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Contemporary art fuels Moscow’s creative renaissance

  • Russian art was once considered lacklustre, winning little attention or respect from the West
  • But new-age art galleries, art festivals and an inclusive approach have transformed the Russian capital into an inviting art destination

‘Self-Portrait With Music’ by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, on display at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.
‘Self-Portrait With Music’ by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, on display at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. (Photo: Alamy)

Voluptuous and glossy steel sculptures in pink and blue—some with indentations, some smooth—surround me at the downtown Moscow warehouse of Russian multimedia artist Valentin Korzhov.

Valentin Korzhov at his Moscow workshop
Valentin Korzhov at his Moscow workshop (Photo: Alamy)

The 44-year-old, who features in the Top 100 Renowned Russian Artists list, explains that his recent series, Being And Time, references visual metaphors from European philosophers such as Plato and Martin Heidegger to reflect on abstract themes like “wounding and healing", “wholeness and fragmentation", and “human identity and memory".

The project garnered critical acclaim at the VIII Tashkent International Biennale of Contemporary Art in October as well as the Art Bahrain Across Borders in March. Some of the artist’s works are housed in prestigious museums like the State Darwin Museum and the Central House of Artists, currently closed for renovation, in Moscow.

“I am happy about this attention to my work and Russian art in general," smiles Korzhov, who ranks among Russian artists like Aidan Salakhova, Pavel Pepperstein, Zurab Tsereteli and photographer Sergey Borisov, who now command an international following.

An installation at the ongoing Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art
An installation at the ongoing Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art (Photo: Alamy)

Not long ago, the Russian art landscape was considered lacklustre, winning little attention or respect from the West. Not any more. A renaissance seems to be rippling through the Russian capital, making it a compelling destination for art lovers. Mint-fresh museums and game-changing galleries are promoting young talent. Erstwhile factories, warehouses and grand old mansions have been transformed into showcases of culture. Street art is claiming its spot in the sun. And the city’s two art fairs, the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art and the annual Cosmoscow International Contemporary Art Fair, are attracting the global cognoscenti.

“Moscow is now the epicentre of Russia’s cutting-edge contemporary culture," says Bulgarian art collector Stephan Stoyanov, who represents some of Moscow’s acclaimed artists across the globe. “The city’s exhibitions, contemporary art galleries, buyers’ attitude to purchasing Russian art, quality of works by modern Russian artists and international demand for their works are making Moscow one of the most exciting destinations for contemporary art and art lovers."

The flagship building of the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (Mmoma) on 10, Gogolevsky Boulevard is intriguing, with quirky sculptures lining the way in. The artworks are by 85-year-old Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli, whose sculptures can be found in world capitals and international museums.

“Moscow’s art scene has changed phenomenally over the last decades. The legacy of nonconformist artists, Moscow conceptualism and actionism of the 1990s have given impetus to the rapid development of art after the collapse of the USSR," Vasili Tsereteli, director of Mmoma, tells me as I soak in the museum’s spectacular collection, spread over three levels.

Founded in 1999, and now based in three locations, Mmoma was the first step towards garnering recognition for Russian contemporary art, creating a space for the public to become acquainted with it. The museum has developed large-scale public educational programmes and opened a school of contemporary art. Most of the museum’s exhibits are by Russian artists though it also has works by renowned Western masters such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí and Henri Rousseau.

My appetite for Zurab Tsereteli whetted by the display at Mmoma, I visit the Tsereteli Art Gallery, located in the Russian Academy of Arts building on 21, Prechistenka Street. One of Moscow’s leading art venues, the gallery displays hundreds of oils, sculptures, murals and installations by the prolific maestro. Large sculptures—of mythological gods and goddesses, kings and queens, and heads of state—tower in the atrium of the 10,000 sq. ft gallery. Immortalized in bronze, writer Alexander Pushkin sits cross-legged on a sofa, his defined silhouette, the folds of his apparel and the fashionable footwear underscoring Tsereteli’s eye for detail.

Visitors can walk through a mammoth interactive sculpture called The Apple, its interiors covered with men and women in Kamasutra-like poses. The exhibit is said to be Tsereteli’s ode to Indian culture as depicted in that ancient Hindu text.

Foremost among the array of pioneering modern art galleries mushrooming in Moscow is the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, a privately funded art gallery founded by Russian supermodel and heiress Dasha Zhukova and her former businessman husband Roman Abramovich. Located in verdant Gorky Park, right in the centre of Moscow, it’s hard to imagine that the gallery was once a dour 1960s Soviet-era prefabricated concrete construction. The premises, which once housed the popular Vremena Goda restaurant, were renovated in 2011 at a cost of $2 billion (around 14,250 crore now). Walking in, I feel dwarfed by the vast structure that has exhibition galleries on two levels, as well as a creative centre for children, a café, an auditorium and offices.

Since covering everything in one day is impossible, I focus on the permanent exhibits. The display of paintings and sculptures from the 1950s to the present is a lesson in Russian art history. It is made more engaging by the videos, photographs and historical documents on display, bringing alive the work of artists like Leonid Talochkin, Igor Makarevich, Alexander Brener and Nikita Alexeev.

The State Tretyakov Gallery, a 15-minute walk from the Red Square, offers a breathtaking collection of 180,000 artworks (mostly donations) that straddle centuries. Founded by Pavel Tretyakov, a Moscow textile merchant and art collector, it is filled with an eclectic collection of works by medieval icons, Soviet socialist realism artists and avant-garde pieces from different time periods. A statue of Tretyakov, who began acquiring art in 1856 and gifted 2,000 works to the city, stands at the entrance.

‘The Apotheosis Of War’ by Vasily Vereshchagin
‘The Apotheosis Of War’ by Vasily Vereshchagin (Photo: Alamy)

It’s tough to choose a favourite but I am riveted by a gigantic oil titled The Apotheosis Of War (1871) by Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin. Touted as one of the sharpest indictments of the horrors of war, it depicts a pyramid of human skulls in a barren landscape, with carnivorous birds circling overhead. The reference is to Turkish-Mongol conqueror Timur, who is known to have left piles of human heads on the outskirts of the cities he conquered.

Considering the multiple options for art lovers, it is not surprising that the city’s leading art fair—the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art, founded in 2003 and currently led by director Julia Muzikantskaya—now attracts visitors from around the globe. Hosted at the State Tretyakov Gallery, the ongoing biennial (running till 22 January) features 34 artists from 11 countries.

“We are proud the Moscow biennial is now attracting art lovers from across the globe as it has dramatically changed its goals from being intellectually elitist to become more accessible and popular in its approach. The fair is now recognized as an important cultural event which brings together renowned artists, critics and curators under one roof for stimulating debates, discussions as well as commerce," explains Muzikantskaya.

For art-inclined visitors, the focus on showcasing local talent and collective energy by local organizations has made Moscow a more tempting destination than ever before.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based journalist who writes on art, travel, cuisines and culture.

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