The exhibit “Russia!” at the Guggenheim contains more than 275 works of art created over eight centuries. It has been put together by teams of curators. It’s been further “realized,” as the museum puts it, “under the patronage of Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation,” and it was timed to open while Putin was in New York for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. Many Russian and American grandees take a formal bow as advisers to the exhibition. Major financial support comes from the Vladimir Potanin Charity Fund, established by the billionaire of the same name who helped create the infamous “loans for shares” program in Russia under which state assets were transferred into a select group of private hands. Other supporters have Russian backs to scratch. My point? I know very well that money, power, and patronage are important to artists and museums. And I know equally well that political grandstanding can be a small price to pay to see some extraordinary art. But—but—yuck.
The yuck factor deserves serious analysis because, in this case, it amounts to more than a simple distaste for Big Cheese. More about that in a moment. But first: “Russia!” is of course a major show, with plenty of must-see objects. The powers that be ensured that many iconic works (including iconic icons) made the trip to New York. The presentation is chronological, beginning with the thirteenth century and continuing until today. Wall texts offer viewers a basic introduction to the major themes of Russian art. Some sculpture is included, but the show emphasizes painting, which lends some formal coherence to the unspooling of Russian culture. Like the U.S., Russia was for centuries a provincial society that looked to Europe with both longing and resentment. Its art does not always measure up as art to the greatest work of the Europeans, but the Russian story is so mesmerizing that even the weaker examples on view are lively artifacts. The show’s organizers also make a point of including fine works from the West (paintings by Chardin, Watteau, and Rubens, among many others) collected during the reigns of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas I. And there’s a selection of Modernist paintings once owned by the great merchant-collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.
Certain works stand out, capturing with definitive power particular Russian passions. The spiritual intensity of medieval Russia is highlighted, for example, by forceful images from the iconostasis of the Kirillo-Belozersk monastery. The vast landscape—which can create rapture in Russians—regularly appears in painting, as does the depiction of village and peasant life. The Russians have lent the Guggenheim one of their culture’s greatest responses to social injustice, Ilya Repin’s Barge Haulers on the Volga, a painting in which the dispossessed seem to be pulling a world into the future. Repin’s picture, like so much Russian art, has the heightened quality of a vision. Sappy examples of visionary art are on view as well, notably certain works of socialist realism. (Some of the pictures from the totalitarian era are also more interesting than you might think.) The great sunburst of Russian Modernism—including pictures by Kazimir Malevich—will inevitably make viewers think back to the icons.
As an exhibition, however, “Russia!” seems baggy, a dutiful chronological plod with few interesting intellectual contours. Only rarely are important artists or themes singled out for intensive treatment. If one or two imaginative curators had been allowed to do what they wanted, they could surely have created a more angled, brilliant vision of Russian culture. Instead, “Russia!” appears enveloped in committee group-think. That’s something you never want to do with Russian art. The struggle to escape from earthly boundaries—above all to liberate oneself from spirit-smothering officialdom—is probably the greatest theme in Russian culture. It’s a story of extraordinary suffering and courage. The stuffy official smell that suffuses this show is never appropriate in Frank Lloyd Wright’s visionary spiral. But here it also seems an affront to a great cultural tradition.
In this regard, something funny occurs toward the end of the show when viewers come to the work of Ilya Kabakov, who spent most of his life in the Soviet Union, becoming an absurdist master of the edge between the official and the visionary. Kabakov’s installation depicts the room of a Russian eccentric who spends his time designing a primitive catapult with which he intends to launch himself into space. I like to think he’ll fly right out the top of the Guggenheim.