‘Babushka woke me up at 7am today,’ said my Mythic Big Brother quietly desperate on the phone to Mama, having unwisely bargained an afternoon round his friend’s with a morning at his grandmother’s. ‘We’ve been doing maths ever since’.
‘Not to worry’,
said Mama, bracingly. ‘I’m on my way to break you out’.
‘Mmmmmmm’, said my Mythic Big Brother. ‘Are we going somewhere, or are we going home?’
‘We’re going to an art exhibition!’ Said Mama. Enthusiastically.
‘Well’, said my Mythic Big Brother, ‘I could just stay here…’
However, he changed his tune when we arrived at the Russian Fairy Tale, from Vasnetsov to the Present and we were given a map.
The exhibition is being held at the New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val’s west wing, which was news to Mama as she didn’t know the New Tretyakov Gallery had a west wing. It turns out that it has achieved this expansion by taking over the Central House of Artists portion of the giant square concrete block in which they were both housed. This, Mama thinks, probably means that the era of cat shows and real estate conventions is definitively at an end. On the other hand, Mama has long felt that the New Tretyakov Gallery was a bit underrated, retrospectives of great pre-revolution artists notwithstanding, and she welcomes this sign that they are going on the attack.
The map shows the different rooms the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition is divided up into, all coded by a typical Russian fairy tale setting – the forest, underwater, the underworld. Visitors are encouraged to travel around the mythical world, identifying significant magical items or characters on a proper fairy tale quest.
Which meant that as soon as we got inside, we children abandoned Mama to set off on our epic journey, occasionally popping back up to say that we had completed that section or to show Mama something particularly entertaining we had found, almost by accident in our hunt for a talking frog. Mama thus got to wander around the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition at her own pace, read all the explanatory placards she wanted and take many many lots photos from every angle without a lot of eye rolling and complaints. Bliss.
The carrot of the exhibition is the inclusion of really famous paintings by Viktor Vastnetsov, who was one of the first fine art painters to choose folklore as a worthy subject for his works.
Many of which are found hanging in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and so you might be wondering how moving them half a mile down the Moscow River is adding value. Especially because Viktor Vastnetsov also has his own house museum, which has just gone on Mama’s list of places to check out in Moscow, because presumably there are more gems for the ardent fantasy lover hiding out there.
But Mama would hazard a guess that even if you have visited both locations, you won’t have seen Vastnetsov’s paintings in a setting quite like the one at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition.
The map, you see, is not a metaphorical conceit, as the exhibition spaces are actually made up with papier-mâché styling into magical forests, underwater kingdoms and underground caverns, complete with twisty underground passageways.
Mixed in with the Vastnetsovs are some very contemporary takes on the archetypes.
And on Vastnetsov’s masterpieces themselves.
There’s also quite the collection of film clips inspired by folklore and fairy tales. I mean, it was prolific, was the Soviet film industry, so it’s not surprising that they picked up on the potential. And if they are going to provide seating and headphones about half way round, who can blame all the kids and some of the adults from taking a lengthy a time out to watch Soviet-era cartoons?
Also, some items from plays or ballets.
And there are well known prints from Ivan Bilibin, whose fairy tale illustrations combining Russian folk art and crafts, Japanese prints and Renaissance woodcuts are iconic to the point of being inescapable.
As well as objects d’art.
There are short introductions in both Russian and English to the characters or stories you see around you, in case you have somehow managed to miss out on Baba Yaga, the perennially benign idiot, lucky Ivan, Vassilia the Compensatorily Extremely Competent Wise, the (Even More Accomplished) Frog Princess, the three headed dragon, bluff bogatyrs, all the talking animals you can handle or the deranged underwater king.
Did you know Russian mermaids don’t have tails? You do now.
And even the quest is appropriate. If Mama were in the mood for wild generalisations she would point out that organised fun is very much part of the Russian psyche. And riddles are both quite embedded in a Russian upbringing and something that Russian fairy tales are very big on. Where do you find the death of Koshchei the Immortal? In the needle inside the egg inside the duck inside the hare inside the chest buried under a tree on an island. Obviously. It’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma and everything.
In short, the
Russian Fairy Tale, from Vastnetsov to the Present
is exceedingly bonkers. We
absolutely loved it.
And because Mama has for once managed to go to an exhibition not on the day before it closes, but the very first day it opens, there is an actual chance that you might be able to follow our recommendation and go! Go! Go! It’s on until May 10th 2020.
Opening: Until May 10 2020, 10am to 6pm Tues, Weds and Sun, 10am – 9pm Thurs – Sat, CLOSED on Monday.
Admission: 600 roubles for adults, 250 roubles for kids, and there are family tickets available, which would have saved Mama a whole 100 roubles had she or the ticket seller been a bit more on the ball.
Getting there: The New Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val is half way between Oktabreskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) and Park Kultory (red and brown lines), opposite Gorky Park, in the middle of Muzeon sculpture park. There is also a circular bus route ‘Б’ that stops right outside and hits quite a few metro stations on its way around the city.
If you and a friend are idly rambling across the City of London from the Bank of England towards the Museum of London, you may find that you stumble across the Guildhall Yard outside the Guildhall Art Gallery.
And if you stumble
across the Guildhall Art Gallery you may realise that you have never
actually been inside, and decide to visit.
And this would be a
good decision for any number of reasons.
Firstly there is a Roman amphitheatre in the basement.
Well, part of one, because Roman amphitheatres were pretty big, actually. Go back up to the Guildhall Square, and they have drawn a big black line on the ground to help you trace our the perimeter further.
In fact, the amphitheatre is probably the reason the Guildhall, the administrative buildings for the City of London was built where it is. No need to start from scratch when you can re-purpose some nifty foundations and all that.
The City of London (note the capital letter), in case you are wondering, is a sort of super local council, needing to organise all the usual things in its immediate surroundings such as schools and the bin collection. But it combines this with continuing its historical role representing the financial, mercantile and commercial interests that still have their home in the City (note the capital letter). Bits of it are modern.
Bits of it are not. It had special mention in the Magna Carta and everything, and was such a political force that it was stripped briefly of its powers after it supported the republicans against the kind in the civil war (when Charles II took back over, obviously). It survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz mostly intact. Mainly it just lost its roof, and its protective guardians, the two giants Gog and Magog, chained up in the main hall since time immemorial. Luckily they were able to carve some new ones.
Incidentally, if you are wondering what the Magna Carta is, here is a song about how the British invented democracy.
Anyway. Guildhall has one of the 17 copies of the Magna Carta. Because of course it does.
It’s not the administrative centre for London as a whole. It’s not where the mayor of London (currently Sadiq Khan) hangs out.
No. It’s where the Lord Mayor of London hangs out. Glad we cleared that up then.
Anyway. The historical buildings are now used for municipal and corporate entertaining. You can hire them, in fact, should you need a medieval banqueting hall that seats 900 and is suitable for formal dinners and cabarets (apparently). You can also visit them on a tour once a month or so.
