Barge Haleurs on the Volga | Ilia Repin | Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa
Past exhibition


03.29.2006 - 09.10.2006

With a painstaking selection of works belonging to a large number of different Collections, RUSSIA! is the largest exhibition of art from the Russian Federation ever shown. This unique exhibition presents Russian masterpieces from the 13th century to the present day, including icons, portraits both in paintings and sculptures, from the 18th to the 20th century, the critical realism of the 19th century and the Socialist Realism of the Communist era, landscapes representing all the different eras, the first abstraction and contemporary experimental art. Exhibition includes works from the most important museums in Russia-the State Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Hermitage Museum and the Kremlin Museum-as well as regional museums, private collections and a number of museums and collections from outside Russia. Before this exhibition, a significant number of these works had been exhibited only on a few occasions or had never been seen outside Russia.

RUSSIA! is the most comprehensive and significant exhibition of Russian art sent abroad since the end of the Cold War. Including more than 300 artworks, many of which have rarely or never traveled outside Russia, this innovative presentation features the greatest masterpieces of Russian art from the 13th century to the present, as well as a selection of first-class Western European paintings and sculptures from the imperial art collections assembled by Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Nicholas I in the 18th and 19th centuries, and later in the early 20th century by the Moscow merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov.

The first section is devoted to the age of the icon from the 13th through the 17th centuries. Initially the visual culture of the Russian Orthodox Church, which was founded in 988, followed the model developed in Byzantium. By the 15th century a distinctly Russian Orthodox art emerged. The iconostasis, a wall painted in egg tempera on wood panels, visually dominates Eastern Orthodox churches. By the 16th century, the Russian Orthodox Church had developed a five-tiered screen that incorporated not only the traditional triptych of Christ, the Virgin, and St. John the Baptist (known as the Deesis), but also tiers for the Patriarch, Prophets, Holy Days, and Worship. This exhibition includes multiple panels of the Deesis tier from the famous 1497 iconostasis of the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery's Dormition Cathedral. This impressive set of nine near-life-sized panels from the Deesis tier, along with select icons from the Festive or Holy Days tier and the Prophets tier, as well as a textile depicting St. Kirill (1327–1427), provide a glimpse into the remarkable visual culture of Russia in the 15th century.

The second section is devoted to the royal art collections of the 18th and early 19th centuries. In his travels abroad, Peter the Great (1672–1725; reign 1682–1725) developed an interest in art, and one of his most outstanding acquisitions is shown here, the Italian artist Garofalo's The Entombment of 1520. His granddaughter-in-law Catherine the Great (1729–1796; reign 1762–96) assembled a first-rate collection of Western paintings from largely English and French collections, which became the basis of her Hermitage. Nicholas I (1796–1855; reign 1825–55) founded the Imperial Hermitage Museum as a public museum in 1852 and added Italian, Dutch, and Spanish works to the Hermitage's holdings.

The third section presents Russian art of the 18th century. Peter the Great's reforms diminished the dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church and its traditions, including icon painting. Western artists and architects became the teachers of a new generation of secular Russian artists. In 1757, the Academy of Fine Arts was founded, and in 1794 it came under Catherine the Great's patronage. It took the Western European and specifically French academic system as its model. Anton Losenko was among the earliest success stories of the Academy. Losenko took on the elevated genre of history painting in a neoclassical style, as in Vladimir and Rogneda (1770). But history painting did not dominate 18th-century Russian art; portraiture did. The most famous portraitists of Catherine's reign, the painter Dmitry Levitsky and the sculptor Fedot Shubin, produced stunning official portraiture of both the imperial family and the nobility which display their mastery of Western European techniques.

The fourth section presents the 19th century. The first half of the century was marked by the development of many new genres and an increasing originality of style-from Romantic portraiture to timeless representations of peasant life, to epic scenes from the life of Christ, to tumultuous seascapes. Orest Kiprensky, Alexei Venetsianov, Karl Briullov, Alexander Ivanov, and Ivan Aivazovsky are among the most accomplished artists of this period. Their work had parallels with and sometimes anticipated developments by their contemporaries in other countries. Many spent extended periods working abroad, especially in Italy.

In the second half of the century, the academic tradition continued, even as a group of artists known historically as the Wanderers rejected its strictures and chose to present their art to a wider public by organizing traveling exhibitions. They stressed the high social mission of art—that is, art as a tool for social commentary and criticism, especially of the brutal living conditions and political repression of their time. Chief among this group of artists were Ilya Repin, Ivan Kramskoy, Nikolai Ge, and the highly accomplished landscape painters Isaac Levitan and Ivan Shishkin.

