‘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.
It won’t come as
any surprise to people who are familiar with certain areas of London,
but some Russians have a lot of money.
Quite how much money is actually quite hard to comprehend for mere mortals such as Mama, but let’s just say that the first time Papa heard Alan Sugar’s boast about having made 800 million pounds from scratch in the opening credits to the Apprentice he laughed and laughed and laughed at the idea that this was in any way impressive.
Vast wealth beyond even the most avaricious dreams concentrated in the hands of a very few is what you get when you believe a bit too naively in the capitalist dream, which is what Russia did in the 90s. Not controlling the rampant asset stripping of the former Soviet Union was, in Mama’s opinion, a mistake, and not one made entirely though cynicism or lacking the tools to do so. Not… entirely.
Of course, not all the oligarchs made their trillions from the fire sale of the oil, gas, telecommunication networks, metals, or gemstone industries. Some people managed to make a fortune from kitty litter and concrete, and one of them is Mkrtich Okroyan, who has put his resulting 100 million dollar collection of Art Deco doodads on display in his own private museum in Moscow. As you do.
And what Mama decided after touring the Moscow Art Deco Museum’s one largish room is that it is a pretty good entry into a New Russian pissing contest. Because it is, in fact, only marginally more tasteful than building a house with seventeen fairytale turrets and filling it with repo Louis XIV furniture before covering everything with gold gilt. Says Mama, who thinks you can only really get away with that if you are actually a 17th Century French king with a giant 1000 room palace to fill, and multiple dancing fountains or 200 pairs of diamond studded heels to offset.
Is Mama relentlessly middle class or what?
That said, many individual pieces are very nice indeed.
And the Moscow Art Deco Museum collection includes pieces by some of the big names (Mama gathers, vaguely) in Art Deco sculpting.
Although what Mama most gained from the experience in the end was an overpowering urge to cavort, contortedly, arms outflung.
She contemplated having us pose in front of the figures and try to copy them in a nod to educational something or other, but a) she probably can’t afford the hospital bills and b) we were supremely uninterested in helping her walk around and photograph everything because there was an Art Deco colouring area and other children there to talk to. And if we got bored of that, the Art Deco style chairs round the Art Deco inspired coffee table we were exercising our creativity on spun round! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Actual Art Deco objects d’art cannot at all compete with that.
You have to buy a photography pass if you want to emulate Mama, by the way, a practice which is dying out in Moscow generally. And what with that and the entrance price, Mama concludes that kitty litter and concrete is not, perhaps, as lucrative as you might suspect. Clearly patronising the arts is an expensive hobby.
Anyway. A visit to the Moscow Art Deco Museum is not going to take up a vast amount of time. So it is nice to know that it is set on the banks of the Moscow River, and that if you shlepp across the bridge nearby, you will be bang in the middle of the Sparrow Hills section of the southern embankment.
And before that you can go and have a look at the rather fabulous building that houses the Russian Academy of Sciences. Mama says it is the architectural equivalent of standing on to of a hill in wet copper armour during a thunderstorm shouting ‘all gods are bastards’ because she thinks its form very much matches its function, and because she has always thought that was one of Terry Pratchett’s best lines.
She is quite pleased
that it is a building very visible from a long way away in the
current day and age. Just to keep people grounded
(hahahahahahahahaha. HAHAHAHAHA. Oh, deary me).
There are cafes dotted around the Moscow Art Deco Museum too, partly because the museum seems to be in some kind of re-working of former factories into trendy office space. Although because it was a weekend, they were mostly closed, and so we had our lunch in a cafeteria attached to a car repair outfit round the corner.
If you are looking
for a real post Soviet 90s-esque experience, this should be your stop
In fact, Moscow is still full of these stalovayas, the Russian equivalent of the greasy spoon kaff, anywhere where people actually work. They serve food such as hearty soups, plump pork or chicken burgers, buckwheat kasha, a number of (admittedly mostly mayonnaise inspired) salads and cheesecake style puddings out of curds and raisins, washed down with compot or mors, mild tasting drinks made by boiling fruit in water (more or less). Which a distinct step up from MacDonald’s when you are trying to insert a certain amount of food into children with a reasonable level of nutrition. And at a fraction of the price of named chains which do more or less the same but in slightly more up-scale surroundings. Admittedly they have a wider range of tea and coffee options.
