Pictures at an Exhibition

Yesterday I went to the local 'cultural centre', an old refurbished building, standing in a square opposite the kremlin in Nizhny Novgorod, to see an art exhibition. It was a splendid amalgam of 'stuff'.

There was a room of paintings and ceramics for sale - a tad overpriced to my trained eye - of wildly varying quality and style - though vases of flowers and houses amongst trees, as always, were resolutely popular. You could, also, buy a half body size ceramic angel in gold and paled lime green - a meek and mild protecter with an open handed gesture to greet guests to your house!

There were three figured artists with space to themselves and several more rooms devoted to others. Excepting that the works were overwhelmingly figurative, there was no apparent connecting theme.

Of the three figured artists, one was irredeemably awful. The second was schizoid - when painting the world 'out there', she was bright, extroverted, intelligent: two elderly men talk on a park bench, both in their slippers, turning over familiar talk or a group of musicians informally collect in a park, tipsy and improvising.When painting the world 'in here', she treated us to her visions that drifted into the ethereal empyrean that simply reminded you of Blake's instruction that the visionary world requires greater, not less, clarity of line and form.

The third, and most extensively treated artist, was a highly competent figurative painter, whose portraits were especially vivid, effectual and effective. His most interesting paintings were of a subject I had not seen treated before - two large canvases concerning the murder of Tsar Nicholas and his family. In the first the family are gathered together, with their trusted aides. There is no sign of their captivity. Alexis haemophiliac induced vulnerability, beautifully suggested, is the only focus of anxiety. In the second, the family lay sprawled on the ground, dead or dying, with their assasins poised over them, arms at the ready, to finish off any signs of life. It is brutal, disturbing and not softened by any suggestion that this is marytrdom, rather than tragic political assassination. The two sit together powerfully.

But as is often the case the ultimate gems are hidden and here it was two drawings of an accordian player in thick drawn lines and bold shading. In the first he sits hunched at a table, gazing out of the window, his accordian and crumpled jacket on the only chair. In the second he is lying in visibly evoked exhaustion, face down, on a narrow bed, fully clothed, down to his hole ridden socks, the creased lines in his clothes speaking the creasing of tiredness. They were economical, simple and powerful and the best things there.

On the way there, I noticed the continuing transformation of Nizhny's centre - the walking street spruced up and dandified - as was the kremlin. Walking here later, it was wonderful to stand on this hilly outcrop and look down to the frozen Volga and out across the seemingly limitless plain beyond. It immediately gives you a sense of why build here and of the scale of the place that is Russia.


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