"The New York Times", September 11, 2005
How to Fit a Whole Country Into the Guggenheim
By KATHRYN SHATTUCK
THE exclamation point may be flamboyant, but "Russia!," the title of the Guggenheim Museum's latest broad-stroke exhibition, merely hints at the herculean struggles involved in organizing an 800-year survey of a sprawling empire.
To hear curators tell it, pulling together a show embracing some of the most renowned and least traveled Russian masterworks was a feat of diplomacy evoking the glasnost years. (The opening date of Sept. 16 was chosen to coincide with the start of the next General Assembly session; Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, has accepted an invitation to attend the show.)
"We did a lot of polite negotiations," said Robert Rosenblum, a Guggenheim curator. "And they were pretty tough, I have to say."
The inspiration for the show was born in 2002, with a canal-side encounter on the roof of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. There, Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim's maverick director and an ardent Russophile, was approached by Mikhail Shvydkoi, then the Russian minister of culture.
"I explained that it would be very interesting to present a strong fine arts exhibition because a very small number of people in the United States know about the important art of Russia," Mr. Shvydkoi, now director of the Russian culture and film agency, said recently. "I said to Tom, 'We must do something.' "
Mr. Krens - who knew the culture minister through the Guggenheim's partnership with the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, three Soviet avant-garde shows and his research into Russian icons - was intrigued. And as is famously his wont, Mr. Krens - the man behind "Africa: The Art of a Continent" (1996), "China: 5,000 Years" (1998) and "Aztec Empire" (2004) - immediately began to think large.
He began reeling off questions, asking how Russian icon painting wound up as inspiration for the avant-garde, and why the extraordinary Russian painting of the 18th and 19th centuries was almost entirely unknown in the West. Just what prescience led Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas I to build their encyclopedic collections of Western European paintings and sculptures in the 18th and 19th centuries? What led the Moscow merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov to scoop up Picassos in the early 20th century?
"There were a number of ideas in the air," Mr. Krens said, including the big one. "We asked, was there a coherent story of Russian history that could be understood?" From his perspective, there was. Calling on experts from the Guggenheim and the major museums of Russia, Mr. Krens assembled a team, and from there, what it claims is the most comprehensive exhibition of Russian art ever to travel abroad.
Mr. Shvydkoi said it was highly unusual to present Russian art from more than 10 museums - provincial, regional and city-run - in one omnibus show rather than arranging more modest exchanges. But it was worth undertaking, he said, in the hopes of promoting not only the Russian arts, "but rather the Russian connection with beauty and with the real life."
"We open up the tragedy and the happiness of the Russian nation," he said, "and the expectation of it."
Mr. Krens and his curators quickly decided to organize the art into eight chapters: medieval Russian icons of the 13th through 17th centuries; the imperial collections of the 18th and early 19th centuries, comprising mainly 17th-century Western European art; Western-influenced 18th-century art; a golden age of Russian art in the first half of the 19th century, and the traveling shows presented by the group known as the Wanderers in the second half; Shchukin and Morozov's French modernist masterworks; early 20th-century examples of Symbolism, Cubo-Futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism; Soviet-era Socialist Realism; and Soviet art created after Stalin's death but before the end of the cold war.
But to translate that into an actual show - and to stay in control of the thesis, as Russian and American scholars dickered over themes and content - was a major challenge.
"Any time you bring in scholars, the tendency is to want to say how they'd do it differently," Mr. Krens said of the nine specialists involved. "And then there was the reduction of medium. We made this primarily an exhibition of painting. But there were always discussions: what about decorative art? What about photography? Sculpture?"
Mr. Krens turned almost immediately to Zelfira Tregulova, deputy director of the Moscow Kremlin Museums, with whom he had worked on "The Great Utopia: The Russian and Soviet Avant-Garde, 1915-1932" in 1992.
Ms. Tregulova said she had some works in mind and some ideas about how the show should be organized. After two days of discussions (which Mr. Krens sometimes had to referee), she and the Guggenheim curators, including Lisa Dennison, Robert Rosenblum and Valerie Hillings, had created a preliminary list of pieces to acquire.