But underground you can enjoy the fact that 2 000 odd years has exposed the clever plumbing arrangements for the amphitheatre, thus putting the focus on the Roman’s mad engineering skills not the fact that the stadium was used for watching people and animals fight to the death.
The Guildhall Art Gallery has about 4 000 works of art to its name, but only displays about 250 of them at any one time, which means that there’s a high chance of being able to go back a few times and not get bored after you have looked at your favourite things.
Among the things that will be there will be (changing) paintings of London. Mama has been out of the Big Smoke for just long enough to forget just how irritating she found travelling around, sorry, trying to travel around the capital, and decide that there were some things about it she quite liked enjoyed. In a misty nostalgic sort of way. So she liked that area.
The Guildhall Art
Gallery is also big on the Victorians. Now Mama is not big on the
Victorians. Mama tries not to judge historical periods, but largely
fails when it comes to the Victorians, irrational though this may be.
She considers them class and prejudice ridden, sentimental, violent,
sexist, hypocritical, with terrible fashion and interior design
sense, and a particularly unfortunate habit of demonstrating all of
these traits all over the rest of the world.
Still, free art is free art. Which is presumably what all the great unwashed thought when the City graciously started collecting them paintings in the 1800s.
And then there is thirdly. Which is that if you are really lucky, you will be there when they have got the plates of William de Morgan out of the cupboard for a special exhibition.
Mama was just this lucky.
William de Morgan was an Arts and Crafts sort of person, a friend of the wallpaper designer William Morris, who spent a very long time mucking around with tiles in Fulham and trying to work out how to do iridescent glaze on his pottery, called lustreware. And managed it! At which point this sort of thing became very unfashionable and so he turned, considerably more successfully, to novel writing.
Mama does not share this lack of enthusiasm for de Morgan’s ceramics, and was actively distressed when she was alerted to the appearance on the Antique’s Roadshow of someone who had bought a de Morgan dish at a car boot sale for a fiver. Bah.
Mama also appreciates de Morgan because his wife, Evelyn, was such a good painter she subsidised the pottery for years, a suffragette and an outspoken pacifist. Mama always admires people with taste. Even if they were born in the Victorian era.
De Morgan’s Dad was also on display. For excellence in maths. Mama quite enjoyed that bit too. Mama enjoys other people’s excellence in maths. It’s like watching somebody juggle with 17 balls while standing on a tiger. Or something.
So. The Guildhall Art Gallery is worth a visit if you are ever at a loose end in the area. Would probably be improved of they had a cafe on site though.
Opening: Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. On Sunday it closes an our earlier.
Getting there: Don’t drive. I don’t care if it’s a bit of a walk from either the underground stations of Bank (Central and Northern lines) or St Paul’s (Central line). Just don’t. There’s probably a bus, but Mama doesn’t live in London any more so her encyclopedic knowledge of London’s bus network has faded.
What should you wear outside in Moscow in winter? One of those niggling questions you might be asking yourself if you are planning to visit Russia in the months of December through February.
answer is usually less than you expect.
Mama’s approach to
cold in the UK is to layer up.
But Russians by and large do not layer up.
This is because
inside is always very (very very very) warm, and so you would be
continually putting on and taking off all of these extra jumpers and
vests and the second pairs of tights.
What you actually need here is a large, thick overcoat, a hat, some gloves, a scarf and one fairly sturdy pair of boots with as non slip soles as you can find. That’s it. And then you are generally good, as long as you are wearing a little bit less than you would indoors in the winter in the UK underneath. Mama’s cardigan collection is sorely underused in Moscow. I am not joking about how hot it is inside.
Generally, that is,
as long as mostly what you are doing is trotting briskly from your
preferred mode of transport to the safety of an overheated building.
Every now and again, however, you might find yourself standing statically in a queue for an art exhibition for which you failed to buy tickets online before they sold out. At this point you will realise that this approach to dressing up is inadequate for forty five minutes in minus 10.
Or rather, you might not, but Mama did when she went to the Arkhip Kuindzhi exhibition at the Old Tretyakov Gallery recently. And forty five minutes was the absolute minimum wait, she calculates, as she got there 30 minutes before opening, and was one of the last people through the door for the first batch, after they had let in all the ticketed people who got their act together earlier than Mama.
So, who is Arkhip
Kuindzhi, you may be wondering, and is he worth all of this fuss?
Kuidzhi was born in was then called Mariupol in Ukraine in 1840. Or possibly 1842. Or 1841. Or even 1843. Nobody, including Arkhip, seems quite sure. There was a very large community of people with a Greek heritage in Mariupol, and Kuindzhi was not exception, although the name ‘Kuindzhi’ is nothing to do with this. It’s the equivalent to ignoring the fact that someone Welsh is called ‘Jones’ and using ‘thePost’ as an actual surname. It means ‘goldsmith’, which was the profession of his grandfather, but is from the Tartar language – also a big influence on the cultural make up of the area. Interestingly, Arkhip’s brother was also called ‘goldsmith’ but in a different language – Russian.
not a new invention. Mama says, pointedly. And neither is rocking it.
Arkhip Kuindzhi’s father was a not-at-all-well-off cobbler, and in any case died when Arkhip was very young. Which meant that Kuindzhi’s formal schooling was pretty minimal, and he did all sorts of jobs like animal herder, construction worker, domestic servant, artist’s paint mixer and photograph retoucher, before finally being accepted into a painting academy in Saint Petersburg in 1868.
He’s associated with the Wandering Artists, which also included friends he had met while studying and boarding in cheap lodgings like (the very fabulous) Ilya Repin. The Wanderers used their art to make biting social commentary and bring about social change through the medium of travelling round the country showing people paintings.
But Kuindzhi didn’t really do people, favouring landscapes instead. And he wasn’t a realist.
No, Kuindzhi’s style is best summed up by a comment from another great contemporary, the portraitist Ivan Kramskoi. Who is a bit of a fan boy or at least features prominently on the audio guide for the exhibition. This quote goes ‘I could spend hours boggling at the way the quality of light is absolutely perfect in this picture, my god, the light the light. But what the fuck is with the flat houses/ trees/ cows?’ Mama paraphrases.
And also, it turns out, lacks the photography skills to really do this crucial aspect of Kuindzhi’s genius justice. Use your imagination a bit here, eh?
Anyway. Remember this is before the height of Art Nouveau, well before the Constructivists, and although he travelled in Europe and would have come across the Impressionists, Kuindzhi clearly had his own take on how to go about it. Came as a hell of a shock to his audience, it seems.
Kuindzhi himself doesn’t have much to say about what he was up to, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that because he didn’t spend much time writing letters or diaries, it’s hard for current researchers to be sure. But he seems to have considered himself to be capturing the transcendental nature of existence.
Which explains why he wasn’t particularly interested in painting from life, but did pay a lot of attention to depicting the giant echoing horizons which contribute to the deep Slavic soul (sort of thing).
You may also have noticed Mama’s Chekov’s gun comment about his involvement in photography. Now Mama may be reaching a bit here (you may have noticed that Mama doesn’t actually know about art), but she does wonder how much all of that had to do with some of the effects he was going for.
