collection of Russian Impressionism and Social Realism 1945-1991, I knew virtually nothing about the contemporary state of Russian art. I was clueless that just several weeks ago a pair of Sotheby's Russian art auctions in London brought in nearly $80 million -- these two events alone set 14 records for Russian works of art sold at auction.

By all appearances, Russian art seems to have become, in the words of Will Ferrell's Mugatu, "so hot right now."

The trend seems to be continuing at the Weston-Bolling Gallery in O'Bryonville. While their fourth annual Russian art exhibition has only been up for about two weeks, nearly half of the works have already sold, making this by far their most successful exhibition of the year.

So why is this a "rare" collection? Because, until the fall of communism in 1991, many of these works had never been seen outside Russia.

Most of the artists in this show have gone through the rigorous, uber-competitive academy system. Definitively established by the Communist Party in 1947 but with roots tracing back to the 18th century, the Russian Academy of Art is the nucleus of the Russian art system, with centers in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Artists are not only schooled in technical concepts but are also encouraged to highlight Russian culture and history.

Like the Siberian winter itself, I expected Russian Impressionism and Social Realism to be similarly cold, bitter and/or monochromatic. Or perhaps I expected the sort of rigid severity seen in Soviet poster propaganda. But the world you encounter upon entering the gallery is quite the opposite. Full of joyous, vibrant color, delicate landscapes and insightful portraits, this is not the Russia I had anticipated.

Well, not entirely. While I'm sure Russia must have seasons besides winter, many of the land and cityscapes featured in the exhibition portray snowy vistas. "Holiday" by Laurenko, for example, depicts a bustling town blanketed in snow, where horse-drawn sleighs are the transportation of choice and spires and domes faintly dot the horizon.

While "Ilinskaya Church" initially appears to capture quite a dull and dreary day, the tonal gradations and luscious texture of the clouds, the slightly curvilinear trees which barely hint at motion and the placidly reflecting pools of melting snow all combine to transform what could easily be a drab afternoon into one that glows with character.

Another intriguing winter snapshot is Mishin's "Bright Morning." Not only does the juxtaposition of warm and cool colors create visual interest, but also the thick impasto gives layers of snow a tangible physicality with a minimum number of brush strokes.

The portraits are equally stunning. A dashing sailor, a delicate ballerina, a rugged woodsman resting on a stump and "A Woman from Siberia" are all masterfully executed with a precision and intensity that seem to exude a certain Russian-ness.

According to its title, the exhibition focuses on Russian Impressionism and Social Realism. While just about every (remaining) piece is impressionistic in style, I prefer to categorize the strain of Realism currently represented as Socialist, as opposed to Social.

To me, Social Realism connotes a genre in which artists highlight the conditions of poor, working-class individuals through a gritty strain of realism that is critical of the social and governing forces that create such circumstances.

Socialist Realism, on the other hand, does quite the opposite. Officially becoming state policy in 1932, the Communist Party implemented Socialist Realism as the singular approved style for all Soviet works of art, aiming to serve as an ideological guide, while revealing the "revolutionary potential of reality" through the idealization of both dictatorship and proletariat.

In paintings such as "First Tractor," "Chicken Farm" and "Weeding," the didactic nature of Socialist Realism is readily apparent. The latter two large-scale pieces feature happy workers (all female, interestingly, from workers to overseers) contentedly minding the fields and the farm, while the showpiece of the exhibition, "First Tractor," presents a colorful celebration of rosy-cheeked citizens supporting the socialist state, as seen in the tractor's red star and the flag-bearing child.

The adoption of Socialist Realism, however, forced independent art -- the "decadent bourgeois" style of French Impressionism in particular -- out of the museums and the public eye. Works such as those represented in the Weston-Bolling exhibition, therefore, were largely produced in secret.

Compared to contemporary examples of radical and/or forbidden art, you'll likely be surprised that such seemingly innocuous landscapes and portraits could have ever been viewed as so threatening that they necessitated suppression, even in a Communist state. But that's just part of Russia's complex history, and now's your chance to experience it for yourself. Grade: A

A RARE PAINTING COLLECTION OF RUSSIAN IMPRESSIONISM AND SOCIAL REALIMS 1945-1991 is on view at Phillis Weston-Annie Bolling Gallery through Jan. 31. Check gallery hours and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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