Slavic Potpourri

Soviet "Arts and Crafts in Ancient Times and Today" at the MFA

THE EXHIBITION of Soviet "Arts and Crafts in Ancient Times and Today" is worth a visit, but is spotty in quality and disorientingly diverse. In its attempt to represent the folk arts of all 15 republics, to present works from the fourth millenium B.C. to the present, it often deteriorates into a hodge-podge of interesting knick-knacks.

I was especially dismayed by the poor selection of older works; the brochure's claim that the retrospective section contains "treasures of the Tsar's court and is highlighted by a magnificent group of icons" is unwarranted. From the profusion of royal riches in the Moscow Kremlin's Armory Museum (one look and you understand why the Revolution took place) the Soviet exhibition committee selected a bit of pearl-embroidered brocade from the raiment of a Russian Orthodox Patriarch, a pearl-encrusted red velvet boot, and Ivan the Terrible's embroidered saddle. The Armory also has a magnificent collection of bejeweled gold and silver filigree icon casings, spectacular chalices and royal plate. Only a dozen of the least successful, gaudiest pieces are on exhibition--ostentatiously displayed on red velvet enclosed by modernistic, plexiglass domes.

The exhibition includes only twelve icons, of which four are good, the rest mediocre. Two lovely 15th century icons of the Pskov school--"St. Boris and St. Gleb" and "Prophet Elijah and the Fiery Chariot"--are distinguished by their vibrant reds, simplicity of line, and native charm. Another early 15th century icon, "The Dormition of the Virgin," is redeemed by the beautifully drawn central figure of the Holy Spirit (the rest of the figures are stereotypic and pedestrian.) "Our Lady of Jerusalem" is the only example from the famous Novgorod school. And the greatest of Russian icon painters--Feofan the Greek and Andrel Rublev--are not represented at all in the mini-exhibition. (I asked one of the Soviet guides about their absence and he replied that the potential damage to icons from an ocean crossing dissuaded the committee from bringing the greater masterpieces.)

The bulk of the exhibition is devoted to folk arts and crafts. The quality--particularly of the older, genuine folk-art pieces--is often quite high, but the juxtaposition of genres, nationalities, and periods is confusing. Samovars, porcelain tiles, embroidery, lace, wood carvings, jewelry toys, lacquer boxes, tapestries, wall placques, crystal.... The non-initiate, unless he has a map of the U.S.S.R. imprinted on his consciousness, will have trouble putting it all in place.

VIEWING THE OFFERINGS one at a time, there are some exceptional pieces. Russian peasants are reknowned for their wood-carving skills, and I was happy to find a few segments of intricately-sculpted decorative house trim, plus about 30 wooden distaffs (for spinning wool into yarn). Half the distaffs are covered with figures of birds, animals, and fanciful arabesques in bright tempera; the others are blond wood so delicately carved that they give the impression of lace. A great find was a group of clever toy whistles made by craftsmen in the Arkhangelsk and Tula regions from 1890 through 1910. The whistles are in the form of horses, dogs, bears, a hen and her chicks, and peasants, and are gaily decorated with bright yellow, peacock blue, and magenta stripes. My favorite one depicts a troika--three little horses' heads connected to one tiny horse's body.

Contemporary renderings of old crafts are mixed in with the older pieces. They are the culmination of a recent drive to re-learn and preserve the old folk arts. Where a break in the craft tradition has never occurred, the results are most successful--for example, plates and pitchers of iron inlaid with silver from Daghestan, and silver filigree jewelry, from Georgia. Two showcases display the products of lacquer-work masters from Ralekh--little papier-mache boxes, decorated with elaborate designs in egg-tempera (often depicting the exploits of Russian fairy-tale heroes), coated with transparent lacquer, then dried and highly polished. One box astonishes: a winter's scene of three youngsters in a troika superimposed on an oval plate of mother-of-pearl to simulate the look of the rays of the setting sun. The weavers from Kazakh S.S.R. have not lost their touch either; the walls of one long corridor are hung with their work--softly-colored ornamental rugs of thick felt.

Other contemporary offerings are not so successful. In the vicinity of the beautiful lacquer boxes are some of the most God-awful tempera and lacquer wall placques I have ever seen. A display of good crystal is flanked by a five-piece set of red glass vases with standardized workers' images frosted into the sides. Fortunately, an entire wall is allotted to an imaginative wall hanging of a woolly owl with immense purple eyes--if not, it would be lost in a forest of skillfully constructed by thematically banal tapestries.

Despite the uneven quality, the exhibition of Soviet Arts and Crafts is still and interesting way to spend an afternoon. In addition to the collection of over 1200 objects, three programs of short films on the arts, crafts and peoples of the Soviet Union are being shown in rotation. Friendly and interesting Soviet guides answer questions in impeccable English. Even the snack bar features Russian specialties.

There is a final reason to patronize the exhibition, the most comprehensive of its kind to tour the United States. Such exhibitions lead to greater exchange of people and information between the United States and the Soviet Union. The "Stay Away" attitude of the Jewish Defense League (they have been picketting the exhibition since its opening) can only perpetuate a long-outdated fear and hostility.