From Russia With Ambivalence: Tel Aviv Portrait Exhibition Is Scattered, but Not Without Gems

There are some interesting works in 'A Russian Tale,' but the excuse for showing them together is not clear, and many artists are conspicuous by their absence.

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Reuven Kuperman.
Avi Amsalem

“The portrait” is the curator’s refuge. If there is nothing special to say, but you have to say something, whether for reasons of the culture industry or for one’s livelihood, the theme of the portrait – self- and others – is always available to fill the conceptual vacuum. Portraits are visually enticing and easily digested. They pave a quick, effective and more direct way to the viewer’s heart. They have an air of depth, because they reflect the soul (of which the eyes are the mirror). They are a testimony to society, but at the same time every portrait is to some degree and at certain levels a self-portrait of the artist, an element of intimacy, voyeurism and a close-up feeling. The historical trail that a portrait brings in its wake is infinite, yet as a curatorial theme it’s comparable to a five-minute gourmet recipe.

That is the feeling one gets from the exhibition “A Russian Tale,” currently on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, as well as bitter disappointment and puzzlement at the bizarre liberty taken (once again) by the curator Doron Lurie. His unsystematic system is gradually becoming clear: Take a simple subject, start to draw its contour lines, deviate from it with ungrounded mischievousness in the name of caprice, and then, when the foundations have been extended and the seams unraveled, pull out all the stops and give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.

This time the subject itself is a bit weak. “The exhibition examines trends and development of portrait painting among Russian- and USSR-born artists of the past 120 years,” the museum’s English-language website informs us. Why examine Russian art (which incorporates revolutionary avant-garde, Constructivism, Suprematism, abstract and Socialist Realism) through portraits, of all genres? And why only painting? It’s not clear.

Lurie, we are told, intermixes “artists who lived and worked in Russia (e.g. Repin and Serov); artists who moved to Paris and other places (e.g. Archipenko, Chagall, Soutine and von Jawlensky); and artists who immigrated to Israel (e.g. Constant, Gliksberg, Litvinovsky, Shemi and Zaritsky),” but we are not told why. Nor does he limit himself to one particular artistic style or period, to self-, group- or family portraits, portraits of friends or of symbolic figures and foreigners.

There are some excellent works in the exhibition, along with minor paintings by important artists, and also mediocre works. One of the outstanding portraits is Valentin Serov’s “The Lady from Mantua” (1894), in which the subject of the painting sits reflectively next to a table in a blouse with puffed-out sleeves. She is both material and ethereal; the dreamlike quality that suffuses her is channeled powerfully to the empty-full point at which her fingers meet the white tablecloth, as a blind point of meditation. Another prominent work is a pencil-on-paper portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin by Reuven Kuperman (2013). Done in larger-than-life detail, it’s an image of a politician that is simultaneously watery and penetrates the skull, a kind of frightening human egg.

Valentin Serov’s 'The Lady from Mantua,' (1894).
Avi Amsalem

If it’s Russia it must be red

There are boldly colored portraits by Alexej von Jawlensky, portraits of acclaimed Israeli poets – Meir Wieseltier by Jan Rauchwerger, Shaul Tchernichovsky by Pinchas Litvinovsky, Haim Nahman Bialik by Leonid Pasternak – of Soviet icons, such as Stalin in a 1933 work by Isaak Brodsky and of the dead Lenin done by Yevgeny Katzman in 1924. In addition, two group portraits of artists are juxtaposed for comparative purposes. One, done in a realistic style by Yakov Bilit, is from 1917; the other, by Moshe Tamir, is from 1950 and executed in a style between Cubism and Expressionism. Posters of Marx, Stalin and Lenin hang next to one another, and to top it all off, the odd mix is served up on a background of red walls. Well, if it’s Russia it must be red. And the whole exhibition space is filled with sound: the “Internationale,” of course.

Precisely because Lurie drew up an immediate rough list of what he grabbed from his immediate surroundings (the Tel Aviv Museum collection and loans from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Museum of Russian Art in Ramat Gan, along with private collections), many works are conspicuous by their absence from the mishmash. Among them: photographs by Pavel Wolberg or Anna Yam, paintings by Zoya Cherkassky, documentation of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union in photographs by Aliza Auerbach, Eyal Fried’s marvelous photographs of Russian boxing trainers and new immigrants with tattoos of Lenin. And what about Ori Reisman and Aviva Uri? True, every curator shows only a little from his reserves of general knowledge and from what is at hand. But this time, the shortsightedness and short reach of the advance research are exposed unpleasantly.

As fate would have it, the National Portrait Gallery in London currently has an exhibition titled “Russia and the Arts: The Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky.” Its focus is on portraits of writers, poets, actors and arts patrons, works loaned from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. “How different those faces are. Russia, in this gathering of cultural heroes from the later 19th century up to 1914, is intense, tortured and troubled. I counted two and a half smiles in the entire exhibition,” The Guardian newspaper’s art critic, Jonathan Jones, wrote, adding, “These Russian artists of the age of Tolstoy share the sensitivity, honesty and the searching unease of the writers and composers they portray. It is clear that, far from the beginning of Russian modernism, the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 was the tragic end of a cultural golden age.” The difference between a tightly argued theme and a groundless thesis is measurable. The London show demonstrates that even aired-out exhibitions of works from the storerooms needn’t be embarrassingly shoddy. Those who don’t possess great collections like that of the Tretyakov need to try harder.

Leaving, I have a fantasy about a different exhibition, based on serious research, that would examine the contribution of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union to Israeli art and how art in Israel dealt with the immigrant population. One imagines a division into different periods (the First Aliyah, or wave of immigration, to late 19th-century Palestine, the Prisoners of Zion and refuseniks of the 1970s, the immigrant wave of the 1990s), or a division into genres and artistic areas.

There are works in “A Russian Tale” that are worth a visit. But in the broad sense of the term “exhibition” as the organization of works around a theme, the formulation of an idea through a reasoned collection of supportive exhibits, that sense of the term is nowhere on view here.

“A Russian Tale” is at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until June 5.