She was struck by this sketch in particular, in which you may or may not be able to see that the foreground is very sharply painted and the background is completely defocused.
Kuindzhi, Mama thinks, would have liked Instagram and is a frustrated non owner of a DLSR and a whole bunch of lenses large and small. And what he could have done with filters and photoshop is probably the subject of some really colourful dreams.
And, yes, definitely, he was all about the light. This is absolutely one of Mama’s favourite paintings. Look at what he has done with the colours and guess what it’s called.
After the Rain. And! It’s even better than this in real life! Isn’t that just perfect?
Which is more or less what everyone else thought at the time.
It is a source of great satisfaction to Mama that Arkhip Kuindzhi did not die poor. In fact, Arkhip Kuindzhi, in defiance of the usual starving artist too good for this world to pay attention to mundane things such as proper marketing, not doing drugs, or remembering that the bills need paying trope, died extremely rich. He made a fortune, in fact, not just from selling his extremely popular landscapes at very high prices, but also doing some adroit property speculation. Although it turns out that this may have been somewhat accidental. Initially.
His exhibitions were among the best attended ever (hahahahaha, say Mama’s cold feet. Hahahahahahahahahahahahaha). People spent hours in front of his distillations of summer alone.
Which is not to say that he also went around having his bathroom taps coated in gold paint or whatever it is that people do when they end up a millionaire after humble beginnings. No, he mostly lived very modestly, and even after having reached the height of his fame, took a job as a painting teacher, at which he was very good, or at least well liked.
Until he got sacked for taking part in a student’s strike, just to remind everyone of the incipient revolutionary rumblings of the time.
He also left most of
his money to a charity set up before his death devoted to helping
Of course, he had a wife at this point. Mama wonders what she thought about being disinherited, but since she had gone along with this sort of behaviour for many years previously, Mama is going with ‘as eccentric on this issue as he was’, because Mama, as you can probably tell, rather likes Kuindzhi, and is definitely resisting the idea that he wasn’t as cool in his treatment of his wife is he was in other respects.
Vera Kuindzhi, just to give her more background than an appendage, translated a few of the famous chemist Dmitri Mendeleev’s works into French. And Mama likes to think that this may also be significant because some of what helped Arkhip achieve his striking lighting effects was being experimental with paint, not just the application of it, but its chemical composition.
The most famous example of this is the Moon over the Dnipper River. And variations on this theme, which the Kuindzhi exhibition has a reasonably large number of.
More epic queues resulted and it was sold for 5,000 roubles, which was a phenomenal amount of money for a painting at the time.
And yet what we are
seeing is a poor version of what it originally looked like. The
chemical composition of the paint did not hold – apparently the
whole canvas glowed and was a lot lot brighter.
At this point Arkhip Kuindzhi exited the artistic stage for thirty years, for reasons no-one seems definitively sure about.
What he seems to have decided is that he could absolutely not top nailing the very essence of a shimmering moonlit night in paint, so he wouldn’t even try.
He still worked on his art quite a lot though. The theme of this era, apart from ‘pastel’, is looking down from above. Arkhip Kuindzhi was obsessed by flying. He was famous trying to get up high – he got into the property owning business because he wanted a particular studio on top of a building in Saint Petersburg, but the only way to get it was to buy the two buildings next door as well – and spent a lot of time perched in trees on his estate in the Crimea. Or swimming out to a rock and observing the natural world from there.
Thus you have
paintings like Fog on the Sea.
Although Mama’s favourite in this style is the one with the thistles.
All in all, if you
are in Moscow before mid-February, Mama highly recommends taking part
in the historical recreation of Arkhip Kuindzhi’s successful career
and getting in the queue to see this very comprehensive showing of
Arkhip Kuindzhi’s works.
If you cannot, luckily you can find the best known paintings hanging in the permanent collections in either the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, or the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, so you’ll mostly only (only!) be missing out on seeing all the sketches, the different variations of the paintings all together, and the opportunity to stand in a room surrounded by glorious sunsets.
If all else fails,
you can go to the Metropolitan Museum in the USA and see the one (1)
painting of Kuindzhi’s there, the Red Sunset on the Dneiper.
And you should, you really should, do some (or all) of these things, because photos on the Internet really do not do justice to how very radiant the landscapes are.
And just to prove just how great he is, here is a video of someone stealing one of the paintings from this very exhibition, a mere week after Mama visited.
They’ve got it back now, but the painting is not going on display in this exhibition again, so here it is. Mama is pleased it has returned – it’s a good one. You can catch it at its home in the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Address: Engineering Building (just to the left of the main building), Lavrushinsky Lane 12, Moscow 119017
Opening: 10am to 9pm, closed Mondays, and the exhibition closes on February 17th. After that, the paintings go back to the Tretyakov Gallery Moscow and the Russian Museum St Petersburg.
Admission: 500 roubles for adults, and 250 roubles for kids and concessions, free for the under 7s, assuming you want to encourage your kids and elderly relatives to stand in the freezing cold for hours. That said, Mama notices that the Tretyakov seems to have released some more online tickets since she went, so you might be lucky.
It’s an extra 350 roubles for the audio guide. Get the audio guide. Queuing for that long? You deserve it. But you’ll have to leave a 2000 rouble deposit or your ID.
By Metro: Tretyakovskaya metro station (orange and yellow lines). Once you are out, you’ll be turning left and following the signs (in English and Russian). The very distinctive Old Tretyakov Gallery building is across a road and right round a corner. Try not to end up leaving by the connected green line station exit of Novuskusnetskaya as it’ll be a bit of a trek back. But on the upside, you’ll get to enjoy the newly nearly pedestrianised Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa.
‘Ooooh, is Banksy in Moscow?’ asked Mama on seeing a friend’s Facebook post a month or two back.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the British graffiti artist Banksy himself on display in Moscow but a number of his works in an exhibition subtitled ‘Genius or Vandal? You decide.’
Mama was relieved. The man’s identity may be something of an open secret these days, but Mama has a lot of sympathy with someone who sticks stubbornly to their pseudonymity regardless.
This being cleared up, Mama had no feelings of conflict when she set off, alone, to admire the exhibition. We were out of town, and Papa airily declared that, unlike Mama, he had been to Bristol and seen a number of Banksies in the original. Whatever was in Moscow would not be the same.
Which brings us to the dilemma of holding an exhibition of street art.
Quite apart from the issue of transposing the pieces from the raw urban environment they were designed to challenge into a respectable art gallery, how do you overcome the logistical difficulties of transporting whole walls, sometimes quite sizable walls, and frequently holding up actual buildings across a continent and into a room or two, albeit rooms in the very large Central House of Artists, opposite Gorky Park and within the grounds of the sculpture park Muzeon?
The answer may surprise you.
You. Do. Not. Even. Attempt. It!
Luckily, many of Banksy’s better known works have been reproduced in (Mama understands) fairly limited, carefully authenticated prints. Which is the advantage of frequently working with stencils. So the exhibition consists of a number of these, borrowed back from their owners, and one or two sketches and similar, of the back of an envelope type.
There are also nice big photos of the original works in situ.
