Russian Art Retrospective
by Meg Fortune McDonnell
New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim museum, one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s more notable architectural masterpieces, features a controversial, circular exhibition space that curves around itself, spiraling upward in six “stories” that are actually one continuous gallery.
Whatever limitations critics have pointed out about this spiraling pathway as a viewing space, the seamlessness of walking the circle from bottom to top provided a unique setting in which to experience the progression of art history, in a retrospective of Russian art mounted by the museum last year.
The exhibition, rightly called an “extravaganza” by some, spanned the last 800 years of Russia art, unfolding chronologically from the bottom to the top of the Guggenheim Museum.
At the beginning of the spiral, starting on the ground floor, were the icons of the thirteenth–seventeenth centuries, evoking the sense of the sacred that was alive in the culture of that time. Saints, the Savior, and the heavens themselves are the subject of the icons—the sacred was clearly the meditation of art and the focus of culture, in Russia and in the West altogether.
It was almost unavoidable, making the uphill pilgrimage through the centuries of artistic development, to see the unfolding of Russian art as an epitome, or representation, of the development of Western art altogether.
Walking up the spiral, the early period of sacred art was followed in the eighteenth century (the age of Russia’s Peter the Great and Catherine the Great ), by formally posed portraits of nobility—the Divine birthright of kings was now the meditation of the culture and its art.
Further up the pathway, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the emergence of Romanticism brought paintings of more ordinary folk and the second half of the century brought a more critical realism that was in critical realism that was in evidence in the rest of European art of the time--emphasizing the social mission of art, and stressing the importance of man and his individuality.
Ordinary people, rather than saints and kings, were becoming the focus of an increasingly scientific and non-monarchic Western world.
Art having traversed the full progression from Divine, to kings, to the people and their sufferings, the art of the twentieth century brought about the deconstruction of image-making itself, as abstraction came for the fore, and the medium increasingly became the message.
Human cultures—East and West-- once looked to art to give expression to our sacred visions.
When the sacred moorings of art fell away over the centuries, in what was perhaps a necessary process of outgrowing the childish components of those early visions of the holy, we began to look to art to replace the sacred, as if the act of art-making were itself were spiritual.
Today, art is floundering under this mis-placed burden—and even without knowing it, we are all in search of a vision that is both holy and that transcends cultural boundaries and differences.
The works of those who can infuse our global culture with such transcendent vision have an utterly crucial role to play into the future.