- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 30, 2008

Russian art of the 20th century is usually typecast through polar opposites: the exuberant abstraction of revolutionary-era Constructivism followed by the figurative propaganda of Soviet socialist realism.

An exhibit at Washington’s Meridian International Center shifts the perspective from such politically charged styles to closely observed landscapes by an academically trained artist who was born five years before the communist revolution.

The career of Nikolai Timkov (1912-1993) parallels the history of Soviet rule, but does not overtly reflect its state-dictated styles. Mr. Timkov’s pleasant pictures portray the countryside familiar from Anton Chekov’s plays and Boris Pasternak’s novels, minus the human drama. Tiny townspeople and farmers inhabit his landscapes but not the heroic workers of more authoritarian Russian art.

His pastoral scenes of golden wheat fields, windblown clouds and winding rivers impart the feeling of hot summer afternoons and frigid winter twilight. Snow is painted with such skill that its frosty cold seems almost palpable.

The exhibit is co-curated by Alison Hilton, head of the department of art and art history at Georgetown University; her wall texts supply an informative history of the artist and his milieu. The approximately 60 paintings are on loan from Timothy Wyman, an Easton, Md., businessman, and his wife, Lisa, who have amassed a substantial collection of Russian art since the 1990s.

“Timkov’s art is very friendly,” Mr. Wyman says in explaining his attraction to it. “You could be looking at a hill in Vermont, if you didn’t see the church with the onion domes.”

While its subject matter has a universal appeal, this art is firmly rooted in the Russian landscape. Mr. Timkov painted outdoors, mostly in the Tver province between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and in the Ural Mountains and Crimea. The exhibit plays up his interest in the picturesque architecture of historic towns such as Pskov, Torzhok and Suzdal, and the environs around the Msta, Don and Volkhov rivers. Among his most powerful landscapes are close-up views of swift currents and patterned reflections in water.

Mr. Timkov is billed as a Russian impressionist, but the influence of the French movement was only indirectly absorbed from his teachers at the nationalized academy of art in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad. Like American impressionists, the Russians came late to the style and only loosely interpreted its modern ideas.

After graduating in 1939, Mr. Timkov joined the navy and took part in the defense of Leningrad against the German blockade during World War II. He first exhibited his work in 1947 and, with his former academy colleagues, reopened the academic dacha or “akademichka,” an outpost south of the city where students and faculty spent summers sketching their rural surroundings.

Mr. Timkov established a home and studio in nearby Valentinovka on the Msta River as a base for his forays into the region. During the postwar decades, he maintained a remarkably steady approach to painting given the political pressures to glorify farm collectives and harvest festivals.

The artist managed to work within the state-run system by celebrating Russian identity through the natural beauty of his homeland. He didn’t challenge the authorities but became a member of the government-controlled artists union, which sponsored several solo shows of his work.

Above all, Mr. Timkov clearly loved to paint and used the landscape as a backdrop on which to experiment with composition and technique. One of his tricks is to insert meandering roads, angular buildings and arched bridges to lead the eye into the scene. The foreground typically predominates to create a large, textured plane within the picture as in the shadowy snows of “Winter Day” and dark waters of “The River Msta.”

As his career progressed, Mr. Timkov more frequently juxtaposed vibrant, contrasting colors in ways similar to the post-impressionist Fauves. He set orange buildings into blue-shadowed snows, purple flowers onto green fields to inject joy into a landscape often portrayed as harsh and melancholic.

Part of this shift occurred as the result of the cultural thaw after Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 when Russian artists began rebelling against Soviet socialist realism. Their independence was spurred by touring exhibitions of European and American modern art that exposed them to new ideas.

Mr. Timkov didn’t go so far as to embrace abstraction - the closest he comes is the pale-on-paler impasto of “Silver Day in the Birch Grove” from 1963. His work remains consistent over several decades - paintings from the 1960s are similar to those of the 1970s and 1980s - and some of his picture-postcard scenes of snowy villages border on the saccharine.

None of these can be considered major art, but they are worth seeing, if only to enjoy a Russian view of nature. The exhibit leaves the viewer eager to learn more about other unsung Russians talents who like Mr. Timkov shunned doctrinaire realism to achieve a distinctive vision.

WHEN YOU GO

WHAT: “Painting the Heart of Russia: Nikolai Timkov’s Sustaining Vision”

WHERE: Meridian International Center, 1630 Crescent Place NW

WHEN: 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday through Jan. 18

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/667-6800

WEB SITE: www.meridian.org

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