Mead’s Impressive Russian Art Display Illuminates Culture
By Daniella Bassi ’14, Staff Writer
On Thursday my first-year Russian class with Professor Evgeny Dengub went to the Mead Art Museum to see the Russian art currently on display (including selections from the Thomas P. Whitney ’37 Collection) to take a break from the mechanics of learning the language to experience some of the culture of its native speakers. Although it was not a very large display at all, comprising only a single wall’s worth of paintings, it was a revelatory, interesting and lovely set. For one thing, considering the works displayed before me as well as others I had been exposed to in the past, I was surprised with the variety in style and broadness of subject matter covered by Russian artists. There were more contemporary, abstract paintings composed of geometric shapes, images created through impressionistic techniques and more realistically rendered, detailed images. Some also resembled tribal or more primitive art, particularly Pavel Filonov’s painting of the Biblical Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, in which the figures portrayed, dressed like natives of a tribe, were formed in a disproportionate, two-dimensional manner. The diversity of the characters in that piece was also surprising, as I expected people more endemic to Russia to be depicted in it — or at least a more homogenous group — rather than the mixed races and ethnicities that cohabit Filonov’s painting. Though some works did show people with the physical and cultural traits native to Russia, the exhibit was pleasantly not limited to this perspective.

I also found Russian art to be laden with symbolism; the painting “Madonna with Child” by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin had many faces manifested in its cloudy sky, all very somber-looking, which seemed to represent the souls of people in Russia and the silence and oppression that burdened them. The symbols probably provided artists with a method of circumventing government censorship at the time, which brings an attractive quality of enigma and allegory to Russian art, as it requires more than superficial examination to be fully understood.

At the exhibit, I learned something new about Russian culture and confirmed some of the things I had been told. I saw many Christian themes, showing me a religious connection between myself and my peers and this seemingly distant culture. The agricultural and rural landscapes in the paintings revealed the dominance of agrarian life in Russia — a side of life that tourists do not get to see as they hug the western shoulder of Russia, staying in St. Petersburg and Moscow. I also saw signs of a hierarchical society and its impact on the Russian conscience in the title of a painting — “Suprematism” — which reminded me of the feudalist system and the all-powerful boyars (nobles) that dominated early Russian society. All in all, I believe that some key aspects of the universal Russian mind were and still are being graciously articulated in the Mead’s display for all to see at no charge.

Issue 08, Submitted 2010-11-03 19:14:35