‘But is it art?’ Is a question that might be asked about this exhibition. The answer, I believe has to be ‘Yes’, but, like so many things Russian, it may require the average Westerner to make a shift in their thinking.
Once again, Russian artists are exhibiting their work at Oxford Town Hall, with a number of exquisitely crafted items for sale – an impressive collection of miniature lacquer work, as well as wood carvings, paintings, Christmas decorations and a marvellous selection of political and other matrioshka (Russian dolls). There are also a few icons, but the Russian authorities being as they are, they are reluctant to allow iconographers to bring their icons here to sell in case they might be ancient treasures being smuggled out of the country, and find it hard to tell the difference. The painters therefore have to deal with so much officialdom for each icon, that they tend to keep them where they are.
Returning to our question, the key to the exhibition lies in a small and delightful book which would make a great stocking filler, or indeed a present alongside one of the lacquer boxes. It tells the fairy stories that are most commonly depicted on the boxes, and indicates the patterns by which the scenes are classically shown. As in religious iconography, what in the West we might call ‘copying’ is, in fact, obedience to a tradition which requires both great discipline and great skill on the part of the artist. It is a delicate balance between creativity and imitation, whose roots go way back before the 1917 Revolution. This exhibition represents some of those who have kept it alive.
The artistry of the miniatures is quite extraordinary, and it is worth taking time to study them with the magnifying glasses provided. One finds oneself entering into the landscape in a quite extraordinary way.
Alongside the exhibition are two piano recitals by Nikolay Ponomarev – one on Thursday and one on Friday, both at 5.30pm.
Jessica Rose (Unverified), 02/11/06
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