Which were usually of typical British street scenes, frequently in London. Mama, overdue a visit back to the motherland, was feeling quite homesick by the end of the show. At one point she actually forgot she was supposed to be looking for the (quite subtle) bit of graffiti and instead gazed at the buildings, the trees, the shops, the road signs, and the people, in undisguised longing for a few minutes.
Other expats be warned.
Also be warned that you are not the target audience for this show.
The thing is, Mama would not have called herself an avid Banksy follower. But what with the fact that she and Banksy are somewhat of an age, a number of his works here seemed focused on her yoof, cycling as they do though the same topics any 20 something anarcho middle class leftie would have had an eye on back in the 90s.
In fact, the themes – the iniquities of the British royal family, the rise of surveillance society and an obsession with the works of Quentin Tarantino – seemed so linked to their time and the culture that produced them, Mama wondered if they would speak to anyone younger, not British, and not currently upset by the death of Princess Diana, the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, and the ear sawing off scene in Reservoir Dogs being set to such an irresistibly catchy song.
It also seemed perhaps a bit trivial compared to some of today’s concerns.
Mama concluded that maybe that’s what everyone thinks looking back on their youthful outrage from their 40s, except, perhaps, the bit about the UK having one CCTV camera for every 11 people or so.
And to be fair, the feedback from Muscovites younger than herself is that they had no trouble relating to the more general points being made by these sections.
Of course, the last thing Mama remembers hearing about from Banksy was the Dismaland installation (pun entirely intended), which was really quite recent, about the same time we left for Moscow in fact.
Banksy took over a large area in a run down seaside resort town on the south coast for a month and together with over 40 other artists created a nightmarish theme park attraction. It featured not only social commentary via the medium of subverted fairground rides and a derelict fairytale castle, but also real life docents who acted like grumpy disaffected employees of the unhappiest place on earth.
Mama followed with interest the fuss that it caused, with some commentators noting that the sarcasm was all rather broad, while at the same time, 150 000 people braved the difficulties of booking a ticket via a sketchy website or queued for hours to get the walk in tickets released each day. Having added some 20 million GBP to the local economy it was dismantled – and the building materials sent to the refugee camp near Paris.
It was all very gleefully satisfying.
Of course, Banksy is in many ways something of a performance artist, one who sucks all around his work into participating. From the ongoing arguments about whether his paintings should be allowed to stay put, be painted over, or be protected with glass, involving building owners, local councils, Transport for London, art critics, buyers, the media and after that, the general public. To the fact that he once got into a tit for tat wall painting war with a more venerable tagger and his followers. Which only ended when the other party, King Robbo, sadly had a (non-graffiti related) accident and eventually died of his injuries.
But I suppose what surprised Mama is that given all that has happened in the three years since Dismaland, there wasn’t more about things like the UK currently descending into self-induced turmoil, as though in defiance of how often Banksy really surfaced in the headlines, he should be out there spray painting furiously at all hours, all night, every night, fulfilling the same sort of role as political cartoonists in the newspapers, or comedians on the TV programmes like Mock the Week or Have I got News for You, churning out topical commentary on the latest stories to hit the headline week after week after week.
And it isn’t like he hasn’t said anything at all.
Of course, Mama mused, it seems Banksy has been spending a bit of time in the US, so perhaps Brexit is not feeling quite so immediate. Mama also gathers one of his current area of focus is Palestine, and there is definitely a case to be made that this is a place which needs attention from someone who has proved very effective at communicating to the public at large in a way that gets people’s attention.
Still, there is another reason than that ‘Banksy: Genius or Vandal’ is more of a Banksy retrospective for the potentially uninitiated, and this is that the exhibition turns out not to actually have anything to do with Banksy himself.
In fact, just this week he posted a screen shot on Instagram of splendidly well-crafted conversation indicating that he might be a bit miffed about it.
The organisers of the exhibition at the Central House of Artists did actually say up front that he was not involved, mind you, but it does explain a couple of things that Mama found surprising when she went round. One is that the tickets start at 550 roubles, which is not 20 quid (it’s more like a fiver) but it is pricy for a Moscow art exhibition, and that’s if you buy online and for a weekday. It’s 15 pounds if you want to skip any queues and have a guided tour, but there are Q-codes which you can scan and get an audio or textual commentary (in Russian) for free. Mama paid 750 roubles (7 or 8 GBP) when she bought at the door on a weekend.
The other is that there is a certain amount of leveraging the merchandising opportunities at the end. Mama hadn’t previously associated Banksy with paying to have your photos taken in the style of some of his better known stencils, or branded T shirts. In fact, while actually at the exhibition, she had spent some time pondering this and trying to work out if this was some kind of new work on the commericalisation of art. Hey ho.
The exhibition closes on 1st September. In the meantime, if you want to see what he is actually doing now, you can visit his website or check him out of Instagram.
Address: The Central House of Artists, Krimsky Val, 10/14, Moscow, 119049
Opening: Until 1st September 2018 11am to 9pm Monday to Sunday
Admission: Adults: 650 roubles on weekdays and 750 roubles at weekends, no concessions. It’s 100 roubles cheaper if you buy tickets online, and 1400 roubles for a guided tour booked online.
By Metro: Oktabrskaya (orange and brown lines) – turn left, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left down the other massive seven million lane highway at right angles. Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. The Central House of Artists is opposite Gorky Park.
By other means: Actually, the bus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way.
So there was Mama somewhere at the back end of the 90s standing in St Petersburg watching the unveiling of a new monument and feeling a nagging existential discomfort. This ate away at her for a while until she realised that the reason she was discombobulated was that the statue was not by Zurab Tsereteli.
There was no better sign that she was no longer in Moscow. For at that time Georgian born artist Tsereteli was being almost exclusively commissioned by the then Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, to sort Russia’s capital out with all sorts of little (and not so little) embellishments.
From the reconstructed Christ the Saviour cathedral, through an exceptionally tall memorial to the second world war in Victory Park and clowns outside the Nikulin circus to the Manege shopping mall next to the Kremlin and a whole host of other projects big and small, Zurab Tsereteli was involved as an architect, sculptor or artist and his style was unmistakable.
That said, Zurab Tsereteli has had a very successful career selling sculptures in all sorts of places since his beginnings as a designer of one of the immortal bus stops in the Soviet Bus Stop book, which now has a second volume out! That’s Christmas sorted then.
He’s had projects all over Russia and the former Soviet Union and also in Spain, Uruguay, Italy, Greece and the UK. This one is in… wait for it… France. Only bigger.
His ten-story teardrop sculpture to 9/11 (actually called ‘to the struggle against world terrorism’) is installed in Bayonne, New Jersey (Mama forgot to take a photo of the mock up of that one. Google it).
He is phenomenally wealthy and was once married to a princess. This isn’t her; Mama just likes it. The sculpture is of a famous Georgian dancer in reality, and now installed in Georgia. Only bigger.
