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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


A Garden of Sculpted Delights
Text and photos Ross Hunter

One of Moscow’s great advantages is that its most enjoyable and thought-provoking sights are very often the cheapest. The sculpture park on Krymsky Val, for example, offers three great displays for less than 7 rubles each: an amusing, touching, and anarchic showcase of modern works; a moving memorial to Russia’s soldiers; and the powerful and charged garden of former leaders. There is only one downside, but we’ll get to that later.

The park lies on the banks of the Moscow River, adjoining the imposing brutalist cube of the New Tretyakov/Central House of Artists — itself one of the world’s great art collections — and neighbor to the splendidly entertaining open-air art market right along the embankment. Parking is plentiful, or you can walk from several nearby metro stations. Me, I cycle along the canal side. There are plenty of cafes and unexpected hideaways for children to explore, too.

Which to enjoy first? Nearest the river is a constantly developing exhibition of recent works in many styles. Go every month or two and you will see fresh themes in an assortment of materials and idioms. Even what you don’t enjoy will still be useful as a stimulus to discussion. A seated bronze couple (above, left) are worthy of Henry Moore, while a young boy is lifelike and personal. Be careful not to trip over a small boat, piloted by Peter the Great (above, right), a piece that proves it is possible to treat that theme with taste and proportion. The testament to motherhood (below left) is simultaneously tender and reverential while protesting at the constricting binds of the burden. Be careful as you progress. The wolf in sheep’s clothing (below middle) awaits you, while the captive bear (below, right) is only pausing before his lunch.

Promenade, Mussorgsky-like, to the series of sculptures commissioned as a salute to the armed forces. This area is laid out with remarkable grace and invites a feeling of space far beyond its compact plot. Some pieces are heroic, some tender (see soldier kissing, bottom left), while others, just a pathway turn away, shock with the horror of war (soldier dying, bottom right). A stroll to the central cafes becomes a regal procession along the avenue of busts of great thinkers (bottom 2nd row ).

And then you are guided, with the subtle skill that characterizes this amazing park, to the Garden of the Fallen Monuments. When the Soviet Union imploded, dozens of images of the ancient regime were unceremoniously toppled, but someone had the good sense to stash them away out of sight and out of mind. The old leaders have been gathered together once more, this time arranged with consummate care. The many busts of Lenin have a respectful if not deferential air about them, and most of the later leaders have dignifi ed settings. However, it is scarcely possible to view Stalin’s red granite effigy (bottom left) without catching the muted accusing stares of the mass of twisted mutant forms in front of him, or to ignore the tapestry of gulag skulls behind. Honed by decades of practice when speech was anything but free, Russians have a remarkable facility for silent, sharp satire and grim humor. If you doubt it, look up, for throughout the park you are under the iron stare of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, still atop his column (bottom middle), which once stood in front of KGB headquarters at Lubyanka. History keeps evolving. With the Chekists in power and Stalin’s name edging towards rehabilitation, it will be worth watching to see if the layout of this area is altered.

And the downside? It is very hard to find a corner of this fascinating and tasteful exhibition without being able to see Tsereteli’s grossly overblown Peter the Great statue. I, for one, would pay a lot not to see it; if I want genuine pastiche, I’ll go to Disneyland.

Central House of Artists (Tsentralny Dom Khudozhnika)
10 Krymsky Val, across from Gorky Park M. Oktyabrskaya

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