Then Evgenia Petrova, of the State Russian Museum, and Lidia Iovleva, of the State Tretyakov Gallery, whose museums yielded much of the content of "Russia!," were called into the fold, and the debate got thornier. "They dug into the knowledge of their backgrounds and collections and began to shape an alternative list," Ms. Hillings said.
She understands Russian but cannot write it; others, like Ms. Iovleva, do not speak English. As a result, Ms. Hillings said, communication was "an excruciating process." She added, "Iovleva and Tregulova might meet in Moscow, Iovleva and Petrova might speak on the phone, Petrova and I would e-mail, et cetera." The negotiations would have gone far more rapidly "if we'd had the opportunity to sit in the same room at the same time."
The curators' initial list, she recalls, had more than 300 objects but no clear shape. But gradually, Ms. Hillings said, "the shape started announcing itself to us." Curators began to notice themes: peasants, spirituality, "the plight of the individual within society." And they started seeing cross-generational influences, she said, in which later generations "were picking apart or accepting the art before them."
Eventually, they had to consider the logistics involved. Some longed-for pieces, like the glowing modernist tempera portraits of Valentin Serov, were simply too fragile to travel. Other treasures, like Ilya Repin's "Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan" (1885), which Ms. Hillings called "the most haunting and moving painting I have seen, perhaps ever," is never lent because it was once slashed and required painstaking restoration.
The American venue limited their transportation options, with planes - and in one case, a ship - carrying objects that would have been more easily and more safely transported by truck for a loan within Europe. And then there were those curlicue ramps in the Guggenheim, whose recesses are being decorated by the French designer Jacques Grange to evoke scenes like the exterior of the Hermitage or a Russian iconostasis, a screen with icons that separates the sanctuary from the rest of the church.
"There were some fantastic 19th-century academic paintings that we couldn't get because they were too large," Ms. Hillings said. "I asked one of our spec guys if we could put one on the rotunda floor. And he said, 'Well, Valerie, if you want to block the view on the first two floors, you can.' "
Throughout, there was competition with other museums, stiff in a year when czarina fashion is holding court on runways and cosmetic counters, and Russian art is a hot commodity in Paris, Brussels and Berlin.
"The Musйe d'Orsay is opening a Russia exhibition within four days of ours, so we had loan competes," Ms. Hillings said. "We were tremendously lucky to have had willing partners in these Russian museums."
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a survey of Russian art in 1977, cold war tensions posed major challenges to securing loans, she noted, and what the museum expected to receive was not always what arrived. "We really have benefited from the changing of the guard, the changing of the times," she said.
Mr. Rosenblum saw it differently. "They're post-Soviets, but they all act like Soviets," he said. "With my few experiences with them here, it's just like the old days. The Russians did most of the choosing from their own collections of what they thought should be sent here. We had our own ideas; unlike them, we had more of an idea of what would be appealing to American audiences."
Ms. Petrova was particularly frustrated by the other curators' overriding emphasis on paintings. "My opinion was that we must include part of objects from culture, furniture, fashions, things from life, and then maybe include some paintings - not only masterpieces in systematic Russian art history, but also what is very reflective of life," she said.
"But I was alone," she said, laughing. "Sometimes it happens."
More soberly, she added, "The curator of an exhibition must be one or two, not six or seven."
Still, there was one point on which agreement never wavered, curators say. "Our absolute common opinion was that in telling this story, we should end this exhibition with 'The Man Who Flew Into Space,' by Ilya Kabakov," Ms. Tregulova said. That installation, on loan from the Pompidou Center in Paris and recreated by Mr. Kabakov for the Guggenheim show, depicts a dingy communal apartment with a folding bed and a broken ceiling through which a man has apparently shot himself into space and into a celestial light, never to be seen again.
For Ms. Tregulova, Kabakov's vision is the ideal coda for a survey of what Russia has contributed to world civilization over eight centuries - for "what stays as one of the greatest achievements of human spirit."
"I hope people understand what we're trying to say with this exhibition," she said.