A window reopens on Russia's soul History: Moscow's venerable Tretyakov Gallery has reopened after a 10-year renovation, once again allowing the nation to explore its 1,000-year history through art.


MOSCOW -- In a sedate old neighborhood across the Moscow River from the Kremlin lies a many-winged mansion that offers a journey straight to the deepest recesses of the Russian soul.

The susceptible heart will be overwhelmed. This is the Tretyakov Gallery, the nation's great repository of Russian art. Touring its 61 halls is far more than an exploration of a collection of 100,000 pieces of art.

The Tretyakov propels the visitor through nearly a thousand years of Russian life, straight into the seismic upheavals that created a complex, moody, turbulent nation.

This is better, even, than watching history as it actually happened. This is life seen through the sensibility of the artist. You can feel it, immediately and viscerally.

The museum is the legacy of a wealthy Moscow textile merchant, Pavel M. Tretyakov, who had established a serious collection by 1856 and donated a wing of his mansion and nearly 2,000 pieces of art to the city of Moscow in 1892. He died in 1897, and his family turned the entire house into a museum.

The museum was immediately popular, so heavily used that the first talk of renovation began about 85 years ago. One thing after another put if off -- world wars, revolution, various five-year plans.

Closed in 1985

Finally the Tretyakov was closed in 1985 and the work, expected to take a couple of years, began. But those were Soviet times, and the renovation took 10 years. Some years there was money but no building supplies to be bought at any price. Later, there were supplies but no money. The museum finally reopened a year ago to a joyous reception from Russians who had missed it deeply.

"The Tretyakov Gallery is part of the spiritual culture of Russia," says Vitold M. Petyushenko, the museum's chief of research, "the same as the Kremlin and the Bolshoi. Every cultured Russian wants to visit. The Tretyakov is part of our national life."

The renovated museum gleams with good lighting and clean, unscarred walls -- unusual for a public building in Russia these days. The main entrance is a fairy tale-like version of a Russian izba, the traditional wooden peasant house.

Tretyakov collected everything -- as long as it was Russian, Petyushenko says. He not only understood the artistic value of centuries-old icons -- and began collecting them -- but he valued the art of his own time and supported obscure movements.

In 1918, the revolutionaries nationalized the museum. In the years to follow, it grew voraciously as the Communists seized private collections and piled them up at the Tretyakov, turning it into an enormous warehouse of Russian art. The art came in by the cart load.

"During the Soviet period, the Tretyakov expanded considerably," Petyushenko says with great understatement. "Tretyakov donated 2,000 works. Now we have 100,000."

1,000 icons

Close to 3,000 artworks are on display. The museum is measured in superlatives. It has 5,000 icons and more than 1,000 sculptures among its 100,000-piece collection.

A worn stone cross from 1062 silently receives Tretyakov visitors, reminding them they are entering the domain of eternal Russia, which converted to Christianity in 988.

Rooms full of luminous icons follow. Icon means "image" or "likeness" in Greek. Russian icons are pictures of Jesus, or Mary or the saints or prophets. Until the Revolution, most Russians had icons in their homes. Most churches had an iconostasis, which held five rows of icons.

The icons summon the great religious cities of early Russia, Novgorod, Vladimir and Suzdal. They gleam with red and gold, emblematic of the church's power and wealth and its deep mark on the Russian psyche.

Art expressed itself with icons until the 18th century, when Peter the Great forced his empire to step out of its isolation and Westernize. Peter sent painters abroad to train, and they returned painting portraits. "This began to develop very quickly," Petyushenko says. "Russian people were good learners."

In the gallery, you can see the icons beginning to turn into portraits, followed by still lifes and landscapes.

Religious upheavals are chronicled. Particularly powerful is Vasily Surikov's painting "Boyarina Morozova" -- an old believer resisting Peter's church reforms is being carted off to Siberia as villagers stand around, laughing, fearful and sad.

Russian nightmares

Russia's fairy tales are told here, along with its nightmares -- V. M. Vasnetsov's painting "Tsarevich Ivan on the Gray Wolf" is here, along with his vision of Ivan the Terrible.

The shocks of empire-building are felt in these halls. A chilling painting by Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904), protesting the czarist conquest of Turkestan, shows a field of ghastly skeletons. Rows of severed heads on stakes in Uzbekistan offer another horrifying glimpse of the past.

One favorite of foreign visitors shows a doctor in an operating room in 1888.

A group of men hold down a man, whose bare leg is held out. A doctor with a red cross on his white cap is bent over the patient; he's holding a metal chisel against the leg in one hand and the other hand is raised, holding a large mallet that's about to come crashing down.

The techniques have been modernized, but the operating room looks the same as those in today's Russian hospitals.

Until the gallery reopened last year, there were disturbing omissions. The absence of work by avant-garde artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich served as a reminder of the oppression that began in the 1930s, when the only socially acceptable contemporary art was Soviet Realism, which glorified Soviet man. Artists were told to create work with "high ideological and artistic content."

Government support of the arts turned to government dictatorship. This, too, is felt on the Tretyakov's walls.

Works were banned

"In the beginning of the '30s, a more and more dogmatic attitude toward art developed," Petyushenko says. "When new events of the 20th century were declared hostile to Soviet power, the gallery couldn't display it. But generations of my colleagues quietly collected it. Thanks to them, it's on display today."

Today, Kandinsky's "Black Square" (1915) and Malevich's "Hay Making" (1928) live again on the walls of the Tretyakov. Their return is noticed by every Russian visitor.

Russians cherish the museum. "This is the third time I've been here since it reopened," said Nina A. Alfonskaya, a 57-year-old engineer who was on a recent visit. "I would come here every month if I could."

She began repeating the names of her favorite pictures and artists, which grew to a lengthy list. "I love the portraits of course," she said, "and the landscapes. And where else can you see that wonderful painting of Catherine the Great?"

On this visit, Alfonskaya had brought her small grandson, Alyosha. "What's the name of that sculptor we liked?" she said, turning to the 6-year-old, who frowned thoughtfully behind his glasses. "Shubin?" the little boy said. "That's right," Alfonskaya said, "Shubin."

Lighting is praised

Lyubov Lukinova, a 59-year-old woman who had come from St. Petersburg to visit the museum, was pleased at how the lighting had been improved.

"Everything was so dark before," she said. "Now the icons are much better displayed. I had some wonderful moments here today. You can see not only art, but everyday life throughout history."

Lukinova had forgotten her tired feet in a rush of emotion. The convulsions of history had swept her up.

"It's all very important," she said. "This makes us remember who we are."

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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