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.

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