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Korzhev exhibit, not to be missed

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.
"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.

“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 blindfold.

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.



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