The Russian Fairy Tale Exhibition, from Vasnetsov to the Present

‘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 Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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.

Flying carpet by Viktor Vasnetsov

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.

Vasnetsov at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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.

Bear at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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.

Baba Yaga in contemporary art

And on Vastnetsov’s masterpieces themselves.

Three bogatyrs at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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?

Cartoon at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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.

Koshchei the Immortal by Ivan Bilibin

As well as objects d’art.

Magic carpet at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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.

Heroine at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

Did you know Russian mermaids don’t have tails? You do now.

Mermaid at he Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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.

Koshchei at the Russian Fairy Tale exhibition Tretyakov Gallery

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.

More information

The exhibition page on the Tretyakov Gallery’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Urban Fantasy: Vampire Porn, Feminist Pipe Dream or Misfits Revenge? (which Mama wrote).

Address: Krymsky Val, 10/14, Moscow, 119049

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.

Pin for later?

Translating the Russian Disney film, the Last Warrior

Mama is not sure that Disney should have allowed their Russian language film project to be called Posledniy Bogatyr (Последний Богатырь).

This is because it is difficult to translate.

The choices in the English language speaking world seem to be between the Last Warrior, which sounds inappropriately militaristic, The Last Knight, which is better in terms of thematic relevance and all but conjures up all the wrong visual images, and the Last Hero, which has already been taken.

I mean, you wouldn’t call samurai anything else, would you? And a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr, and particularly so in this film, which is a romp though some of Russia’s best loved fairy tales.

Of course, Disney might not be planning an English language release. I mean, they’d have to dub it or something! Still.

The hero of the Last Warrior is Ivan (of course he is), a modern Muscovite who is a magician and a con man who gets unexpectedly dumped in a magical fantasyland version of Russia, and finds himself responsible for saving the day (of course he does).

As the Last Knight goes about establishing his backstory, there are all sorts of pleasing Moscow references  such as him living in what looks like a swish apartment in the high-rise complex of Moscow city (an extremely good choice for his character, given that the reputation of the development is mostly built on smoke and mirrors, and everyone in Moscow knows it). He’s the star of a reality TV show. He has encounters with difficult babushkas and his salt-of-the-earth middle-aged housekeeper. He also gets into trouble with VIP Russians and their bouncers, and ends up being chased around a shopping mall with a giant water slide complex inside. And look out for the gratuitous Putin reference.

Mama thinks somebody had a lot of fun with this section. The Last Hero may have been backed by Disney, but it is really driven by a Russian production company, Yellow, Black and White, who are responsible for a number of hit TV sit coms in Russia. Programmes which have also provided both the lead hero, played by Viktor Khorinyak, and the lead villain, played by Ekaterina Vilkova. The local knowledge really shows.

Not that this means that only Russians or people very familiar with Russian culture can enjoy the Last Bogatyr. Yes, if you know your Slavic folklore you will be happily anticipating certain entrances and appreciate the way that Russian fairy tale tropes are dealt with, including the way that this provides a plot twist that Mama, at least, did not see coming. But Slav fairy tales are not that dissimilar to folklore the world over, and the Last Warrior makes no real assumptions about its audience’s familiarity with the stories; each character is introduced carefully, and the plot itself is wholly new. Or at least as new as it can be given the genre.

The Last Warrior Disney Russian film selfie

So was it any good?

Well, the landscape that the heroes spend their time trekking through is lovely. High altitude meadows filled with wildflowers, oak trees and pine forests all around, babbling streams and frosty mountains looming in the distance. Mama was even moved to look up where the Last Knight was shot, and apparently it was actually filmed on Russian territory, down by Sochi and a bit further across in the Caucuses. She can only assume that this bit was sponsored by the Southern Russia Domestic Tourism Board.

Also, Mama and I are both agreed that it is pretty cool that the three most competent people in the film are women. The youngest of these, Vasilysa, (Mila Sivatskaya) is, in fact, the muscle for the band of heroes. She gets to attack people expertly with swords and wear reasonably sensible clothes for a fighting woman in fantasy land (looking not dissimilar to a certain Rey of Star Wars fame to be honest). Sivatskaya also managed the difficult job of allowing Vasilysa’s more vulnerable side to give a bit of verisimilitude to her inevitable attraction to Ivan.

