Eight Russian painters who worked underground during the Soviet years have a close link to Monterey.
Thursday, January 27, 2000
Ever since the collapse of the Soviet political system nine years ago, and even during glasnost in the late ''80s, there has been an explosion of art coming out of Russia, art that was eagerly lapped up by Western audiences. Some of it was good, and some of it was not, but in the first flush of titillation at the previously forbidden, quality mattered less than the fact that this was art banned by the Evil Empire.
The eight painters that make up the Hermitage Group, a loose association of St. Petersburg artists who came together almost 30 years ago and painted secretly, without support from the State, are among those who began to show their work in the United States as the Soviet Union was crumbling. Unlike many of their compatriots, the quality of their work has stood the test of time and political sentiment, as local art lovers will see when their latest exhibition opens at the Monterey Museum of Art this Saturday.
Also unlike most Russian artists, the Hermitage Group has a tight personal connection to Monterey County, which they have visited several times and where they have shown their work almost every year since 1992. That connection was forged by local Tony Wolff, who met the artists while on a "roots" trip to what was then Leningrad in 1990. Entranced by their art, Wolff spent two years trying to get the men and their paintings to the United States for an initial show at the Sonoma County Museum in 1992, followed by a painting tour of California, including a show at Carmel''s now-defunct Ludwa Studio.
"They fit into the tradition of Russian landscape artists, the turn-of-the-century itinerants like Kandinsky," says Greg Ludwa, who held an exhibition of the group''s art every year until he closed his gallery in 1995. "They have a tradition and a transcendence about their paintings that you don''t often see in American painters."
The Hermitage Group formed in the late ''60s and early ''70s around the imposing figure of Grigory Dlugach, a post-revolutionary Soviet painter whose work was suppressed in the 1930s. Instead of giving up art, Dlugach retreated into Leningrad''s famed Hermitage Museum to study works by the Old Masters on display there. Dlugach taught his Hermitage Group students the principles of formal composition used by the greatest artists in the Western canon.
The Hermitage Group''s adherence to those traditional principles set them apart from their artistic peers, both from the officially approved Soviet Socialist Realist painters and from the radical, Pop-influenced underground artists of the ''70s and ''80s. "They were trapped between the State-sanctioned art and the art of the political outsiders, and no one liked them," Wolff notes. Viewers familiar with either of those genres will see something different in the works of the Hermitage Group, both in their choice of landscapes and historical/Biblical figures, and in their use of color, line and composition.
Although the eight painters have much in common artistically, their stylistic differences are also marked. Albert Bakun, the most "popular" in the West, utilizes bold, Expressionist lines and colors, setting leafless black trees against deep cobalt skies. Yuri Gusev, by contrast, paints and sketches dreamlike visions based on Biblical themes, leaving the outline of his figures somewhat blurred, with large white spaces left on the canvas.
Wolff has formed a nonprofit, "Friends of the Hermitage Group," that raises money to bring the artists to the U.S. whenever their art is here, so they can paint and lead workshops for school children and professional artists. Last year, the group held workshops at several local schools, under the aegis of the Cultural Council for Monterey County. This year once again, they will be available to teach locally from March 28 to April 7, says Kathy Littles of the Cultural Council. Littles has already booked them at Seaside and Monterey high schools, Colton Middle School and the Marina Del Mar elementary school.
Visiting, painting and lecturing in the United States since ''92 has had an effect on the seven surviving artists of the group (one died in 1993). First, notes Ludwa, their palette has lightened, as the golden glow of the California sun replaced the gloom of Leningrad''s wintry skies. And, of course, Monterey County scenes now populate their paintings: the Carmel Mission, Yankee Point, the redwoods of Big Sur and the landscape around Esalen Institute, where they spent more than a week in ''94.
Ironically, working together in this country has caused the group to separate in Russia. "As happened to so many of these groups in Russia, what kept them together was the oppression they lived under," Wolff notes. "When that passed and they came to the West, they had different levels of success. That, and their new dealings with money, tore them apart." In fact, notes Wolff, they now only appear as a group while on tour.
Paintings From the Russian Soul: The Hermitage Group of St. Petersburg opens at the Monterey Museum of Art''s Civic Center Saturday. Schools interested in hosting a class taught by the artists should call Kathy Littles at 622-9060.