No you cannot always
just take sandwiches. It’s damn chilly outside in winter. Mama has
experimented, but shovelling food into your kids on the Metro is
frowned on. Although now it is actually summer, a picnic is something
From there you can have a pleasantly wooded walk down to Gorky Park. But that is a story for another day.
Address: Luzhnetskaya Quay 2/4, building 4, Moscow, 119270
Opening: Tuesday to Sunday (closed Monday), 11am to 9pm
Admission: 200 roubles for adults, 100 roubles for children, plus some more money if you want to take photos.
Getting there: The nearest metro station is Vorobyovy Gory (red line), which is actually on a bridge over the Moscow river. You need to get to the northern embankment and turn right, away from the big stadium that was one of the World Cup football venues. It’s about a ten minute walk.
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.
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.
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.
Mama has been going to the Old Tretyakov Gallery about once a year so for about 15 years now. Last time we let her go on her own she took the (English. Other languages are available) audio guide tour. Five hours later she staggered back out of the building, and that was despite suffering a total failure of will when it came to the icon section. The tour is organised around you deciding which of the paintings to find out more about, and Mama, who really likes the gallery and everything in it, wanted to find out more about nearly all of them.
What you have in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, begun by a wealthy businessman (Tretyakov himself) and added to by the state when they acquired it on his death, is half of nearly all the famous paintings done by painters working in the Former Russian Empire (the other half are in the Russian Museum in St Petersburg).
This makes it a very interesting place to someone who likes a hefty dose of cultural history alongside her aesthetic appreciation (Mama).
Sometimes there are advantages to artists not being particularly famous outside their own country. Or, y’know, enforced nationalisation of aristocratic possessions.
Mind you, regarding the tour, Mama wonders if it might not be a good idea to give more casual visitors an indication of the absolute must sees for a shorter version, or provide an alternative more overview focused guide. But the descriptions are excellent, and you learn a lot about the individual pictures, the artist, and the cultural, political and sociological context surrounding them.
Mama was amused to note that not all of the paintings are described in glowing terms. The experts are not afraid to say when they consider that the painter has made a fist of depicting the lightnshadows, for example, and their critiques take in even some of the images which are, for the people of the Former Soviet Union, as familiar as the Sunflowers, The Hay Wain or the Mona Lisa are to someone like Mama.
My Excellent Big Brother and I are now resigned to viewing art with Mama, but to be fair, Mama has got better at showing us around. She is quite prepared to cover the whole building in less than an hour, makes sure we are well fed and have had a run around before we go in, takes pencils and paper in case we want to do some copying and shamelessly bribes us with a promised trip to MacDonald’s after we have finished.
As it turns out, you are not supposed to sit on the floor and sketch in the Old Tretyakov Gallery.
We discovered this when we tried to draw our favourite painting, the Three Bogatyrs. My Excellent Big Brother likes it because it is of three famous characters from Russian fairy tales, one of which Mama pretends he is named after. I like it because they are sitting on three magnificent horses. Plus, it’s huge, brightly-coloured and not at all depressing, which Mama discovered is not at all true about many of the other paintings she usually likes to linger over.
One in particular made my Excellent Big Brother cry. It’s the one where the soldiers of the Strelki Guard are waiting with their distraught families on Red Square to be executed, overlooked by a vengeful Peter the Great (on a horse!). The Strelki, as a unit, being the ones who brutally murdered his family when Peter was a boy.
Perhaps Mama should not have explained the background to that one.
She managed to restrain herself when it came to Ivan the Aptly-Named Terrible desperately cradling his son, after he had bludgeoned him to death in a rage and rushed us past it before we could ask, even though it is a painting she finds particularly powerful.
