Korzhev exhibit, not to be missed
"Raising the Banner: The Art of Geli
Korzhev,” at The Museum of Russian Art until January 6, should
not be missed. The paintings are astonishing, and the tour guide,
if our docent Mike Bailey was typical, will draw you in like a good
show business hand who always leaves you wanting more.
|From Korzhev’s Don
Quixote series. The Russian view of Don Quixote was much more
sympathetic than teh European view. The model for the noble
night was Korzhev’s father.
“It’s interesting to see what happens,”
says Bailey. “People often come with a monolithic image of
what Russian art is. I can see from the expressions on their faces
how amazed they are at some of this work.”
The Korzhev exhibit, including the artist’s
own short commentaries that accompany the work, also reveal something
fundamental about our own culture and the undercurrent of anti-Soviet
propaganda that Americans and consumers of U.S. culture everywhere
have drunk up, like it or not, with their mother’s milk.
How many times have we read about “gray Soviet architecture”
and the drab apartment blocks that still blight the Russian landscape?
The Korzhev paintings—themselves no more drab than a Van Gogh
or Diego Rivera—put these post-World War II artifacts into
context unlikely to be garnered from watching Ken Burns. The Soviet
Union stood off the Nazis, made an allied victory possible, and
in the process took a hit that makes 9-11 look like a hangnail.
Twenty million died, and both the physical and
social infrastructure were devastated. The fact the country was
able to put a roof over the heads of the survivors was an achievement
at least as remarkable as the Frigidaires, Packards and TV sets
that the United States, an ocean away from the European holocausts,
was able to provide for much of its population during the same period.
The Soviet Union did it without benefit of a Marshall Plan.
The trajectory of Korzhev’s career is
closer to what you might expect from a Renaissance master than an
unrepentant son of last century’s Evil Empire. Korzhev (roughly
pronounced CORE - jev) was born in 1925 and joined an artistic studio
at the age of 10. Some of his early paintings, from the 1940s, were
modeled on French impressionists and at least one, on display, is
a copy or homage to Rembrandt and a striking trompe l’oeil.
You have to look up to assure yourself that the figures at the center
are not lit by a spotlight.
Korzhev soon began working in a style he called
“social realism,” his own take on the Socialist Realism
that was required of any artist who worked professionally under
Stalin and to a lesser degree until 1990.
Socialist Realism, it turns out, is more nuanced
than it’s usually portrayed. The exhibit commentary breaks
it down this way: The first era, roughly from 1934 into the ’50s,
produced tableaus of great state meetings and portraits of the founders.
(Think “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” in spades.)
The second era is known for its idealized portraits of workers.
The third period, roughly from the end of WWII
until the late 1980s, gave us what one Russian critic called “The
Severe Style.” As Korzhev explains it, the returning veterans
who enrolled at the Moscow institute where he was teaching brought
with them a new attitude, purging art of the revolutionary romanticism
that had held sway since the 1920s. “You can call it anything
you like,” he says, “but not Socialist Realism.”
Korzhev’s own portraits of veterans—worn,
dignified, often bemused—are rendered with all the immediacy
and care we are used to seeing lavished on portraits of European
nobility. From one canvas, a man wearing a high-button military
jacket stares calmly at the viewer with one blue eye, the other
grown over with scar tissue. In another, a resigned insomniac lies
quietly next to his sleeping wife, looking out at we know not what.
It’s hard to say how Korzhev would have
fared against Stalin if the peaks of their careers had been more
in synch. As it happened, Stalin died in 1953, about the time Korzhev
was coming into his own. He was working on a painting with Stalin’s
face in the background. By the time he completed the painting, he
had painted over the face.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, Korzhev’s
subject range expanded to include a series on a Russianized Don
Quixote and some Biblical events. But his politics did not change.
He worked on his “Judas” during the period that ended
the Soviet regime and brought on Boris Yeltsin, and in the commentary
he compares the Biblical figure to the Socialist state that has
“figuratively hung and killed itself.”
Judas is depicted frontally, hanging full-figure,
except his head is outside the frame. One sandal has dropped onto
a towel, where pieces of silver still lay scattered. The other sandal
remains on his foot. You can almost smell the leather, just as you
can in an earlier painting entitled “No Name.” There,
a bearded Russian in a sleeveless T-shirt is kneeling, his wrists
bound tightly with a worn belt. A tightlipped soldier, swastika
on his armband and rifle slung over his shoulder, is tying on a
Some of Korzhev’s more recent work—the
“Tyurlikis” series—is reminiscent of Hieronymus
Bosch, the 15th century Dutch Christian painter whose demons and
strange half-human creatures with their tin hats make Salvador Dali
look a bit thin. Some Tyurliki paintings are, according to Korzhev’s
commentary, allegories expressing his contempt for post-Soviet corruption.
Others are more enigmatic. “Fight” depicts a fight or
sexual intercourse, it’s hard to tell which, between a human
viewed from the back and a bat-gargoyle figure that has sunk its
teeth into the man’s shoulder. Others are hilarious, in their
way. Don’t miss “At the Hairdresser.”
Korzhev is still in Russia and still working.
The opening of this exhibit was quite an event, with Russian museum
officials and the cultural attaché from the Russian embassy
in Washington in attendance. This is the largest Korzhev exhibit
ever mounted outside the borders of the former Soviet Union.
Admission for adults is $5. Tours are Thursday at 6:30 p.m., Saturday
at 1:00 p.m., and by previous arrangement. The Museum of Russian
Art – “TMORA”– is at Diamond Lake Road and
Stevens. Check a map: Get west of the freeway long before you get
close to avoid bridge re-construction at Diamond Lake Road. 612-821-9045.