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is especially fortunate to be able to present one of the most iconic paintings of this period and of the whole of Russian art, Repin's Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870–73), a record of both individual personalities and human embodiments of wisdom, fortitude, and physical strength. The work of the Wanderers constituted the foundation for the great collection of Pavel Tretyakov, now the State Tretyakov Gallery. These artists provided a critical realist model against which the generation known as the historic avant-garde reacted.

The fifth section displays select modern masterworks from the collections of the Moscow merchants Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871–1921), which included important examples of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, and Cubism, among them works seen here by Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Matisse.

These collections exerted a strong influence on the generation of Russian artists whose work is seen in the sixth section. Artists of this period fused the diverse Western influences and Russian national traditions, such as the icon and folk art, into a unique synthetic vision. This section commences with Russian Symbolism of circa 1900. The most impressive representative of this trend is Mikhail Vrubel, who produced works on themes similar to those of his European contemporaries, but marked by his use of local folklore and literature. Such experimental art served as a precursor to the pioneering work of avant-garde artists Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Kazimir Malevich, and the lesser-known Ilya Mashkov, Pyotr Konchalovsky, and Aristarkh Lentulov.

A succession of radical movements emerged out of this context in rapid succession over a very short period of time: Cubo-Futurism, Rayonism, Suprematism, and Constructivism. Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, painted the first of several versions of his modernist icon Black Square in 1915. This show presents what is considered to be the smallest and the last in the series, thought to have been painted in the late 1920s or early '30s.

The seventh section examines the art of the 1930s and 1940s, a period strongly associated with the official doctrine for art known as Socialist Realism, established in 1934. Long seen as merely propaganda or historical curiosity, this style nonetheless produced highly talented artists. Paintings such as Yuri Pimenov's New Moscow (1937) celebrate industrialization and the communal work of the new Soviet man and woman. While such utopian visions of Communism dominated art of the Stalin era, Soviet art of the 1930s was not monolithic. Artists such as Isaac Brodsky painted many of the most iconic images of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, alongside artists like Alexander Deineka, whose subjects remained true to Communist ideals even as his style reflected an enduring modernist sensibility and a discernibly singular artistic vision. This section also presents art produced during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) in the 1940s.

Section eight focuses on art produced after Stalin's death in 1953. In the immediate aftermath, artists enjoyed greater freedom of expression, and what has often been referred to as the Severe Style emerged. While still official art, it was characterized by formal innovation within the limits of Socialist Realism and increasingly personal subject matter. Viktor Popkov's Builders of the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station (1960–61) exemplifies the monumental scale and simplified form dominant in this period. With this and other official paintings made after 1953, RUSSIA! highlights the pluralism of Soviet art to call into question one of the lasting mythologies of Russia in the West-that its art was exclusively rooted in the mandates of the regime from circa 1930 to 1980.

This section charts not only official developments in Soviet art following Stalin's death but also the more individual approaches and subjects explored by artists working unofficially in a plurality of styles from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War. Gradually artists rediscovered the legacy of the avantgarde of the early 20th century. What emerged was a cacophonous art scene that thrived even in the absence of a formal system for exhibiting and selling the works and in the face of the risks of defying official art policy. However, this work was not, as has often been assumed, primarily political in nature. Artists such as Ilya Kabakov developed a conceptual art in isolation from but in tandem with developments in the West. The Man Who Flew into Space (1981–88) captures not only the lengths to which the Soviet "everyman" would go to escape the confines of the communal apartment and of Soviet society itself, but also a universal human quest to travel into free space in pursuit of personal liberty. Sots Art, a movement of the 1970s that took Soviet iconography and popular culture as its point of departure, is represented with work by Komar and Melamid, Eric Bulatov, and others. Vadim Zakharov's 2003 installation The History of Russian Art-from the Avant-Garde to the Moscow School of Conceptual Art in many senses echoes the historical journey that the visitor has embarked upon in this exhibition. It demonstrates Russian art's historic scope, even as it testifies to the ongoing presence and vitality of Russian art on the international scene.

Valerie Hillings
Assistant Curator

Ilia Repin
Barge Haleurs on the Volga, 1870–73
Oil on canvas
131.5 x 281 cm
State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg