(Photo courtesy of the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg)
The Princeton Art Museum's current "Mir Iskusstva" exhibit, which runs through June 11, is the most impressive show I've covered since I began writing art reviews. I found the subtitle, "Russia's Age of Elegance," misleading, however. Mir Iskusstva, or "World of Art," was the title of a periodical published in St. Petersburg between 1898 and 1904, and it describes exactly what you enter when you walk through these rooms. Elegance is only one aspect of the world on display. Look at Konstantin Somov's portrait of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff. Elegant he may be, but he's wearing a cardigan, his tie is loose, and he's sitting for a portrait he knows will be used to advertise Steinway pianos.
Where to begin? The first room has wonders, so does the second, but it was when I came to one particular wall of portraits that I began to love this show. That may sound extreme, but I don't know what else to call it when attempting to describe my response to Zinaida Serebryakova's self-portrait, Study of a Girl, and Somov's portrait of Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva. What else can you say when you feel the art looking at you rather than the other way around? Or when it sinks in that these hauntingly lovely women were artists in their own right? At first you might think the girl in the self-portrait is wearing a night dress, but it's more likely an artist's smock. And though she may look abstracted, caught in mid-thought, her gaze is that of an artist attending to her muse or perhaps eyeing the movement of her own hand as she paints. "Look how her eyes follow you around," I heard a father at the show tell his little son.
What contributes to the immediacy and seductiveness of Study of a Girl is that those same eyes are looking out at you in another painting in the adjoining room, where the artist has apparently contributed the features of her own face to the most prominent and full-figured of the eleven female nudes in a later and much larger oil painting, Bath House. In that radiant work, the sheer plentitude of flesh in such close quarters is striking; the interior glows with warmth, as if it were painted with firelight. That this type of lighting appealed to the artist is underscored by the note posted with Study of a Girl, which says that she was experimenting with "candlelight effects."
Bath House was painted in 1913; the self-portrait in 1911 when Zinaida Serebryakova was 27. She stayed on after the Revolution but was impoverished by it, lost her husband to typhus, had to support her mother and four children, and went to Paris after receiving a commission for a large decorative mural. The move meant leaving her mother and two of her children behind for virtually the rest of her life. In 1960, after 36 years, she was reunited with her daughter. A year before her death in 1967, a large exhibition of her work was mounted in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev.
As for the story behind the woman who seems to be reading your soul in Sorov's plushly dark portrait, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva was a graphic artist almost by default (she was allergic to oil paint). She, too, went to Paris, studied art there and worked in Whistler's studio, but then returned for good to St. Petersburg/Leningrad, which became her primary subject (a number of her admirable hand-colored lithographs of the city are also on display). Her comments about Sorov's dark, rich, subtly lit and deeply suggestive portrait of her, which was painted in 1901 when she was 30, suggest that she might have been on the verge of laughing in the painter's face. According to the accompanying note, while she agreed with the way Sorov depicted her features, her bearing, the incline of her head, the way her hand was resting on the arm of the chair ("All that is me"), she felt that the melancholy aspect of the work misrepresented her: "I was active, energetic, and at times, a great comedian." Imagine the Chekhov story behind those remarks and the relationship between the two artists, both of whom can be seen years later in Boris Kustodiev's 1920 group portrait of Mir Iskusstva's leading members.
In most instances, the author of the sequels to these paintings was the Revolution. For example, the story behind Somov's Portrait of Methodius Lukyanov (1918). The image is of a man in his 20s lounging in an outfit Oscar Wilde might have envied: yellow silk pajamas with white cuffs under the extravagantly mottled landscape of a dressing gown with a sky-blue lining. The pose is elegant (even if the Age no longer is), and while the painting has a richly decadent aura, the eyes are wonderful: probing, seductive, and fiercely intelligent. The posted note diplomatically informs us that the painter and his subject were "said to be lovers," and then goes on to say that after 1924 (when Stalin came into power and homosexuality became illegal) the two lived as émigrés in Paris, where Lukyanov was an antique dealer, the manager of a pensione, and a rabbit breeder. And oh, by the way "He died in Somov's arms."
Another story has a Princeton denouement: Sergei Sudekin's portrait of Nina Schick, an attractive woman with an open expression. Her son, Anthony Evnin, a member of the Class of 1962, actually helped his classmate Greg Guroff initiate this exhibition.
It would take far more space than I have to do justice to all the portraits and their stories. I haven't even mentioned some of Mir Iskusstva's featured works, such as the painting used to advertise the show, Leon Bakst's The Supper (1902), in which the face of the woman seated at the table is little more than a sketch compared to the ones I've been discussing. What's for supper here is really the female being consumed by the artist's fixation on the form of dress and hat and the tablecloth swelling massively against her; it's as if the serpent shape of the vast black dress is swallowing her.
Boris Kustodiev's Portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold (1916) has also been featured in publicity and reviews. This top-hatted giant with arms akimbo suggests some demigod of entertainment, a promethean entrepreneur who seems to have conjured up the exotic figure next to him, all fiery colors and vast pantaloons. At the same time, the giant's gesturing has a spastic, involuntary look, as if he were an oversized marionette Kustodiev was jerking about. The story behind this image is that when Meyerhold wasn't being a theatrical director like his rival Stanislavsky, he was doubling as a character named Dr. Dapertutto in pantomimes performed at a St. Petersburg cabaret known as The House of Interludes.
Other wonders: the portrait of poet Anna Akhmatova in a very blue dress by Nathan Altman (1915); Valentin Serov's larger-than-life nude study of actress Ida Rubinstein (1910) in which both the outline of the body and the backdrop are painted in the same flat, drab color; and Nikolai Radlov's 1926 portrait of symbolist poet Mikhail Kuzmin, cigarette effeminately brandished in not quite Bette-Davis-style.
Then there are paintings you can almost enter and breathe the air of, notably Boris Kustodiev's Fair Booths (1917) where the trees look like cotton candy and you can hear the clown beating the drum, and, most spectacular, N. Youn's Trinity Monastery in Winter (1910), which really does put you in the time and the place looking down on a living moment, the long line of pilgrims forever in motion, like the freize of figures around Keats's "Grecian Urn," only here it doesn't take all that much imagining to hear the sleighbells.
But it's 2006, after all, and what you are really hearing is someone's cellphone and a parent's advice being given in hushed tones (at least that) to a child stranded at the mall. Somebody's ride didn't show up. But that's another story.
A fully illustrated 150-page catalogue published by the State Russian Museum and the Foundation for International Arts and Education is available from the Princeton University Art Museum Store. The museum is located in the center of the Princeton University campus; hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Closed Monday and major holidays. Visitor information: (609) 258-3788, or www.princetonartmuseum.org.
Note: My response to Ansel Adams in a recent review seemingly at the expense of the photographers in the other Michener show prompted a letter of complaint I would be glad to answer if the writer would give his address. Town Topics policy is to run letters only if an address is provided.
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