Painters dared to challenge Soviet rule


While Vivat!, the citywide celebration of St. Petersburg's 300th birthday, officially ends Sunday, several outstanding Russian art exhibits around town will continue for at least another week.

In the Meyerhoff Gallery at Maryland Institute College of Art, a show called From Gulag to Glasnost presents paintings by nearly two dozen Non-conformist artists who dared challenge the officially approved socialist-realist style dictated by the rulers of the former Soviet Union.

Working in a variety of individual styles that grow out of the diverse currents of European modernism - abstraction, surrealism, expressionism, etc. - the Non-conformists were united principally by their determination to exhibit their works freely. To do so, many were willing to risk imprisonment, poverty and persistent government harassment aimed at crushing all forms of "underground" art.

The show, which runs through March 16, covers the period beginning with the cultural "thaw" initiated by Kruschev in 1956 to the cautious liberalization of the mid-1980s under Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika. During these years, St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) became one of Russia's most important artistic centers despite continuing crackdowns.

This exhibit was organized by the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at New Jersey's Rutgers University, which houses more than 17,000 works of Nonconformist art collected by Norton and Nancy Dodge, an American couple who were inspired by the courage and independent spirit of St. Petersburg's artists. The show is a tribute to them as well as to the Russian genius for steadfastness under even the most appalling conditions that has produced some of the world's greatest art.

The gallery is in the Fox Building on MICA's campus. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 410-225-2300.

Colorful 'Shadows'

The show Shadows and its companion, A Missive for St. Petersburg, at School 33 Art Center, don't have quite the historical sweep of Gulag but lack nothing in terms of color and vitality.

Shadows, an exhibition of paintings and costumes curated by New York gallery owner Anna Frants, grew out of a show that was first presented by the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg in 2001. That show, titled Abstraction in Russia: Twentieth Century, represented a landmark in official recognition for the newly returned creative freedom of contemporary Russian artists.

To celebrate that liberating event, the artists in the show created a project called "Moving Objects" as part of the opening-night festivities. The idea was for each artist to create and wear a costume of his or her own design rather than the usual evening clothes. The design of the costumes was to be directly related to the abstract paintings in the exhibit.

The School 33 show presents a selection of paintings from the St. Petersburg show, as well as some of the colorful costumes they inspired. The costumes are draped over mannequins in the gallery or mounted on the walls, contributing to a stunning installation that one feels surely must recapture some of the excitement of the original event.

In the upstairs gallery, A Missive for St. Petersburg presents the works of five Baltimore artists whose installation pieces will be exhibited in St. Petersburg later this year. The artists are Laure Drogout, Lisa Moren, Sun J. Park, Ruth Pettus and Susann Whittier.

Both shows run through March 7. The gallery is at 1427 Light St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 410-396-4641.

'Designer of the world'

At the American Visionary Art Museum, Russia's Holy Fool: The Outsider Art of Pavel Leonov celebrates the remarkable career of a self-taught artist whose stubborn refusal to conform and whose lengthy imprisonments for petty crimes made him doubly an outsider in the former Soviet Union.

Leonov was born in 1920 in a village outside Moscow. He quit school early and ran away from home at 16 to escape his abusive, alcoholic father.

In the mid-1930s, soon after Stalin decreed that people charged with minor offenses be sentenced to forced labor, Leonov was deported to Azerbaijan for insulting a Soviet officer. He was in and out of the gulag for the next 20 years (he also served briefly as an infantryman during World War II). He was finally released in 1955, two years after Stalin's death.

After his release, Leonov took up wandering the countryside, calling himself "the designer of the world." Though shunned by local villagers, he created cheerful paintings filled with happy people, dancing animals, circus rides and other innocent scenes. His pictures have a touchingly child-like quality that belies the incredibly harsh conditions of his life. In the 1970s, Leonov settled in the village of Mekhovitsi, where it seems he at last found a measure of acceptance and happiness among the local people.

This is a rather slight show of only about a half-dozen paintings installed without fanfare on the walls of the museum's Joy America Cafe. The show runs through April 5. Cafe hours are 11:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Call 410-244-1900.

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