Mama also decided that some of her other favourite paintings, the bitingly satirical commentaries on contemporary society, might also require a rather sophisticated explanation, although she did point out the somewhat heartbreaking troika of three poor children employed in the freezing cold as water barrel movers. Mama feels we should occasionally appreciate our comfortable lifestyles more than we do, specially when we are pestering her for new toys.
Luckily the painter, Perov, seems to have sold out later and done a cheerful hunting scene. Be sure to press the button for the commentary on this one. It is magnificently scathing.
She also declined to comment on the fate of this young lady. I think she must be Ariel from the Little Mermaid, and we all know that turns out ok in the end. In the Disney version, mutters Mama, darkly. And it’s true that this girl does not have red hair (or much pink about her).
The Russians also seem to have gone to war a lot. Mama resigned herself to the inevitable and we spent time contemplating what the artists’ views about war were, whether they wanted to glorify the victory or highlight something else.
Mama herself seems to be broadly against war. She thinks that these paintings, by a man who was there for one, tell you everything you should know about it, then and now.
My Excellent Big Brother was more struck by the personal tragedy of this one. Or it might have been the vultures that caught his eye.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
There are a number of famous Russians in the gallery. The first set of rooms is full of paintings of people with very big grey hair and very big fancy clothes. Mama pointed out that at the time, there were no cameras and if you wanted a picture of yourself or your loved ones, you had to pay someone to spend hours bringing you to life on paper. She asked us who we thought got painted.
My Excellent Big Brother decided on kings and queens and so we looked for some of them in each room. And found them! Mama’s favourite painting is the one of Peter III where you can see the considerable difference between the sketch and the finished picture, which goes to show airbrushing is certainly not a new idea. Here is the cleaned up version. I shall leave the probably-more-accurate quick fire one to your imagination.
My Excellent Big Brother prefers the one of the benign elderly lady walking her dog in her dressing gown, which Mama says is almost certainly a through misreading of the piece given that this is an Empress called Catherine the Great, although also an interesting departure from the pomp and circumstance of previous portraits. My Excellent Big Brother doesn’t care. He just likes the dog.
I like the pretty woman with the froth of wispy hair. Mama says she’s not a princess, but I knew that already. Not enough pink.
After this we passed into a room with lots of paintings of ruins, none of which we were very interested in, although it did have a portrait of Pushkin, who is a poet. You can tell he is an important poet because they have a little rope barrier in front of the painting in case you try to throw yourself at it in an excess of artistic sensibility or something. Mama says I will doubtless be finding out more about just how important he is shortly, when I start learning large swathes of his rhymes off by heart, just like my Excellent Big Brother has already. I am looking forward to that, I can tell you!
Mama has recently managed to find a way to shoehorn Pushkin into my Excellent Big Brother’s English school homework. She is so proud.
Mama was a little disappointed to find that the section towards the end with the peasant girls swirling in bright red dresses was closed for refurbishment, but some of the pre-revolution impressionistic stuff was bright and jolly. Mama tried to get us to notice how the portraits here were so very very different in what they chose to highlight about their subjects from the ones that we’d seen at the beginning of the gallery, but my Excellent Big Brother was transfixed by the large pink naked woman lolling around on a sofa and wasn’t paying attention. Mama also wisely decided to give up on attempting to explain how the artists were painting light not things.
People are not the only thing to see at the Old Tretyakov Gallery, however. There are also a lot of religous themes, and surprisingly many of them are without trauma. Mama enjoys this very bright and busy one, which apparently took the artist 20 years to complete. It’s called Christ’s First Appearance to the People. We played hunt the Christ. My Excellent Big Brother, he of the two churches education, had no trouble picking Him out. But Mama thinks the fun of this painting is looking at the some of the many many preliminary drawings the artist did on the surrounding walls.
See how John the Baptist starts life as a woman! Watch as the artist experiments with getting just the right amount of skepticism into Thomas the Doubter’s expression! Thrill at the way the amazing curls of John the Beloved take shape!
