Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Now at The Museum of Russian Art, Minneapolis: A Breath Withheld and a Tradition Extended

A relative newcomer to the Twin Cities' premiere art museum roster (see The Walker Art Center and Sculpture Garden, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Frank Gehry-designed Weisman Art Museum and The Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul), The Museum of Russian Art in South Minneapolis is to the Upper Midwestern scene as the Hispanic Society of America is to the New York art world: a little-known gallery gem devoted to the art of a single nation and housed within an architectural curiosity.  And with the museum's current hangings, "The Lost Empire - Photographer to the Tsar" and "Russian Impression on the Edge of Soviet Art," the Minneapolis exhibition space proves every bit as indispensable to its unique cultural landscape as is its spiritual cousin.

"The Lost Empire - Photographer to the Tsar" features the work of turn-of-the-twentieth century photographer Sergei M. Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944), who attempted a process of color photography in chronicling the pre-Soviet Russian Empire.  Prokudin-Gorskii's method involved photographing the same subject three times in rapid succession, utilizing red, green and blue filters in the sequential frames.  These individual stills, originally captured on a single, narrow glass plate mounted to the camera, have been re-combined digitally to construct early twentieth century color photographs with a distinctly stereoscopic look.  Yet, given that these images contain three different moments of registration, this is not conventional color photography - of a single fragment of time, but images of duration, a proto-cinema made shortly after its inception.

Nowhere is this work's unique ontology more visible than in a Georgian-set photo, "Harvesting Tea," which like most of the work in the show remains undated.  Here we have a series of women and children lined up with their baskets as they face the apparatus.  While the majority of the figures are presented in crisp focus, a few show some blur, which given the image's three-color process, registers in both an indistinctness and also single segments of non-naturalized color: for example, a girl near the left edge wears a bonnet that has become almost violet (haloed in yellow) with her apparent movement.  Similarly, a young woman's headscarf to her right has separated into a vivid green, while her face featuring pink and green highlights is procured without clarity.  Likewise, this same pink and green is visible in the vegetation below their feet, thereby indicating a slight breeze touching the flora.

As such, Prokudin-Gorskii's method creates not only an approximate facsimile of the colors elided in most of the period's photography, but a trace of duration, where the stillness of the standing figures is made all the more apparent by their contrast to their blurred counterparts.  What we see in other words, is an index of figural movement and its absence - which, though true of traditional photography of the period, remains implied in images of a single duration.  This is photography not as an indivisible moment of time, but of a short series of moments, of a breath withheld by each of the photograph's human subjects.

Of course, the primary interest for most in "The Lost Empire - Photographer to the Tsar" (not even excluding myself, necessarily) is the ethnographic content of these images.  Among the many curios on display is "Iconostasis in the Church of St. John the Theologian" with its wall of icons and extravagant ornamentation; a similarly excessive, patterned Islamic interior, "Home of a Wealthy Sart" in Uzbekistan; the lone surviving photograph of a church destroyed during the Soviet period of iconoclasm ("The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Holy Mother of God in the Ipatevskii Monastery"); the lone descendant of Genghis Kahn, "The Emir of Bukhara," 1911 (pictured above); the mustard-hued water in "The Shilovskii Mine," Ural Mountains; and the emblematic "Armenian Woman" in the Artvin-Caucasus Region with her blue and red velvet dress as she stands before an infinitely green wood.  As with the Georgian image described formerly, her headpiece is slightly blurry owing to what seems likely a sudden, uncontrolled movement.  Thus we might say that an unconscious details the uncanny in "The Lost Empire."

In the museum's primary, ground-level exhibition space, "Russian Impressionism on the Edge of Soviet Art" provides an extensive survey of a style that remained prominent in Russia and the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century.  Among the showcase's many highlights are the works of Aleksandr Mikhailovich Gerasimov (1889-1963), grouped in a dimly lit side gallery where the artist's unique textures (the mimetic wetness of "After the Rain," 1930s, and the thick, again liquidy impasto of "Still Life with Flowers," 1935) and his idiosyncratic processes (in "Trees in Bloom," 1930s, the artist's blue background was applied following the registration of the tree's branches, thus making interchangeable the image's fore and back-grounds) become evident.  Sharing this space, among others, is Filipp Andreevich Malyavin (1869-1940) whose earlier "The Seer," 1900s, manages a Rembrandt-esque ocular vortex collapsing in the orange-colored eyes of its eponymous figure.

Highlights of the main gallery space include the Tkachev Brothers' (Sergei and Aleksei Petrovich) handsome twilight "Evening," 1955, and their equally eros-infused "The Washing Woman," 1956, where a faraway enough viewpoint confirms that the woman is performing the action in her brasserie; Mikhail Yurevich Kugach's undated "Ancillary Textile Works" with its transparent blue materials that wrap a foregrounded female figure; a similarly slightly clunky though still evocative Hooper equivalent "In the Factory Canteen," 1950; Amir Khushulovich Valiakhmetov's (1927- ) Kokoschka-flavored 1990s "Golden Wedding Anniversary" with its inclusion of every imaginable hue; a fourth Gerasimov, "Pionerka," 1930s, with a saturating orange light that infuses this highly erotic portrait of its young female subject; and Eduard Georgievich Bragovsky's "Logging on the Vetluga," 1964, with its equally vivid red hued peasant woman recalling the visual lexicon of prevailing Socialist realism. Before and after the Soviet takeover, what emerges is the extraordinary palette of the Russian empire.

"Russian Impressionism" runs through September 13, 2008.  No end date is currently listed for "The Lost Empire."  Special thanks to Lisa K. Broad for her insights plagiarized above and to my mother and unparalleled Minnesota advocate, Debby Anderson, for planning the excursion.

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