There’s a couple of really good fight scenes and horse chases of the sort that if you enjoy those scenes in the Pirates of the Caribbean, you will almost certainly appreciate the ones in the Last Hero. It is certainly the sort of thing that Mama goes to the cinema for. The problem she had here was that the camerawork in these moments favoured close up jerky movements cutting swiftly between different angles and all the characters involved, which detracted from her appreciation of the action a bit in places. As in, she couldn’t actually see it.

Possibly it was part of the obvious strategy of making the movie as family friendly as possible. Blood and gore was decidedly not in evidence, and the fights were inventive in demonstrating the ways to overcome your enemy without actually dismembering them. Or, in fact, killing them even a little bit. I liked this. I’d been a bit dubious about going to see a film about Baba Yaga. In Mama’s old book of fairy takes from around the world the story of Vasilysa and Russia’s archetypal witch is among the most hair-raising. This, in a book written in the seventies, when Granny was irretrievably eaten by the wolf, and the other wolf boiled alive by the pigs. Sort of thing.

And Baba Yaga doesn’t really improve when you get in amongst the Russians and hear more.

Nothing of that sort here. In fact Papa grumbled a bit that Koschei the Immortal (Konstantin Lavronenko), usually Baba Yaga’s equal in undying menace, was a bit lacking in both manic evil cackling or fighting prowess. Mama, on the other hand, rather liked the calm world-weariness he projected in what is otherwise quite a melodramatic movie, and my Excitable Big Brother thought he was The Best.

Mama liked Baba Yaga best, played by Elena Yakovleva, despite her seven-year old misgivings. Of course she did. Mama is… getting… older…  and rather appreciated the fact that two of the more important characters are not, let’s just say, in their first blush of youth. Baba Yaga is extremely grumpy, wants to eat Ivan, and is a master of magic potions and magic creature seduction.

Fabulous, and the latter scenes a relatively neat way to reference the apparent preference of fairy tales around the world to make everything about sex with nubile young women, without, actually, making it about sex with nubile young women. Especially when the Last Bogatyr turned the whole stereotype on its head. Although Mama would probably have cut that plotline out altogether. She suspects some of the scriptwriters of taking their research into folk tales and clear determination to reference nearly all of them too seriously.

Still, at least it wasn’t scary.

As for the rest of the cast, Khorinyak as Ivan manages the journey from being a bit of a cad to a true big-hearted bogatyr hero well, and is also able to handle the physical humour of the role. As for Vilkova, as the evil queen she was suitably implacable and menacing, a dab hand with a bow and arrow, had great hair and turned into a giant white badass owl. What more could you want? In your FACE Harry Potter.

There were actual laugh out loud moments, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think in things that are billed as comedies. And there was at least one joke which the adults found funnier than the kids, which was nice for them. But we all thought the business with Koschei and the rock was hysterical.

But most impressive as a recommendation is that Papa, who is extraordinarily fussy about films, liked it, his quibble about a toothless Koschei notwithstanding. I’ll be honest, this is as rare as an extremely rare thing, and it makes no difference usually whether the movie is Russian, English, French or Japanese.

Of course, he was running a fever.

Anyway, let’s hope that the broad hint that a sequel could be forthcoming pays off. The Last Warrior seems to have done decent business at the box office and been reasonably well received by the critics, so it may well. That’ll give you, what, a year or so to learn Russian so you can enjoy it all too. Although if you are in Germany, it comes out on 19th November. Go for it.

If you want to read another of our Russian language film reviews, click here.

And in case you can’t access it any other way, here is a trailer. Enjoy!

More information

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Samurai society.

Photocredit: Mama has shamelessly used a couple of interesting pictures she found lying around on the internet to promote this Disney film, a service for which she is not receiving any form of compensation whatsoever. However, if she should not be using these pictures, she is very willing to take them down.