Mama, who clearly can’t resist poking a sleeping bear where religion is concerned, also had us look at two less flattering paintings. This one is, as my Excellent Big Brother twigged, is of a controversy within the church. Must have been a hell of an issue. Mama says, yes, something to do with the number of fingers it is appropriate to cross yourselves with. She also says, make sure you listen to the description of this one. Apparently, the artist (Perov again) got the composition ALL WRONG (it’s possible the commentators have something against Perov).
They don’t have anything against Repin. Repin is one of the truly great painters represented in the gallery. Mama and Papa once watched an episode of a programme called the Antiques Roadshow where a Repin painting turned up, fresh from somebody’s attic. Mama and Papa a) spat their tea right across the room when the expert revealed the name and b) marvelled at the coolness of the owner, until they realised he had know idea who Repin was. A mistake. The painting was worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Quite why he is great is easy to see from the Ivan painting above and the one of the religious procession. Not only is every last person in the crowd exquisitely rendered and completely individual, but nobody will be saying the composition is a bit shaky or the satire a bit overdone. At first glance, it looks like an uncomplicated drawing of a cheerfully colourful parade, a happy occasion in the life of the small town. When you start looking more carefully, it’s the beautiful devout cripple you notice first. Only later do you realise that he has been marginalised by the rest of society, and that the mass of faces behind him are marred by expressions of pride, boredom, irritation or other unbecoming emotions.
If that’s a bit much, admire the painting of his daughter, the dragonfly. Looks a bit like me, huh?
We didn’t do the icons though. Mama likes icons, as they are all significance and very little artistic flourish, but they are right at the end of the show, and by that time we were showing signs of restiveness. You could probably come just for the icons if that is your bag, Mama thinks. There are a lot of them, they are very old, and some of them work miracles. Mama, unfortunately, has never yet had the energy to appreciate them properly after hauling herself round the rest of the gallery.
We did appreciate the animal interest available at the Old Tretyakov Gallery though! This is Shishkin, who is famous for painting trees, bears and bears hugging trees, although if Mama’s audio guide is correct, he contracted out the bears in his most famous picture.
Mama knew she’d spent too long hanging with the Russians when she started to feel fondly for the tourist tat knock offs on the Arbat rather than wondering who the hell the vendors think would by such insipid twaddle.
Of course, there’s a whole shop devoted to Thomas Kincaid in London.
Mama also realised she has developed alarmingly sentimental feelings for some of the great landscape paintings.
We, however, were not in the slightest bit interested, even in the ones with what Mama insists is a virtuoso performance in how to capture light without resorting to reducing everything to pixels. She says you should google Kuindzhi, or, better, visit Russia and the Old Tretyakov Gallery, because computer screens really don’t do him justice.
We preferred the Rooks Returning. Mama says it is a deeply meaningful meditation on the impact of their climate on the Russians and their though processes. We just admired the birds. My Excellent Big Brother even managed to copy it because we found this room empty of attendants before we got told off for sitting on the floor in front of our knights.
And then there was the picture of the fly (with some fruit). Mama wanted to discuss whey the artist has painted the fly, although I suspect my Excellent Big Brother thought the real question was why bother with the vegetation? We decided the fly might lend realism, or be a joke, or show how beautiful things can have their dark side, or just represent a moment when a fly landed on a pear an artist was painting. What do you think?
But of course the highlight was the big black horse prancing towards the viewer with a young lady elegantly sidesaddle on its back. I like her little sister too. Cute! Like me!
And in the shop in jigsaw form! Mama feels that the shop, like others at the tourist attractions of Moscow, misses too many opportunities to fleece the tourists. She thinks it focuses a little too much on large glossy art books. But she has found the odd one or two things she she likes here in the past, notably the mugs covered in signatures by famous artists and collections of postcards, and she certainly appreciated the puzzle on the plane back to London.
