|Christmas Tree, 1917 by Nicolai Fechin|
Winter blues? Head out for a Russian date night
"Discovering 20th Century Russian Masters: Nicolai Fechin
," features the paintings of a prominent, 20th-century artist who fell out of favor for a while, but has recently enjoyed a resurgence of interest. His work wasn't shown in Russia for 30 years due to his leaving for America in 1923 after the Russian Revolution. Today, many of his pieces in museums there aren't able to travel with the exhibition because of an embargo. However, there are still plenty of paintings to admire at TMORA, including at least one masterpiece.
|Lady in Pink (Portrait of Natalia Podbelskaya) by Nicolai Fechin|
Dr. Maria Zavialova, from the Museum of Russian Art (TMORA) says it took over a year to plan for the exhibition, which was initially supposed to be larger. "The idea was to show this Russian American artist well represented in both his Russian period and his American period," she says. The larger exhibition, which includes paintings from American collectors and museums, first toured Russia, and was then to travel to the United States, but there was a glitch.
"The Russians got indignant," Zavialova says, even though, technically, American courts have no jurisdiction on traveling art. "Legally, if the paintings were stolen, the state provides immunity. There's a legal mechanism that protects all the art."
|Manicure Lady (Portrait of Mademoiselle Girmond), 1917, by Nicolai Fechin|
She went to the opening in Russia and spoke with the representatives there, and they told her they thought it could take a year or more for the paintings to be released. "It's the Cold War of museums," she says.
Luckily, the ruling didn't concern the private collections in Russia. Those pieces are still a part of the exhibition, and there are some wonderful pieces from American collections that make the show substantial, even if it isn't as broad as TMORA originally hoped it would be.
The masterpiece of the exhibit is Manicure Lady (Portrait of Mademoiselle Girmond, 1977). Zavialova points to the broad brush strokes of the piece, with some sections looking almost like an abstract painting. "Her fingers emerge from the abstraction," Zavialova says. According to her, the painting is at the crossroads of classical realism, impressionism, and expressionism.
As demonstrated in the portrait of Mademoiselle Girmond, Fechin often used beautiful young women as his subjects. Rather than leaning toward realism, however, the artist idealizes them. Their expressions are alluring, their poses subtly sexual and open.
|Albidia, 1928, by Nicolai Fechin|
Take Lady in Pink, for example. The portrait is of one of his Russian students. The model's luxuriously thick lips are parted, showing her teeth almost as if she is about to bite. She demurely twists her body toward the viewer, coy and flirtatious. Her face is painted somewhat realistically, but the background is very abstract.
After the chaos of the Russian Revolution, Fechin moved to the United States with his wife Alexandra and his daughter Eya in 1923. In New York, he developed tuberculosis, and moved his family to Taos, New Mexico, where he hand-built an adobe house in a mixture of Russian and Southwestern styles.
In Taos, Fechin became fascinated with the American Indians there, and painted them frequently. There's a painting in the exhibit of Albidia, a servant of one of his neighbors, for example. There are other drawings of American Indians on display as well, and paintings of Mexican people that he was inspired by on a trip to that country later in life.
|Study, 1910s, (Detail) by Nicolai Fechin|
There are also paintings of his daughter and his wife, who divorced him in 1933. According to Zavialova, Alexandra was the love of his life, and he never quite got over her.
Certainly not all of Fechin's paintings are masterpieces. His more formal and realistic paintings are less interesting. It's when Fechin allows his spontaneous style to run free that he's most successful, when his confident and ingenious brush strokes give just enough information to reveal what the painting is about. One of the most fascinating pieces is a study he made in the 1910s. At first look, it seems to be a landscape, or an abstract work. On closer examination, however, you see the features of a baby in its mother's arms. It takes a trick of the eyes to see it, but once you discover it, it's really quite wonderful.
IF YOU GO:
"Discovering 20th Century Masters: Nicolai Fechin"
On view through January 20, 2013
The Museum of Russian Art
5500 Stevens Ave. S., Minneapols
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays
Admission is $7
Call 612.821.9045 for more information
5500 Stevens Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN