- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 1, 2003

The Walters Art Museum's "Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde" and "The Faberge Menagerie," both part of Baltimore's Vivat! St. Petersburg celebration, wouldn't seem to have much in common.
"Origins," which was organized in partnership with the State Russian Museum, aims to show that Russia's earthy folk and elegant religious art icons, toys, tools and prints helped shape the visual language of the Russian avant-garde of the early 20th century.
The 100 tiny animal sculptures carved by the firm of fabled Russian goldsmith Carl Faberge, in contrast, seem to be extensions of the French-inspired court arts of Peter the Great and Catherine II.
Yet images from the two exhibits share convergent origins in Russia's distant past. They share roots in pre-Christian, naturalistic, animistic cults and even earlier fantastic Scythian spiraling animals (found in the Crimea) and Scandinavian zoomorphic art excavated in the area around Kiev.
The term "Russian avant-garde" may sound like an oxymoron. Pioneering artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, Natalia Goncharova, Vladimir Tatlin and Mikhail Larionov all experimented with the most revolutionary phases of the first decades of 20th-century European art. They sampled art movements as different as postimpressionism, fauvism, cubism and futurism. Between 1910 and World War I, however, the Russians abandoned their eclectic imitations of Western innovators.
Goncharova and Larionov developed a national neo-primitivist style that combined the simple imagery of Russian peasant art, such as luboks, or popular prints, with the brilliant colors and daring distortions of the French "Fauves."
Larionov denounced the "decadent art" of the West and turned to what he believed was a new and peculiarly Russian artistic idiom that pictured essences rather than appearances. Goncharova used intense color and rough-hewn forms to depict Russia's peasants. She created a charming yet powerful synthesis of Russian folk art with the colors and simplified geometries of Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso.
Larionov and Goncharova, his lifelong companion, drove the Russian avant-garde movement from 1908 to 1914. De-emphasizing realistic representation and technical skill, they favored nontraditional subjects and methods such as children's, folk and non-Western art. Tellingly, the two got themselves kicked out of a portrait class for their irreverent spoofing of European modernist painting. They, along with Ilya Mashkov and Pyotr Konchalovsky, whose work is also in the show, formed the first independent exhibition group in Moscow, the Jack of Diamonds.
Goncharova's "Peasants" (from a polyptych,1911) hits viewers smack between the eyes as they enter the show's second, main gallery. The scale and dynamic organization of the figures, coupled with acrid colors, show her ambitions as an artist. It is part of four surviving pieces of a nine-part composition with a grape-harvest theme. Note that she has taken Matisse's rhythmic lines and combined them with the linear simplicity of Russian lubok prints.
Her "Winter," aside from reminding Washingtonians of their current plight, was a favorite death motif for the artist, just as spring served her as a resurrection motif. Here, the strong black-and-white tones and incisive lines echo her graphic art, such as the exhibit's "Hermit, Demon, and Angel" lithograph.
Goncharova's closeness to her native art is illustrated in the exhibit's juxtaposition of "The Pale Horse" from "Mystical Images of War" (1914) with a typical Russian icon, "St. Michael the Archangel, Commander of Formidable Forces" (late 19th-century).
Other artists, including David Burliuk, Petrov-Vodkin and Pavel Filonov, turned to what they considered the "oriental" roots of their heritage and pursued a new interest in art they considered uniquely Russian.
Paintings of peasants abound, as with Philipp Malyavin's enormous, exuberant "Dancing Peasant Woman." Filonov emphasized the timelessness and universality of biblical subjects in the predominantly red "Peasant Family (The Holy Family)" (1914).
His "Shrovetide," also in brilliant reds, shows the Russian Mardi Gras festival, when Russians roll burning wheels down hills as symbols of the sun. He purposely constructed the painting with what he called "shards of color" that multiply horses, couples and troikas to intensify the effect.
No exhibit of Russia's avant-garde would be complete without Kandinsky and Malevich. Though Kandinsky lived in Munich between 1896 and 1914 (when he had to leave with the outbreak of World War I), he never forgot his Russian roots and later wrote that his familiarity with icons had led his art toward abstraction. His "Female Rider and Lions" (1918) demonstrates his then-focus on graphic art and painting on glass. Its top-hatted woman on horseback with children at play both haunting and mesmerizing is itself a kind of icon.
At about the time he painted "Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions)" (1915) in oils, Malevich described his art as the "final chapter in the development of easel painting." The exhibit label says the artist's "imagination endows the 'painterly realism of a peasant woman' with a certain symbolism, partially divinable and partially representing a 'quotation' from his own theoretical statements." The label adds that the artist's "Suprematism," his theory of art, comes from Russian icon painting. Viewers will have to decide for themselves.

Don't miss "The Faberge Menagerie" on a lower floor of the Walters. It is by no means just an exhibit of 120 Faberge animal carvings from European and U.S. collections. Exhibit curator William Johnston mounted a display of the many and varied richly colored stones nephrite, amethyst, jasper, lapis lazuli and others from which the tiny animals were carved, as well as a map of Russia showing where they were mined.
Pink-quartz piglets, a rock-crystal polar bear with ruby eyes, a petrified-wood chimpanzee, an amethyst rabbit, turtles and ladybugs show the astonishing carving virtuosity of the House of Faberge as well as its seemingly limitless imagination for animal forms.

WHAT: "Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde"
WHERE: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, until 8 p.m. first Thursday of each month; closed Mondays; through May 25
TICKETS: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older, $8 for students and youths age 18 to 25, free for members and children 17 and younger, at the Walters box office and from Ticketmaster outlets and Ticketmaster (301/808-6900)
PHONE: 410/547-9000

WHAT: "The Faberge Menagerie"
WHERE: Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore
WHEN: Through July 27
TICKETS: $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 65 and older, $8 for students and for those 18 to 25, free for members and children 17 and under, at the Walters box office and from Ticketmaster outlets and Ticketmaster (301/808-6900)
PHONE: 410/547-9000

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