Friday June 8, 2012 – Tretyakov Gallery, Take One

M. has to sort out her visa, so I set out to find the Tretyakov Gallery of 20th century Russian art. I don’t like much art before the 19th century, and even though I recognize that the 19th century was full of experimentation, different art movements and progressive artists, I’m in Russia, which had a revolution. I want to see the intersection between art and politics when the latter were about changing the world.

I get to the metro station and have a fastfood baked potato at a small take-away. I manage to read and pronounce it correctly and the woman behind the counter nods, and then she says something about the numerous salads behind the counter. I point to the cheese and she says it’s already got cheese, and it comes with three other things (I’m inferring all this of course.) I ask for champignons (same word in French as in Russian) and she points to the salad with mushrooms, but it’s got all sorts of other things. There’s a line behind me and she’s a busy woman, so I nod and she scoops it onto my potato. She then mentions another stew-looking salad which looks good, so I nod to that, and then that’s it, it gets wrapped up to take away. Both salads (not lettuce salads, more like mayonnaise-y sauces) have meat: fish in the first one, pork (I think) in the second. But I’m starving so I eat it all, and it’s not bad. The pork doesn’t taste like anything and could have easily been replaced with tofu. 

I eat my potato in a little park outside the metro station, and I ask the woman next to me “Tretyakov?” she tells me in English to exit, turn right and then right again. I do so and see I’m heading towards the Moscow River, with St. Basils looming over nearby buildings. Yet the Tretyakov, according to my English directions, is near two metro stations in the opposite direction – she sent me precisely away from it. I re-orient myself and find the Tretyakov… but only its 10th-19th century sections. The 20th century is in an entirely different building, apparently a 15 minute walk away by the river.

Everyone parks on the sidewalk!

No idea who this is for – it’s the statue equivalent of a Cadillac Escalade, of which there are many here:

So I walk by the river, and the 15 minutes turns into an hour – first because I take a wrong turn, and second because the gallery, when it appears, has a statue garden next to it – the Park of Arts – which is huge, but fenced off from the gallery itself. So I have to retrace my steps out of the Park. The gallery building itself, at least, is impossible to miss: it’s massive, bigger than airport warehouses and this thing is in the centre of Moscow.

It means I take 10 minutes just to walk by its side, past legions of ‘artists’ displaying their wares, and I use the term loosely. They’re definitely selling paintings, some are actually painting, and all of them have old, rusty cars parked next to their work – they’re not wealthy people. But they’re painting kittens, peasant children, farmhouses, gnomes. It’s the kind of work that graces dentists’ waiting rooms and the lobbies of old folks’ homes. However, I’m getting closer to my goal: on the front of the building there’s a massive, two-storey banner that I think reads Tretyakov, and then in English, “Music and books”. 

There’re no photo tricks to enhance the perspective – it really is that big:

I pay 100 roubles to get in, and the giant marble lobby is being set up with tables for some sort of event, along with a 20 meter-long screen that’s showing the opening game of the Euro 2012 championship. I put my backpack in the cloakroom and am a little perplexed to see there are no other bags there – but maybe 20th century art isn’t that popular? I go up two escalators and enter a giant warehouse room with paintings waiting to be hung. In an adjacent room, there’s nothing.

Down the darkened hallway, there’s a display about capitalist cities and Finnish architects – interesting, but it’s being taken down. There are staff everywhere – a guard walking through, a guard sitting at a desk, workers moving things around – but the only art I can see is the same images I saw outside: flowers, whimsical maidens, Egyptian pharaohs painted to look like they’re cracked and aged – truly, things I wouldn’t fish out of the garbage if I saw them lying there. This does appear to be the Tretyakov gallery of 20th century art, because there are room guides on the wall in Russian and English, detailing “Centre of Socialist Realism” and “Union of Soviet Artists” and the rooms they’re in – but the rooms have been replaced by more of these artists selling their horrible, horrible wares.

I start fulminating about abandoning a country’s artistic heritage to the petty bourgeois, who are only interested in making the sale. Even big capital would hire a curator and have a theme. For shame, I thought like a Communist Grandpa Simpson. I go back to the front desk and ask plaintively, “Where’s the art?” The guy doesn’t speak English, but I point to my gallery guide and say “Avant-garde?” He understands and motions me out and around the corner. Sure enough, the Tretyakov gallery entrance is on the side: I went in the front, where all the signs were. Yet I did see those room guides. Does this mean the entire building was the gallery, and now the collection has been compressed to fit in a corner, while the greater part is devoted to free enterprise?

By now I’ve got an hour before I have to go meet M., so I just have an espresso and cheesecake in the gallery lobby and resolve to return later. That night, if I remember correctly, we have dinner at MuMu, a chain that sells traditional Russian food. I used to hate boiled buckwheat but theirs is really good, soft and fragrant, as is the thick cherry juice containing actual cherries.

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