Russian painter Geli Korzhev puts a face on ideology in a 60-year retrospective at the Museum of Russian Art.
Among Russians, the paintings of Geli Korzhev hold such a place of honor that one of his signal images -- of a determined worker heroically raising a red flag plucked from the hand of a fallen comrade -- was chosen in 2005 to sum up 700 years of Russian art.
Late last month, that painting and 15 others were whisked out of Moscow and St. Petersburg under police escort and couriered -- by truck, train, ferry and plane -- to the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis, where they will be the centerpiece of an exhibition opening Monday. The show, up through Jan. 5, is the first Korzhev retrospective in the United States and will include 42 more of his paintings from the museum's own holdings and private collections in the United States.
"It is very important for us to show Russian art abroad, but I am a little jealous that this will be the first full Korzhev exhibition and it is happening here and not in our museum," said Alisa Lyubimova, curator of 20th-century paintings at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, when she was in Minneapolis recently. Her museum lent eight paintings to the show, including "Raising the Banner."
Brush with history
The Minneapolis show will span the 60-year career of Korzhev, who was born near Moscow in 1925, just three years after Russia was convulsed by a civil war that ended centuries of aristocratic rule and launched the Communist era. He was a teenager when the Germans invaded in 1941. When he graduated from Moscow's prestigious Surikov Art Institute in 1950, the Soviet Union was still under the repressive control of Joseph Stalin. Subsequently, he observed his country's tumultuous transformation from a police state into a fledgling democracy and most recently into a capitalistic oligarchy.
Russia's complex history informs virtually every brush stroke on Korzhev's huge canvases. He never officially joined the Communist Party and rarely executed government commissions, but he does "share the ideas of communism," he has said. He joined the official Union of Soviet Artists and chaired its Moscow branch, earning the respect of bureaucrats with his heroic portrayals of soldiers and war survivors. At the same time, intellectuals and critics of the Soviet system admired the nuanced humanism in his work, the subtle way he suggested the emotional suffering, physical pain and stoic acceptance of tragedy that ennobled the lives of ordinary people. He injected a gritty psychological authenticity into Soviet painting in the late 20th century, when artists were expected to deliver cheerful paeans to the success of the communist system.
"His realism was a different interpretation of the official art," said Natalia Aleksandrova, a friend of the artist and a painting curator at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which also lent eight paintings to the Minneapolis show. "Korzhev represents the generation of 1960s artists," she continued, speaking through a translator. "He understands there is emotional freedom in life and freedom to choose, to experience tragedy and to accept it."
Brad Shinkle, education director at the Minneapolis museum, said Korzhev's work "created a sense of discomfort among the official ranks because of the power of his art and its representation of the spiritual strength of the Russian people."
Asked why Soviet officials would allow a painter to challenge official ideology, Lyubimova shrugged and smiled wryly. "The authorities, even in strict times, would understand what is good and bad, wrong and right," she said. "And he was so strong a person that they couldn't take away his art."
Canvases of heroic scale
Korzhev, who still lives and works in Moscow, paints on a grand scale, typically turning out canvases 7 or more feet tall and equally wide. A preview tour while the paintings were still in storage showed huge figures in landscapes or urban settings, their expressions thoughtful, resolute and unflinching as they apparently ruminated on the past and future. In "Farewell," a soldier departs for battle while "Old Wounds" depicts a sleepless elderly man, evidently still beset by war traumas. In "Clouds 1945," an elderly couple sit in a greening field, gazing into the future while the man's wooden leg testifies to previous trauma. A disturbing painting, "Traces of War," depicts at huge scale the head of a man whose right eye and forehead were destroyed in battle.
Besides war images, the show includes student studies from the late 1940s, social commentaries, paintings inspired by Don Quixote, biblical tales, still lifes and surrealistic images that he calls "Tyurlikis." The latter is a word Korzhev made up that translates roughly as "mutants" and refers to grotesque, troll-like figures he invented to symbolize the Orwellian corruption and exploitation now rampant in Russia.
There is a tender side to Korzhev's work, too, however, evident in his nudes and intimate images of women, notably "Morning Study," a lovely 1958 painting of a lightly clad woman gazing out a window.
"To understand his 60-year career, you have to see it all," said Shinkle.
Mary Abbe 612-673-4431