Set for last Saturday, the opening reception for the Museum of Russian Art’s new exhibition, “The Body in Soviet Art,” was pushed forward by the snow. But the show itself opened on time, and it’s fascinating. Yes, this is mostly art from the Soviet era, specifically the time of Khrushchev and Brezhnev. “But these are not propaganda,” TMORA’s chief curator Maria Zavialova emphasized during a walk-through last Friday. “These are not posters. These are art.”
If you go, here’s the best way to get a sense of what that means. Walk through the main gallery toward Vasily A. Neyasov’s muscular and glowing “A Guy from the Urals” (shown above). Ignore him for the moment and take a left, then a right into TMORA’s fireside gallery. Figure studies line the walls; hand studies and a foot study are arranged in a glass-topped cabinet.
Nearly all the artists in the show were classically trained in academies and art schools. They learned to draw the body from the inside out: the skeleton, then the muscles, then the skin covering the muscles and the clothing covering the skin. They knew the body intimately, how it moved and what it could do. With this in mind, you’ll see the rest of the show differently. (Fun fact: The fireside gallery contains more nudes than TMORA has ever shown at once.)
Along the walls and in the nooks of the museum — a former funeral parlor and, before then, a church — some 80 paintings are arranged by theme. Some themes are what you would expect in a show of Soviet-era art: the Collective Proletarian Body, the Worker’s Body and the Fit Body. Workers working together and on their own. Sportsmen and robustly healthy women.
The portrayals of women, especially workers, are progressive for their time. They’re not objects for the male gaze, but purposeful and powerful. Konstantin Frolov’s “A Logger,” a woman poling logs along a river, is the equal to Vladimir Kutilin’s “Assembler” and even Neyasov’s “A Guy from the Urals.”
Other themes include the Aged Body, Naked but Not Nude (for example, a family in their banya), the Live Body (the figure studies) and the Ethnic Body. At its height, the Soviet Union was a nation of more than 100 national ethnicities.
Three of the most intriguing themes are the Peasant Body, the Absent Body and the Mutant Body. The Peasant Body includes scenes of collective farms, their large, sturdy, well-kept buildings sheltering generations of families, symbolizing all that was good about the Soviet way of life.
The three paintings in the Absent Body, on view in the mezzanine, include an empty coat, a pair of boots beside an ax, and Mai V. Dantsig’s large “Sleepless (Unmade Bed).” The Dantsig is one of the most recent paintings in the show. A rumpled bed of white sheets and deep shadows, a cigarette ember smoldering in an ashtray, a jacket draped over a chair and an open door to a balcony tell you that something has just happened. But what? The perspective is unsettling. It’s as if you’re looking down on the scene like a fly on the ceiling.
The Mutant Body, also on the mezzanine, is a group of nightmarish paintings by Geli Korzhev, who is considered one of the most influential painters of the second half of the 20th century. TMORA founders Raymond and Susan Johnson knew Korzhev, who died in 2012, and they have a large collection of his paintings. One of the first shows in TMORA’s new space in 2007 was “Raising the Banner: The Art of Geli Korzhev.”
Korzhev was a Soviet and remained a believer in communism. He was horrified by the privatization and greed that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In one painting, “Anatomy Lesson,” a woman – Mother Russia – is surrounded by 15 hideous creatures. A drawing on a wall shows the outline of a body carved into 15 pieces, the number of independent states that arose from the ashes of the USSR. The mutant bodies are grotesque, but Korzhev’s classical training shines through: you believe they still function. In their own way, they are anatomically correct.
When you’ve had enough of mutants, walk to the other side of the mezzanine to see Korzhev’s “Deprived of Paradise.” It’s grim, too, but in a different way. Adam, carrying Eve in his arms, walks across a barren landscape under a gray sky. There’s no hint of the paradise they just lost. They’re heading into the unknown, but he’ll never let her go. Korzhev’s version isn’t the usual “Expulsion From Paradise,” where Adam and Eve are weeping, cringing and fearful. Filled with emotion, representing a people who can survive any amount of suffering (and have), this may be the show’s most moving painting.
The opening reception for “The Body in Soviet Art” will take place Saturday, March 16, 6:30-8:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10-5; children and members free).
TMORA is a small museum, but it’s large enough for two completely different exhibitions, unrelated except that all the artists are Russian or Russian-born. Downstairs in the lower gallery, “Surreal Promenade – Sergei Isupov” includes dozens of phantasmagoric, narrative and elaborately detailed porcelain sculptures, large and small. Often, the front tells one story and the back another; a third might be drawn on the foot, hidden from everyone but the collector.
Isupov immigrated to the United States in 1994. His sculptures are exquisite, perfectly rendered and wildly imaginative. If you saw “Guillermo del Toro: At Home With Monsters” at Mia in 2017, you might be reminded of that.
“Surreal Promenade” opened Feb. 8 and will remain open through June 9. It’s here in conjunction with the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference to be held in Minneapolis in March. Isupov will give an artist talk at TMORA on Sunday, March 24. FMI and tickets.
A word of caution: “Surreal Promenade” is not for kids. There’s probably nothing upstairs in “The Body in Soviet Art” they haven’t seen before, if they’ve been in any major museum. But “Surreal Promenade” is more explicit.