His crowning glory, though, was undoubtedly the giant statue of Peter the Great, now installed on the Moscow River. It’s the 8th biggest statue in the world and something of an acquired taste. Legend has it that it was actually supposed to be a statue of Christopher Columbus and destined for the US. The US refused to take it on, and so Tsereteli removed the head, stuck one of Peter I on, and sold it to Moscow.
Which is bollocks, probably (says Mama). Tsereteli did indeed have difficulty pitching a giant statue of Christopher Columbus to the US but, never one to give up on a sale, he’s been shopping it around ever since and it recently found a home in Puerto Rico. A snip at 16 million dollars. The one here is a preparatory model. The one in Puerto Rico is much much bigger. Bigger, in fact, than the Statue of Liberty. As is Peter.
You can see the similarity, of course. But it’s not the same statue.
Here is a photo of Luzhkov (on the left) looking satisfied with a job well done.
Zurab Tsereteli’s stranglehold on sculpture in Moscow may have been loosened with the downfall of Luzhkov in 2010, but he has not entirely lost his artistic clout, although what saved Peter the Great from being dismantled and summarily shipped off to the reluctant St Petersburg was the new mayor’s discovery of just how much this would cost, apparently.
Now in his 80s, Tsereteli is still the president of the Russian Academy of Arts. He is linked to one of the Russian themepark projects currently proceeding apace (wheeeeee!). His private collection formed the basis of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. And although the MMOMA is now state-run, one of the buildings that forms this art collective is the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum dedicated to his works.
Mama’s google fu seems to suggest it is also his former home, and definitely a mansion house once belonging to the Gorbunovs, before it was requisitioned by the Soviets.
That’s where Mama took us recently.
Well, look, the outside of the building is enough to entice anyone inside, surely?
Although when we got in the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum we were shown straight back out again into the courtyard, where there are a lot of sculptures.
As well as a lot of mock ups of some of Tsereteli’s bigger statues elsewhere, Mama was surprised to discover that she was not as au fait with the Tsereteli oeuvre as she thought she was – she hadn’t realised that the mosaic animal sculptures at the Moscow Zoo are his.
Mama was also very taken with this one. Obviously this is because both me and my Judoka Big Brother participate in judo, although I don’t know what the tiger has to do with anything.
But the thing about Tsereteli is that just as you are writing him off, he produces things like these statues of Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva, which Mama do think have a certain something.
And this. It’s part of a Holocaust memorial. In the original there is a queue of such figures, who stretch back and back and back and gradually become less distinct as individual people and slowly disappear into the ground. Mama considers it quite well done, and to support this view is the fact that people thought it was so upsetting that it was moved from its initial position at the very front of Victory Park to somewhere a bit less inclined to make them feel uncelebratory.
But there are these cool metal flowers too.
And this, which needs no words.
It was about now that I started to feel decidedly overwhelmed with weird shapes, animals and people, because if there is one thing that the courtyard isn’t, it’s carefully curated, and so I demanded to go somewhere a bit less busy.
Inside was nice and warm, and mostly focused on better organised collections of paintings. Tsereteli likes his paintings as his sculptures, if not in actual size then in the bold primary colours, thick thick layers of oil paint and unsubtle shapes he favours. Apparently, Tsereteli hung out with people like Picasso, Chagall and Dali in his youth, and Mama thinks he still does.
Sometimes this works better than at other times. Mama likes these.
But for the areas you enjoy, the gallery is certainly generous with its comfortable seating, accompanied by a coffee table filled with a selection of books telling you more about Zurab Tsereteli’s life and works.
One thing Mama does not understand is why every single person, and Tsereteli does do people a lot, looks miserable. This seems something at odds with his choice of colour palette.
And the title of this series, ‘for my grandsons’, is frankly odd.
Although Tsereteli must have a bit of a thing for clowns. He has a large number of works inspired by Charlie Chaplin. And a photo of him with Charlie Chapin’s granddaughter.
There are photos of him with all sorts of other people too.
Not disturbing at all was the welcome of the staff, who clocked Mama fairly quickly and switched to competent English. They also let us choose a complimentary greetings card on our way out, presumably for being children with discerning taste in museum galleries.
Mama also recommends a visit to the toilet (you’ll see why) and the cafe in the grounds of the Georgian Orthodox church next door to the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum. Georgian food is one of Moscow’s little pleasures.
If you haven’t had enough of Tsereteli, he has an art gallery in Moscow too. There’s a sculpture of an apple there (giant, natch). I expect we’ll find our way there sooner rather than later.
Opening: 11am to 7pm Monday to Sunday, Tuesday 1pm – 9pm, closed third Monday every month.
Admission: Adults, 250 roubles; kids of seven and over 100 roubles; kids under 7, free.
Getting there: The nearest metro stations are Barrikadnaya (purple line) and Krasnopresnanskaya (brown line). Look for the entrance to the Moscow Zoo (you can’t miss it). Instead of going in, follow the wall to the left round to the back of the zoo and you definitely can’t miss the Zurab Tsereteli Studio Museum.
There were quite a lot of people about when the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Iron Felix, was torn down in 1991.
Dzerzhinsky was the man who set up the CHEKA, the forerunner of the KGB, and he was notorious. Consolidating the Revolution required the arrest and immediate execution without trial of hundreds of thousands of potential threats to the imminent Communist paradise, and Felix was tireless in pursuing this most necessary work.
Not surprising, then, that after he died, from a heart attack following close on the impassioned denunciation of some of his rivals, he got a giant statue. A giant statue slap bang in front of the KGB headquarters in Moscow.
Not surprising, too, that this statue was one of the focal points of the pent up rage of the suddenly released Soviet population after the fall of Communism. It was first covered in graffiti, and then removed and dumped elsewhere. There is a monument to those who died in the Gulags there now, although it’s not half as big.
There were a lot fewer people to see Felix Dzerzhinsky put back on his feet again a few years later, but my Papa was one of them. If you ever unearth a picture of the historic moment, you will see a short man with a dandelion clock of floaty hair, and that will be him. Mama says. I dunno. He doesn’t seem to have much hair now. I suppose anything was possible in the 90s.
A number of monuments to fallen heroes had been collected here, and were being put back on display. Stalin, his nose bashed off, was erected, rather pointedly, in the midst of tortured, anguished forms, an installation to memorialise the victims of repression and terror.
But as for the rest, Carl Marx, Leonid Brezhnev, a number of Lenins, a giant hammer and sickle, some generals, a female worker and so on, were just dotted about here and there.
And were soon joined by statues to perfectly innocuous people like circus bears…
…and a bare-bottomed youth standing on his shoulders.
There’s even an Oriental section.
And a whole square devoted to sculptures made from limestone.
It’s all a bit random to be honest.
Especially the great big fuck off Peter the Great statue down by the Moscow River.
But thus the sculpture park Muzeon came into existence and these days it is a rather trendy hangout.
You can wander around the statues, especially Felix, who is looking quite smart and has had his graffiti quite removed.
You can admire the red squirrels Mama suspects have been specially bred to entertain visitors at Muzeon and Gorky Park.
You can get coffee or some snacks from the plentiful little kiosks. You can even stroll down the river along the newly opened up embankment towards the Kremlin.
