Jan 2004 Journal

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Art Notes

Once the lid of political oppression is lifted, you expect to see previously forbidden creative talent, expressing itself in an outburst of ideas, colour and vitality. Thus, the music of Purcell in Restoration Britain, and the musical theatre revived by Charles II after Cromwell's Puritan grip was loosened. The Avantgarde Gallery in Boundary Road this month shows the post-glastnost young artists of St Petersburg, expressing their liberty in much more muted tones. This cautious show, well-named Past and Present, has some gifted artists like Evgeny Kuznetzov looking back with gentle, not mawkish, nostalgia, some of it of the industrial variety. City, painted last year, features a young man with windblown hair against a background of pylons. But there is no artistic backlash against the propaganda art which has always characterised repressive regimes, from the Nazis to the Stalinists. There are legions of monasteries painted by Kuznetzov, Alexander Anisin and Andrey Cherepanov among others - elegant interiors, romantic, winding rivers, boats, sun and seas, and still-lifes. Alexey Korobin's Academy of Fine Arts is very fine, and a chiarascuro portrayal of Seven Wise Virgins by Igor Kozhevnikov is clearly classical in style.

Kuznetzov's Grandmother's Things is bitterly nostalgic, with its tender and colourful juxtaposition of a blue tin kettle, bits of patchwork, and a tall jug of dried flowers, suggestive of death or age - all implying a cherished yet proscribed life under the past regime. Oleg Markelov's Red Scarf has a very Russian, almost peasant, feel, as does Dmitry Ermolov's portrait of a man.

Perhaps these artists, all students or graduates of the St Petersburg Academy of Arts, have been through enough political turmoil, and want to express a simple, reflective joy in life. Yet, under communism St Petersburg shared fewer of the restrictions and political ambitions of Moscow, as Ekaterina Arsenieva, Curator and Senior Research Fellow at the Academy, points out. During the period of the Soviet empire, the intelligentsia remained in St Petersburg and preserved a more classical way of life and high standards of education. Ambitious people flocked to Moscow to join the party, she explains, but artists, writers and academics preferred St Petersburg. 'However, things are changing now,' she says, 'as people prefer to earn more rather than study more.' Artists who were not ideologically free in the past are now slowly developing their own culture. Arsenieva is anxious that these artists should not lose what they have and, in the rush for creative westernised freedom, indulge in kitsch, or degenerate, Disneyland art.

Just across the road, at the Ben Uri Gallery, two Hungarian Jewish artists, Béla Kádár and Hugó Scheiber, who worked in the 1920s and were considered pioneers of the European avant-garde, are untroubled by such concerns. Their work, promoted by Berlin's celebrated Der Sturm Gallery, is shown this month in collaboration with the Hungarian Cultural Centre for the Hungarian Year of Culture. If you like Marc Chagall, you will certainly fall for Kadar's beautiful compositions - stylised, conspicuous and colourful, despite his vampiric self-portrait. Hugo Scheiber's disturbing Crowd, painted in 1929, appears to foreshadow the fascist period, with its emblematic thrust of arms in a Nazi-like salute. But you may read into it what you will.
Gloria Tessler

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