The gallery also sports a cafe, which we had a brief look into. It is neither wildly cheap nor ruinously expensive, and serves a decent selection of hot Russian classics and cake in comfortable attractive surroundings. She wished she could have been sure it was open before we went, because in the end we held Mama to our promised trip to the golden arches back near the Metro. Mama was unsuccessful once again to place her order for two happy meals and a fillet of fish without incident. It’s a basic tourist fail is not managing to order successfully in MacDonald’s and we are all thoroughly ashamed. I predict Mama is going to insist on us eating local next time.
If you do not have a date with fast food planned, Mama recommends turning left as you exit and walking down the pedestrianised street to the canal, where you will find many iron trees covered with heart shaped padlocks. This is one of the places where wedding parties come to celebrate their day, and you can kick back and watch a stream of beautifully dressed people take photos of each other, should you so wish.
Anyway. We found a lot to look at in the Old Tretyakov Gallery, and despite the ban on crayoning, the staff were welcoming and friendly to us small people. It’s a great place to go if you want to find out more about the Russia that existed before the revolution, and to delve a bit deeper into its history and culture.
Just don’t save the icon room until the end, if that’s what you are interested in. You’ll never make it.
And finally, here is another random painting Mama really likes, because there aren’t enough of them in this post already:
It is Mama’s understanding that all of these images are in the public domain by virtue of the originals being old. If she is wrong, she is very willing to amend this post.
Address: 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, Moscow, Russia 119017
Opening: Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday: 10am to 6pm. Thursday and Friday: 10am to 9pm. Monday: CLOSED.
Admission: Adults – 450 rubles, children – 250 rubles, children under 7 – free. It is slightly cheaper if you can pass yourselves off as Russian. Good luck with that.
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.
Mama has always rather fancied going to the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Preferably at the beginning of the 19th century sometime. But in the face of not knowing where to find a time machine, having to stump up actual cash for it and the absence of any real reason to go, she hasn’t, hitherto, gotten around to it.
Then Babushka’s birthday loomed. Babushka quite likes going to art galleries; there’s not much of a language barrier in art. But we’ve exhausted all the free ones. So Mama stifled her misgivings regarding Babushka’s reaction to the Tate Modern, seized the day and bought us all tickets to the RA’s 2014 Summer Blow Out.
The tickets are sold in half hour slots. We got there early for ours. Not a problem. The Royal Academy has a courtyard which at any time is a great place to let off a bit of steam safe from cars, wall to wall tourists and inconvenient flowerbeds. Now they have a little pop up cafe out there too, so I got to gambol about the cobblestones and Mama and Babushka got to sip coffee and admire the statue of a man waving a paintbrush in the air, decked out in a flower garland for the occasion. Mama says it’s Sir Joshua Reynolds, which is nice.
Once inside, I remembered the Royal Academy. It’s the place where you are allowed to touch, jump on, roll around in and add to all the things. Fabulous. As a result I was straight in there, rushing towards the brightly patterned man carrying cakes on his back, ready to have a go at trying to twist his head off. But Mama extracted herself from the business of getting the tickets checked, dodged smartly around a gaggle of slow moving, less encumbered patrons and scooped me up under her arm. You aren’t allowed to play with the pieces in this exhibition, which was a bit of a let down at first. I sulked my way through the first gallery.
The Twitter tag for the RA Summer Exhibition is #RANewAndNow, which we all agreed was an excellent title for it. It’s very obvious that this is contemporary art, and Mama assumes if you know what you are looking at you can probably sweep through the rooms and come out with a decent overview of what themes and techniques are current or up and coming in the art world. But anyone can enjoy it. It’s eclectic, vibrantly colourful and ever so slightly bonkers in places.
Of course, Babushka does not really appreciate bonkers in art the way Mama does. Mama gets a kick out of microphone stands set up with a hairbrush in place of actual amplification equipment. Babushka, by and large, does not. She also wonders why anyone would want to make a portrait of a grubby bathroom, let alone give it a prize. But there is a decent sprinkling of perfectly well-drawn representations of actual things of inherent beauty about the exhibition and also flowers, so she was perfectly well catered for overall.
