At the Russian Museum of Art

In the unexpected Minneapolis Museum of Russian Art, a show on the ground floor traces truly ancient cultures of the Ukraine–back 7000 years B.C.–using pottery, gold jewelry, and a huge stretch of the imagination. For one thing, it’s hard for me, who’s never been further east than Italy, to progress to the Black Sea, and its ports of Sebastapol and Costanta. Yes, I’ve heard of the Crimean War; in fact, one of my own favorite poems called “Florence Nightingale Receives a Visitor” describes in part what that innovator brought to the English hospitals in the midst of the mosques and chaos of the Crimean War. I’ve also become aware recently of Romanian immigrants to Italy, whom we call in the U.S. gypsies, but who call themselves the Rom or Roma. Seeing an Italian movie about a bidante or care-giver from Romania included some gorgeous scenes of the marshes around the Black Sea. So I have images and actual acquaintances from Romania. But trying to imagine myself back into the sweeps of peoples–Sythians, Samatians, and the most ancient Trypilians boggles the mind. Not to forget the Goths, who entered much later from what we call Sweden. My, my, my, the world has been trod and retrod by the most diverse peoples.

On the second floor, the museum has displayed the works of a contemporary Russian artist named Oleg Vassiliev. Living through the Soviet era as part of the Moscow underground, Vassiliev illustrated children’s books for the public–delightful wolf with long red tongue and big tail, for instance–but in the summer he and an artistic friend left Moscow for creative explorations. My favorite series uses an image from a story by Chekhov, “The House with the Mezzanine.” Largely in black and white, these metal-cut prints on paper, capture the nostalgia of an outmoded architecture suggesting the life within it, of gentle countryside rambles and long conversations (a few works depict such experiences), but it’s the silhouette of the artist in modern trench coat, variously posed against images of the house with its front porches dark against the sky, that most evokes a lost richness of incident and imagination. One has to posit against these, Soviet Realist heroic workers and enormous bridges as vigorous but impersonal as steel blocks, to appreciate what has been lost.

Oddly, Vassiliev’s work calls up the silhouette-art of younger African-American artist Kara Walker. In her huge wall-size compositions of silhouetted images from historical textbooks, the Ante-bellum South becomes viscious with a crazed-child intensity. What racism did to images of Ante-bellum black people–the Topsy and Aunt Gemima types, not to mention the lynched black men swaying from trees–not only reduces individual traits but the very possibility of human agency, which of course is what slavery intended. When white child shoves a sword into a vagina of a nearly lynched black figure, violence crosses over into insane play. The silhouettes or outlined figures intensify this effect.

Vassiliev achieves something of the same with his blackening of past images. but whereas he mourns the past with a trenchant nostalgia; Kara Walker portrays the visciousness of dehumanization by using figures meant originally to amuse viewers who considered themselves superior. These were challenging thoughts and rouse questions about how most effectively to counter institutionalized terror and repression. What with seeing the British play “Collaborators” earlier in the week, I’m rather dazed with all this deep thinking and the USSR and ancient Russia, now the Ukraine.

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