‘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.
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.
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