One of my favourite rooms was the one with all the small paintings. Mama gathers that this is a traditional way to hang this space, but the artist in charge had also clearly gone out of their way to refute any charges of conventionality. My Super Big Brother would have approved of all the animal portraits, especially the collage-like owls. I really enjoyed the large red robot rampaging through Margate. The washed out Mini Mouse worried me though. I don’t really approve of messing with the Mouse cannon. Big fan here. Not enough bows there.
The room with all the dolls houses was pretty cool too, especially the building with all the smiley, frowny, crying stick people. And the lights. I was looking for some buttons to turn them on and off. There didn’t seem to be any though. Next year, perhaps. I was also pleased to see that there were quite a few horses dotted about the galleries. The video near the end was probably the best for fans of all things equine. Like me! Can’t beat a bit of hooves thundering through the surf action. But I was delighted by the 3D effect picture of the unicorns in the woods. Mama thinks I have not realised the significance of their being surrounded by ravening dogs. Nonsense! I am confident they will reach a peaceful solution in the end.
At some point we found out that you can buy most of what is on display. Mama is not sure how she feels about this. For her, it means that she immediately starts to see every painting through the eye of an interior designer rather than as a piece to be savoured as, y’know, Art. Will that, she worries, go with the cushions in the living room? Then she starts to judge all the pieces by how much they cost, which is irritating as one of the nice things about the exhibition is not really knowing at first glance which canvases are done by the established artists and which by the unknowns. As it turns out, she has expensive tastes. Her favourite paintings were on for not less that £4,500. Two children with their faces obscured by the ornaments of birds they were looking at. Mama feels this is, more or less, how my Super Big Brother should be immortalised, albeit it would work better as a window on his inner soul if it was done with actual wildlife.
The one I want, however, is £100,000, which is much more reasonable. Ones and naughts can’t be that much. A bicycle with wheels made out of metal flowers. We watched the video of somebody taking it for a spin around London three times before Mama dragged me away. It’s called the Two Nuns, although why, Mama could not explain to me. Shame it’s so long until my next birthday, but on the other hand I can’t ride a bike yet, so perhaps it is better to wait.
I also liked the climbing frame in the room with the big bit of burnt tree. The climbing frame you can’t actually climb on. Clearly some kind of artistic comment on the futility of something or other. Very clever. Mama was relieved to find the charcoal lump. She’d been wondering whether she was imagining the aroma of charred wood since she walked in to the gallery, or if she had missed the massive news story of the first version of the Summer Exhibition burning down. It was great to find out that it was all just part of the plan. She does wonder who would pay £54, 000 for that very intrusive smell though. Perhaps a hermetically sealed room? She has given some thought to this. There go holidays for the next few years then.
The exhibition took us just under an hour, Mama would have gone back for another go round, there’s just so much to see, but Babushka and I overruled her.
We went home via Green Park and Buckingham Palace. Mama had to carry me most of the way as we had left the scooter at home. The Royal Academy has a very small cloakroom, and although they let her take the pushchair in last time, Mama didn’t think trying to cope with that while trying to protect the artwork from me was a good idea. There were ice creams all round, and we all got to watch people spreading gravel with a determined display of righteous hard work in front of the Queen’s house for ages. It’s hard to knock off for a cigarette when you know you’ll get photographed by 500 tourists as soon as you do. Mama says.
Anyway. While there were some serious points being made by some of the artists, the overwhelming impression of the Royal Academy’s 2014 Summer Exhibition when you are pushing through it at the speed of the whimsy of a three year old and a seventy *cough* year old is one of cheerful colour, good humour and celebration. Almost irresistible. Mama is quietly determined to go again next year. And I can’t say as how I’d protest that much.
Our thanks to the Royal Academy of Arts for letting us use some of their photos, taken by Benedict Johnson. If you watch the video, you should be able to spot some of our favourites.