Nobody pays much attention to the statues to the dethroned Communist butchers. There’s no egg hurling, spitting, vigils, flags, respraying or chipping bits off now. Although you do sometimes find children wanting to climb on them (cough cough). And someone does seem to have left flowers at the feet of the defaced Stalin. Mama does very much hope this was in support of the 3 million people killed in the Gulags and the larger number killed by state-induced famine, but in 2017 it’s never wise to assume that sort of thing.
Of course, if you are foreign like Mama, you will almost certainly be taking photos. One person’s symbol of oppression overcome is another person’s edgy selfie opportunity, after all.
So what has caused this feeling of creeping irrelevance? Time has passed, and times are different since the heady early days of post-Communist living. The promised land of milk, honey and wall to wall freeeeedom and the Russian way has not quite worked out as expected.
Or it might have something to do with the fact that Moscow today is hardly free from Communist busts, flags, hammer and sickles, and statues. The impact of gathering the statues of the unwanted in one place so people can come and point and laugh is somewhat lost when there’s a huge Lenin at the end of the road, arm outflung as if to show the way to Muzeon (or the road to Communist enlightenment, you take your pick).
This might be why almost from the moment that Papa wandered over on his tea break to see what all the unusual commotion with cranes was about, there have been noises about putting Dzerzhinsky back on his roundabout again. Was there any point to taking him down, the thinking presumably goes? Or possibly, do we really want to encourage more such acts of childish petulance aimed at our (former) glorious leaders?
Hasn’t happened yet, mind you, but anything’s possible.
Mama thinks this would be a mistake though. Just as every memorial ever put up says a lot more about the people and times that spawned them than it ever does about the person (or abstract concept) being remembered, so does the act of removing them.
The fallen monument section of the sculpture park in Muzeon is a reminder that the values our predecessors held definitely need critically reexamining sometimes, but you can never, and probably should never, ignore them.
And it helps us remember that sometimes the best you can hope for is that there will be some relatively blameless child able to eat ice cream and enjoy the sunshine in pleasant surroundings in the future.
Address: 10/4, Ulitsa Krymskiy Val at New Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, 119049
Opening: 8am to 10pm (winter) or 11pm (summer).
Getting there: From Oktabrskaya metro station (orange and brown lines) – turn right, cross over the massive seven million lane highway and head left away from the giant Lenin statue down the other massive seven million lane highway. From Park Kultury (red line) – turn right, cross over the Moscow river, cross the seven million lane highway. Muzeon is opposite Gorky Park.
Alternatively, the trolleybus route ‘Б’ stops right outside. This is a circular route, which takes you round the edges of the centre of Moscow and hits a fair number of metro stations on the way. It’s quite a fun way of getting to or from Muzeon.
So one day British musician and music producer Stephen Coates was walking through a flea market in St Petersburg, Russia (as you do) when he spotted something which looked a lot like this.
Intrigued, he stopped and asked the seller about it, but didn’t get a very satisfactory answer. Coates bought the thin plastic disk anyway, discovered it did in fact play music, and then set about trying to discover more.
This was, apparently, a bit difficult at first.
Of course, had Coates asked Mama, he could quickly have found out what he had acquired. This is because Mama long ago readBack in the USSR: the true story of rock in Russia, about the underground rock scene in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
This book, published in the very late 80s, was written by Atemy Troitsky. Who was very much in the thick of it all as a producer, musician, critic and organiser of some of the Soviet Union’s first rock festivals.
Troitsky is mostly concerned with the scene in the late 70s and 80s, but he includes as a sort of prequel a whole chapter on the clandestine music lovers who came before. These were the stilyagi, or hipsters, who went to extraordinary lengths to simulate the Western lifestyle of rock and roll fans in the late 40s and 50s, up to and including listening to bootleg records made out of old X-rays.
One of which, of course, is what Stephen Coates had got his hands on.
Mama is smug that she knew about this before it was cool. But then on the other hand, Mama did not start a whole organisation called X-Ray Audio dedicated to preserving the records and researching the phenomenon by meeting and interviewing some of the participants like Stephen Coates did. And now there is a whole exhibition, Bone Music, at the contemporary art gallery, Garage, dedicated to these fabulous objects.
Mind you, not that the ryebra, or ribs, were just about passing round Western rock and roll or jazz music, acceptable during the war, summarily banned afterwards. Also frowned upon by the post-war censors was music by Russian emigrees, 50s gangsta rap-esque prison ballads, and songs by any individuals who had pissed off the Communist party or one of its more influential members.
Why X-rays, you might be wondering. Well, they were reasonably easily obtainable – hospitals had to get rid of them after a certain amount of time because of the fire risk they represented – and took the grooves cut by improvised recording equipment well enough, if not particularly well, to be able to hear the desired tunes. Alongside a lot of hissing and crackling.
So the Bone Music exhibition is not just celebrating the roentgenizdat, but the people who made them and the machines they built to do it. People who were arrested, sent to the gulags, came out, and settled down to do it all over again.
And you never thought Rock around the Clock was all that.
But also on display at Bone Music was the way that people who might want to listen to such things were portrayed in the press, or even in films. Negatively, as I am sure you can imagine.
Yes, much of the text in the exhibition is in English as well as Russian. But then the Garage art gallery is very hip.
Our favourite bit of the whole Bone Music exhibition was the room set up to simulate a bootlegger’s lair. The reason? Everything in the room was touchable. All those little drawers had bits and pieces in. Tattered ID documents, valves, more valves, bits of string, technical drawings, some wire, valves, stamps, a tin of old kopecks, and valves. We opened the tea caddy and smelled the leaves inside. We handled the freshly produced X-ray records. We looked though the old exercise books of carefully handwritten catalogues. Hours of fun.
Bone Music is on at Garage until 14th October, but if you don’t catch it before then, the X-Ray Audio project goes on tour internationally quite often. See if you can check it out when it comes to you, because the sheer ingenuity of people generally, and the indomitable spirit of those suppressedshould be celebrated.
And then there’s music. You should definitely remember the days it didn’t die.
To help you, here is Stephen Coates doing a TED talk about Bone Music and his X-Ray Audio project.
Half full of things which 8-year-old boys shouldn’t see, according to the woman who doled out the tickets.
Naturally, that meant that my family headed straight to those parts of the gallery.
In her youth Mama used to listen to scruffy guitar bands she is now banned from singing along to in the car. When we are teenagers, she is doubtless going to be smug about the fact that, back then, very few of them had much play on the radio beyond a few late night John Peel sessions. So she has jumped around at lot at gigs in a fair number of small, grimy, hot concert halls, and outdoor festivals where the toilets were terrible. She is particularly insistent that it wasn’t just the headliners she was interested in, but the support act of the support act. Nothing more unbearable than a 19-year-old who thinks they have found counterculture, even twenty *cough splutter* years on.
Personally, I prefer listening to [insert name of the latest poppy girl music sensation on BBC radio 1]. Mama despairs of me [and also is old so has no idea].
When she came to Russia, however, she discovered that she and all her cohort back home were comprehensively out-cooled by everyone listening to Russian rock in the 80s, which is to say Papa and his friends.
