Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wunderkammers and Kremlin

After a slightly debilitating morning of the all-too-well-known gastric effects of travel, I decided that my limited time here would not be well-spent lying in bed and moaning. I had decided to see the Moscow University Museum of Zoology, and walk back to my hotel via the Kremlin and Red Square. To save time, I took the Metro, only naturally in the wrong direction. After a short wander in the equivalent of Queens, New York when you're trying to get to Lincoln Center, I figured it out and went back the right way.

I love old science museums. I pretty much love all science museums, but the closer they get to a wunderkammer, the happier I am. I grew up near the American Museum of Natural History, before the big makeover began, so when I think of museums I think of dim, echoing halls (mostly echoing with kids) and the tar-colored skeletons of dinosaurs looming in the gloom. I think it definitely put adults off, which was part of the appeal. To see a bit of the old museum, check out "Journey To The Beginning of Time", a Czech SF(?) film. I loved that movie as a kid, especially because I also knew the little cave that the kids go into in order to go back in time. Nowadays, I'd just like to go back in time to meet Zdenek Burian.

The Moscow University Museum of Zoology is an old museum. It dates from 1791, and is gorgeous, inside and out. It's full of what are now considered downers in museums--lots of slightly startled looking taxidermy, formaldehyded things from seas, lakes and intestinal crevices, large dusty cabinets and the smell of mothballs. In short, heaven.

The main hall depicted on the site is beautiful. My Russian is nonexistent, so I couldn't ask who did the murals. After buying my ticket (100 rubles~3 dollars) I was informed by the very nice and patient lady upstairs that I needed another ticket to take photos. And I needed to take photos. As you see.

I have ideas about why museums like this are so appealing, at least to people like me. There's a quality about them of incompleteness--of exploration needing to be done. Modern museums are spectacular shows of what has been figured out and accomplished, but they're entertaining, not provoking. The information is often laid out as a fait accompli. Old museums lay out what was brought back with an attempt at showmanship, but it's worn thin and seems more carny barker than James Cameron. It's allowing the viewer to imagine: what was this individual like? What was its life like in the wild? What sort of person collected it? Stuffed it? The process is there, not swaddled by video and interactive displays.

Another reason I love them is that they seem to share my brain's pack rat sensibilities--things are often where they are because of an odd shape or color, not rigorous systemization. Systemization was the word here, though, but of the organizational and dry kind that's easily disregarded. A cabinet of raptors could as well be together because they look cool as because of their genetic and cladistic similarities.

I walked back via a series of wrong assumptions of where I was along Kalashny Per (must look up what Per stands for) into the Vodzvizhenka Ul (note to self: look up Ul, too). Going as far afield as the Itar Tass news agency. The Kremlin was quite recognizable when I got there, though, even discounting the heavy police presence. I took my obligatory picture in front of St. Basil's cathedral.

Then across the bridge on the B. Yakimanka Ul, which I could swear featured in a Bourne movie, and a longish but now familiar walk home.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Levitan At Last

I got to the Levitan show today, and it was spectacular. Slight mess-up as I went to the State Tretyakov Gallery, only to find it was a kilometer or two away in the Tretyakov MODERN. It wouldn't be a problem, but Moscow is so difficult to walk in. The streets are nice, but cars are parked everywhere and very densely, so you're constantly having to cross the street just to continue your walk.

There's also a lot of ice around now, and people seem to put up sections of chain and gating almost at random, excluding pedestrians from some stretches of sidewalk. I assume it's for keeping people out from under falling icicles or off icy walks, but it could just be cantankerousness. So walking is slow and arduous, but it was well worth it, and quite a beautiful day for a walk. I got to see the Peter The Great monument, which is quite a piece of work, I must say. There was also a floating karaoke bar moored right nearby.

Needless to say, the Levitan exhibit was beautiful. Despite the mid-sixties eyesore quality of the building (I think the Soviet mid-sixties architecture may be worse than US mid-sixties architecture, but I couldn't swear to it) the exhibition was excellently presented and thoughtfully laid out in roughly chronological order.

I was thoroughly surprised by the work, despite having two large volumes on his paintings. For one thing, some of the work I thought was large was small and vice versa. For another, his handling of paint and color are extraordinary. He mixes and switches between transparent and opaque, thick and fluid with total virtuosity. Some paintings I could have sworn had pen lines in them, but also had equally thin but heavily impasted white lines in them. My guess is he used a rigging brush, but it's just a guess.

My favorites in the original would be the painting of flooded shacks (I have to be descriptive since I don't read Russian) and the painting "The Gulley" (the title was on the frame in English!) although it's very uninspiring in reproduction, and the one of fern leaves. And "A Quiet Abode", and the mill dam, and the morning mist, and.... and the only one I was disappointed with was "Above Eternal Peace", one of his showpieces. At the scale it was done, I thought it lacked subtlety and came off didactic, a bit WPA-ish. The study for it was wonderful, though.

When I went back that Saturday, I did shoot a couple of angled shots with my phone in order to try to capture some of the impasto and glazing. I'm including them here for ease of comparison. The good, on-square images of his work are scanned from the catalog and cleaned up by me based on what I remember the originals as being like.

In general, his color was richer and details crisper than I'd thought. A few of the little studies, like the fallen leaves, were just jaw-dropping. It's about 10 cm on its long edge.

Photography was not permitted, but I had to document that I was there, so I made a few "phone calls"with the iPhone. That's the mill dam in the background with a disapproving Russian lady.

After I left the show, I found myself in a strange little park next door to the museum. It's a sculpture garden where they're collecting all the old Soviet sculpture that nobody wants around any more. It seems a popular place for moms and nannies to give the kids an airing. It's a very surreal place, a little Ozymandias-like.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Well, Made It!

As you may be able to tell from the "Location" blip below, I'm in Moscow. Actually, I just got back, but since I don't like to post when I'm away, I just wrote these notes using the Blogger App on my phone and am posting them now. Why, you ask, would someone go to Moscow in the end of winter, knowing no Russian, or even how to decipher Cyrillic? Because a once-in-a-lifetime show of the work of Isaac Levitan is up until the 20th of March at the Tretyakov Gallery. I just adore Levitan's work, even though I've only known of him in any depth for about a year. There's only one hard to find but soon-to-be-reprinted book on him in English, but I have two in Russian with great plates.

Levitan's best known work is the "Vladimirka Road". If you Google it, there's a decent reproduction on the page. It's in the show, and I can't wait to see it.

I haven't seen the show yet, though. An all night flight and an all night allergy attack, whether from airplane air or something in my meal saw to that. I did manage to navigate the scrum at passport control and the municipal bus from the airport to the metro just fine, and the metro in Moscow is very similar to the New York subway, only cleaner, with prettier and far more ornate stations. It smells like home, though--damp, diesel fumes, and people, aahhhhhh....I didn't quite have the nerve yet to go full tourist and haul out the camera, but I guess I will. By the way, the rumor of the Moscow metro having international multi-language signage is overblown. The signs are sometimes there, mostly near the entrance, but not at all apparent from the platform, so listen for your stop. They seem to announce well and clearly. "Paveletskaya" isn't too far off from how it's really pronounced .

First impression of Moscow and it's surroundings is really great. The highway in from the airport is lined with birch trees, many of them bent nearly double (snow?). The city so far reminds me of Boston, same mix of old and new, same casual regard of parking rules, same endless construction. It's also impossible to give street directions non- verbally without a lot of hand waving and even shoulder and hip swinging--nothing is rectilinear for very long.

Tomorrow, I walk to the Tretyakov, see a bit of the city and finally see some Levitan originals.