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Gallery Goer

Radical Classical
By Janet Kriel

The RuArts Foundation and Gallery is a new exhibition space which aims to promote the development of art by young artists in Russia, focusing especially on those who work with new and experimental media. The gallery’s latest offering shows the work of fourteen artists of the Neo-Academism movement, a group that has its roots in St Petersburg in the late 1980’s.

Formed by the late Timur Novikov (1958 – 2002), Neo-Academism’s inception coincided with the fall of the Iron Curtain, as well as the collapse of the old regime in Russia. When the barriers came down, some local artists looking forward to an inspirational meeting with European culture, found instead the disappointing presence of Modernism.

Enter Novikov. He had been a founder member of “The Chroniclers” in the late 1970s; but when it dissolved he created “The New Artists” in 1982. In 1990 the “Movement for Beauty” was created, dedicated to Neo-Academism. The latter movement clearly demonstrated the influence of Novikov on the young art scene in St Petersburg, and it became more apparent when he was appointed director of the unofficial New Academy of Fine Arts in 1994.

Novikov saw Modernism as a threat to the classical traditions of European art and culture. In the style of Oscar Wilde, he preached a return to pure beauty and the aesthetic ideals of antiquity. In his quest to preserve these classical aesthetics within the practice of modern art, he was joined by others who shared his convictions – among them Georgii Gurianov, Denis Yegelsky, and later Bella Matveyeva and Stanislav Makarov.

Neo-Academism started as a reaction against Modernism. It respects Neo-Classicism – the appreciation and imitation of Greek and Roman literature, art, and architecture – but Novikov did not advocate a return to depictions of Hercules or Saturn in oil on canvas. What distinguishes his movement from previous attempts at reviving classical art is the extensive use of new media. The results are unlike anything you will see in the Greek and Roman departments at the Pushkin or the Hermitage. They don’t attempt to clinically preserve classical traditions, nor do they merely parody them. Rather, they conserve classical art through innovation, rehabilitation – even mutation. The art is weird, outrageous, sometimes shocking; and often beautiful without being merely decorative.

Novikov’s own work is well represented with his ‘fabric’ paintings, velvet and silk hangings set with classical images. In The Lost Ideals he encapsulates the philosophy of Neo-Academism – the nude boy with his olive branch, placed at the centre of the fabric, framed in gold thread; beautiful, and yet giving to the whole the effect of something no longer at the forefront of our minds.

Neo-Academists Oleg Maslov and Victor Kuznetsov have worked together since 1993, and have produced some striking works. Price of a Head – oil on canvas – is reminiscent of some of their earlier works like The New Satiricon, in which they photographed themselves in theatrical poses wearing Venetian masks and wedge-heeled shoes in a series of composed frames. One is reminded of Caravaggio’s (1571 – 1610) paintings with his pouting boys and masses of fruit and flowers. Their work is deliberately kitsch and irreverent, but the fun they poke at classical art is not without intention – it is preservation through innovation.

Stanislav Makarov, another member of the Neo-Academists and a student of Timur Novikov in the early 1990’s, is another artist to look out for in this exhibition. In 2003 he participated in a project entitled “Angels of Petersburg”, which was done on behalf of the New Academy of Fine Arts. The photographs depict the heavy statues of the angels on St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg. The artist shows these immobile, almost reticent figures clashing with the receding panorama of the city in the background. Makarov’s angels watch silently and unchangingly over the ever-changing space around them.

It is this thematic mix of the classical with the contemporary which makes the RuArts Gallery itself such an appropriate space for the exhibition. The gallery is located in the historic Ostozhenka district of old Moscow, where it rubs shoulders with the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Private Collections. Yet with its spare interior of glass, stainless steel and cement, it is the new kid on the block, and here the works of the Neo-Academists seem very much at home.

Neoclassicism Part I
When: Through September 15, Tues–Sat 12.00–20.00
Where: RuArts, 10 1st Zachatyevsky Per.
Tel: + 7 095 201 4475
Fax: + 7 095 201 7481

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