This is because rock music in the Soviet Union was, if not actively banned, officially controlled and improvisation discouraged, and most of the bands performing it were therefore part of a truly underground music scene.
What this meant is that these musicians couldn’t get their music recorded in professional studios, certainly had no airtime anywhere at all, and were extremely limited in the places where they could perform. Gigs in people’s flats were A Thing. Arrests were not unheard of. And the rockers were poor, taking jobs such as caretakers, street sweepers and factory workers to satisfy the need for everyone in the Soviet Union to have an officially recognised job.
But word and homemade cassettes got about all over the Soviet Union, in much the same way that samizdat manuscripts were shared of suppressed writings.
So when Perestroika came along, and the Russian underground rock scene was allowed more exposure, actual performance space and bands finally got recording contracts, some of the musicians became extremely well-known, extremely quickly. And some didn’t and were still subject to low-level hassle and obstruction.
Now you might be expecting that, given how repressed they were, and that they are sometimes credited with an actual role in the downfall of the Soviet Union, these people spent a lot of their time singing rousing political protest songs.
In this you would be wrong. No need for any of that when your very existence is sticking two fingers up at Lenin. Neither did they come up with a radical new musical style. But lyrics were considered very important. No meaningless drivel wrapped around a banging hook for your Soviet underground rock bands. Just profoundly poetical explorations of the human condition. With, if you were a punk band, some careful swearing.
Which, to be honest, means that the full glory of the music is often lost on Westerners. See what you think.
Now, you might be wondering what this has to do with my Treacherous Big Brother being warned away from some of the exhibitions in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.
Well, the thing is that one of the exhibitions was entitled (in Mama’s head) ‘Mild naughtiness with Soviet icons in the early 90s’ (but actually Zeitgeist by Sergei Borisov). Lots photos of people doing handstands under the giant statue of the Worker and the Communal Farm Worker, sort of thing.
And lumped in with this, lots of photos of Russian underground rock bands and their followers.
Shocking, huh? Might do all sorts of terrible things to an unformed mind. My Treacherous Big Brother’s fashion sense alone could be ruined forever.
Actually, Mama thinks it was probably the photos of young women who were without clothes that was probably the problem. Rather than, you understand, the fact that they were wearing a fur hat and covered in hammer and sickle stickers in a blatantly subversive act.
It was definitely the fact that the next exhibition was a collection of photos of a nudist colony that had the docents frowning when Mama wandered in behind my Treacherous (and quite thrilled) Big Brother.
Mama felt obliged to cover his eyes and march him straight out again, although in reality, she thinks that pictures of people of all shapes and sizes going about barbecuing and playing volleyball and so on in a perfectly matter of fact manner is considerably more innocent and suitable for small children than any number of classical paintings of young women wearing diaphanous scarf clothing, baring her breasts while staring provocatively at the painter (he hopes).
Luckily the top floor was an entirely uncontroversial exhibition of static film making. You might think that the point of using film over mere photography is so you can capture actual movement, but Mama is here to tell you that there is something quite mesmerizing about watching people fish.
Anyway, a bit of a poke round the website reveals that the Moscow Museum of Modern Art has not one but five locations in Moscow, so we shall have to go and keep trying to figure out quite how the MMOMA is different from the Multimedia Art Museum, which also features exhibitions of mostly photography and film. Unless it is indeed that they put all of the exhibitions that you might not necessarily want an under ten to go and see in the space without the Lego in the foyer. But I can’t say that the family made a thorough investigation of the gallery on this occasion, being anxious to get on with the museum going marathon that they had embarked on.
Opening: Monday – Sunday 12 noon – 8pm (9pm on Thursdays). Closed every third Monday in the month.
Admission: 350 roubles per adult, 150 roubles kids over seven, kids under seven free.
Getting there: Mama has no idea. She was just following Papa. Somewhere between Mayakovskaya metro (green line), the Bulgakov Museum(s) and the Arbat? Just look at a map, will ya? We gave you the address.
It is Mama’s firm belief that modern art is the medium to go for if you want childish appreciation of visual virtuosity. Classical paintings are very flat. Contemporary… whatjmacallits tend to be a lot more pace roundable, climb upable, crawl alongable, duck underable and even, occasionally, touchable.
The current exhibition at the Garage art gallery in Moscow, the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, has items on display which allow you to do all of these things, and put on headphones to listen to the soundtrack that accompanies them as well.
Figuring out which items you are supposed to manipulate and which to contemplate from a safe distance by carefully observing the appropriate behaviour of more clued up others is both a profoundly moving representation of an essential aspect of the human condition and also a very good opportunity for children to practice this vital social skill.
To limit the potential damage this might cause, the very practical Garage gallery had stationed a large number of young docents at every possible corner on the lookout for people doing it wrong, so generally the art was safe from everyone except Mama, who absent-mindedly walked into the dangling skier model. We simply can’t take her anywhere.
Adding to the child-friendliness, in the Garage Triennial, when the art is flat, it tends to be on TV. Can we recognise the difference qualitative difference between Spongebob Squarepants and a woman being sloooooowly covered with large smooth stones on a beach? Mama has no idea, but she does know that my Predictable Big Brother will be entranced as long as there are moving images.
Mama wouldn’t say that the Garage Triennial is simply uncomplicated fun for the more youthful element of society though. So she experienced trepidation every time I put on the headphones, and even insisted on sampling the soundtracks first if she could get there ahead of me. But since I retained my sunny delight in trying on every single one of them for the whole of the exhibition, Mama concludes that it was fairly innocuous after all. And the set that also included virtual reality goggles was simply FABULOUS. Floor to ceiling dancing babushkas. ‘Nuff said.
The Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art is organised into a number of themed sections. Its overall aim is, for the first time ever, to showcase the current state of the modern art scene for the whole of the Russian Federation, and to this end curators spread out all over the very very big country in order to discover what is going on out there. Way way out there in some cases.
They seem to have decided that artists are working on being famous (‘Master Figure’), describing themselves (‘Personal Mythologies’), describing their location (‘Fidelity to Place’), describing what’s wrong with that (‘Art in Action’), describing art (‘Common Language’) and scribbling on walls (‘Street Morphology’).
And actually Mama, who can sometimes find herself in a modern art gallery staring a large, random, piece of burnt wood and wondering if it would make sense the other way up, felt that either the Russian artists had been unusually successful in getting a point across or that the groupings were particularly well thought out. In pondering the connections between pieces or between the piece and the topic, she made a lot more sense of what was going on than that time when she was interviewed by a psychic guru in the catacombs of the Tate Modern.
Went a bit over our heads, mind you. My Predictable Big Brother stared particularly blankly at the large golden model of a priest and inquired with some disapproval as to why he was making a mildly rude gesture. Being moved to read the caption and finding out it is a self-portrait didn’t seem to help much.
Basically, both of us much preferred the shiny metal spiny sculptures, the giant pile of rubbish that changes into something much more attractive when the lights go down, the sand tray where you could use tweezers to move a few buttons, twigs, grains of sand, plastic baubles and fabric flowers around, and the giant multi leveled wendyhouse, with the extremely steep twisty stairs.
Most of all I liked the dolphin buried in a concrete brick. Look, I just like dolphins, alright? No need to overthink things.
I liked it so much, in fact, I drew it in the visitors book, full of sketches by other gallery goers too, after double checking to make sure it wasn’t just another piece of art.
Mama thinks that very much in evidence was the Russian surrealist sense of humour, impressive commitment to fixing anything as long as there is a bent paperclip or a large hammer to hand, and habit of flinging themselves wholeheartedly into their latest project.
But the Russian reputation for startling directness is also not unjustified and this was definitely on display at the Garage Triennial too.
Take this one, which Mama found one of the most powerful examples, given that it marries the very delicately pretty feminine art of watercolour painting with the ugly subject of domestic violence.
Or this one, in which items from the personal and political history of the country have been embedded in amber, itself an iconic item from this part of the world. Can’t get more crushing that the implication that the symbols you held so dear are now fosilised remnants of a disconnected past.
Or this one. These are house numbers. Note the missing ones, intended to represent the losses suffered to wars and instability in the artist’s hometown.
Which is Grozny in Chechnya.
Let’s just take a moment to add a new layer of painful interpretation to that, shall we?
But the problem with message-driven art is that at some point that you do start to wonder if perhaps standing in a swish custom-built chrome-plated art gallery, thinking about the coffee you can have in the large, tastefully-appointed cafe downstairs, next to the extensive souvenir cum glossy art books shop is all a bit… too… comfortable.
Is there, in fact, a point to looking at this kind of thing if all you are going to do afterwards is play on the table football, and then wander downstairs to the elegant toilets, where there are sprays so you can detoxify the seats before parking your rump, as well as a mirrored area with a built in clever-clever hashtag for teenagers to primp in front of before their edgy Instagram session upstairs? And all this while listening to the deliberately amplified sound of flushing loos?
A question already addressed in the Garage Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art, by the Monstration happening.
This is an event which takes place annually, and which at first glance seems to show a large street demonstration in action.
But if you look a little closer (and you can read Russian), you will see that the placards are covered with pseudo slogans.
Because this is a pseudo protest.
Yes, the artist organizer may occassionally get arrested for planning it, and the onlookers heckling the participants may also be taking it seriously, but no, these people have turned out en mass and with considerable enthusiasm, having taken the time to paint up their own signs with absurd sayings to participate in an entirely content-free demonstration.
Mama simply cannot decide whether this is the most genius bit of biting sociological satire she has ever seen, the angriest political commentary or an egregious example of shocking frivolity given that it is 2017, the year after 2016. It’s been bothering her considerably.
Which, I suppose is the point of art, contemporary or otherwise. To get under your skin, to stay with you, to make you examine the world in a different way.
So go, if you can. It’s interesting, fun and worthwhile. And your kids will love it.
It’s always reassuring when you rock up to an art gallery as an under ten, just as we did at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow, and the first thing you see is a generous number of Lego play stations and a couple of cars you can sit on and drive round a carpet. A welcome bold statement of child friendliness.
But possibly, Mama thought about half an hour later, when we still hadn’t made it out of the foyer to any of the exhibitions on offer, rather too successful in making us feel at home. Of course, that might be the point. Corral the sticky fingered elements well away from anywhere they might damage the displays or be loud.
No matter. Finding places children will willingly amuse themselves for multiple minutes on end is a goal Mama is sure most parents share with her, so regardless of the reason why, this should be a win.
Mama would nevertheless like to complain about the lack of any adult-friendly distraction other than a decent connection to the internet in the same area. In particular, Mama feels that atrium of the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow is distinctly lacking in cafes, given how much time parents might be spending there.
Which is why, a mere forty-five minutes after we arrived, Mama insisted we go and have a look round the place.
The Multimedia Art Museum Moscow turns out to be a thin sort of building, which seems to specialise in a number of smallish ever-changing exhibitions of some variety. Although most of them seemed to involve photography while we were there.
Our two favourites were at the top and the bottom of the museum. The top was interesting because it was a show of the everyday lives of everyday people who live in the town of Slavutych, built for the employees of the Chernobyl power plant, after the disaster. Nothing dramatic, but the photographer had an eye for small quirkily amusing moments, and some very brave subjects, who allowed him into their homes for the duration. Inevitably, though, the picture we liked best of all was the one with the dolphin mural.
The other child-pleasing photographs were the ones where the artist had embellished some real shots of kids playing to make them more like comic book pictures. We were particularly pleased that the thought bubbles were in English (GASP!) because we could make Mama read them all out. That said, Mama was a bit disturbed at how many of them involved the heroes shooting at each other (PEW PEW), which just goes to show you can overcome your seventies upbringing. I would have liked to see more Catwoman (MEOW) too.
Women, however, were very much in evidence in the photographs of the Pirelli calendar through the ages. It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that some of them were NAKED MAMA, Pirelli being a company better known to Mama for making tyres for Formula One races, an organisation not renowned for its inclusion of females as much more than glamorous props. But it was a disappointment that there wasn’t more fast car porn. And it would also be improved in Mama’s opinion, if there were a lot more racing drivers with their kit off.
There were more men in the rooms of photographs of artists in their studios, an exhibition that will probably appeal to those who have a better grasp of art than Mama, who really only recognised Picasso and Matisse. Given that most of the painters featured were on the less figurative end of art it was interesting to see how the end result compared to the actual objects they were depicting, and Picasso instantly became our favourite artist as he had a pet owl, apparently.
Mama’s favourite room at the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow was the one with the large rectangles of patterned fabric with the carefully placed hole in the middle which made them look a lot like the duvet covers that are popular here in Russia.
Mama hardly ever gets to read the explanatory placards when we are with her, but she was significantly intrigued by this to seek one out. Thus she discovered that these objects d’art are, in fact, quilts.
The Empire of Dreams represents fragments from the collective memory of the final years of the USSR and its immediate aftermath. Which Mama thinks is quite clever, although 50% of her is also wanting to mutter about how here is a man appropriating what should be woman’s art. The other 50% is saying that men’s unwillingness to engage in women’s work is a great deal of what is wrong with the world, and that showcasing this male enthusiasm for sewing in a proper art gallery is great.
We just gamboled around the colourful giant hanging hide and seek opportunities and then demanded to go back to the foyer.
Where they had set up two tables for, oh joy oh rapture, crafting!
We immediately got stuck in to making a collage out of stills from Eisenstein’s movies, an exercise which lasted a good thirty minutes or so. Mama noodled about on her phone, helped with the cutting out and wondered if anyone would mind if she nipped off to have another look round.
So all in all, the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow turns out to be an excellent place to take children at the weekend as apparently they have this kind of free and easily accessible workshop every Saturday or Sunday. Plus, y’know, the Lego. Oh, and the small, easy to zoom round, differing exhibitions, at least one of which will almost certainly have the odd piece of art which will appeal to a kid.
If they add a coffee shop, then it will become one of our favourite places.