From the beginning of college, I’d been taking Russian language classes because my mother had told me Russian is a fun language to learn, and also I’d always known that ethnically my ancestors were Russian and Ukrainian. As a student I noticed a distinct lack of information, or even dismissiveness of Russian culture and history. Especially so when I became an art major. Art history professors would cover “Western Art,” and “Non Western Art” which included Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. But Russia was always distinctly left out of both classifications, and that always bothered me.
When I first heard about SRAS’s Art and Museums in Russia program through my university’s Russian Language department, I was not in an emotionally sound place. The previous spring I had been a language major and studied for three months in France. It was the most miserable depressing thing I’d ever done, and it forced me to leave without completing my classes there, hence the need to go abroad again. I’d changed my major from languages to graphic design, and knowing that I still had to get some credits abroad, this program piqued my interest. At this point in my life, I had a lot of fears and reservations about travel and about my own personal abilities and worth as a grown human being. As I was filling out the applications and paperwork for the program, I grew more and more afraid of what awaited me in Russia. My first experience as an international student had been extremely negative, and I couldn’t really see myself having a good time doing it all over again. There were times I seriously contemplated just cancelling all the plans I’d made and not going abroad at all, but some strange little force inside me told me to just suck it up and go to Russia. And so I did.
This month in Russia has been completely the opposite experience of my time in France. I found the people who run the program like Elena and April to be very caring and understanding. I felt a real camaraderie with my fellow students as well. I never felt like I was stranded or alone, but at the same time, I still felt very independent and motivated to explore and do activities in St. Petersburg. I absolutely loved being able to spend so much time in the Hermitage. It was especially thrilling to be there when it was closed and we, the students, were the only ones there. I enjoyed all our art lessons. Sergei and Natalia were completely wonderful instructors and very nice people and they gave great critique. I really enjoyed and appreciated their instruction. I can’t express what a thrill it is to have the one-in-a-million opportunity to sit in the Hermitage and sketch or copy its pieces. As an artist, my personal tastes tend to lean towards older, more classical and baroque aesthetics, so spending that amount of time in a building like the Hermitage, and becoming so intimately acquainted with its art was simply amazing. I really wish I could express it better than “amazing” but the experience was just about beyond description.
Artistically, I’m very interested in the character and the expressiveness of art. The reason I love baroque and classical styles is because when I look at the walls and ceilings of places like the Hermitage or Peterhof or Tsarskoe Celo, all the decorations, filigrees, and figures make it feel as though the walls are alive. The walls and ceilings, and by extension the whole building itself, seem to be melting, dripping, and crawling in a perpetual state of motion. Like the phantom servants in the Beauty and the Beast fairytale, it always seems as though the friezes and statues all around you could just ever so easily crawl down from their places in the crown molding and talk to you. I am wholly enchanted by this perception, and it is a large part of what fuels me creatively.
I also really enjoyed the Russian State Museum. Again, thinking back on how little is taught on Russian artists and art movements, it was very thrilling to be given a tour through all the eras of Russian art. I think a lot of people would automatically assume that Russia is not as artistically diverse as other parts of the world, but those people would be absolutely incorrect. I enjoyed very much how rich and diverse Russia’s interests and styles have been throughout history. I think my favorite pieces had to be all the vivacious and dynamic portraitures. In a time when most of European portraiture was all very conventional, and every person came out having the same squinty eyes, long aristocratic nose, tiny severe mouth, and powdered wig, Russia’s portraitists were painting with real character. I particularly enjoyed looking at the works of Karl Briullov. Every facial feature was unique and convincing, and seemed to convey much of the subject’s personality. Another artist I was extremely impressed with was Shishkin. His landscapes were huge and bright and, strangely, appetizing. I could really tell how he felt about Russia’s nature through his paintings. They are almost spell-binding, lovingly haunting, so that the viewer could almost fall right into the scene if he looked long enough.
The painting I was most impressed with out of the whole Russian State Museum was Ilya Repin’s portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. When I laid eyes on that painting I couldn’t look at anything else in the room. The longer I looked at it the more ominous the portrait seemed. Most Tsars were painted in a grand manner with all the fancy items of their office scattered around them to fill the space and make the Tsars seem large and powerful. Repin’s portrayal of Nicholas II was completely different. He stood in the empty thrown-room, hands folded in front of him, staring tiredly out of the frame. No scepters, ermine capes, crowns, or anything on or around him to let you know he held any sort of power. He was dressed in a plain blue coat with small epaulettes and had at his side a puny ceremonial sword, sheathed of course. The longer I looked at this painting the more it seemed to me that this was a portrait of the Tsar standing in what was left of his own authority: An empty cavernous thrown-room, dimly lit by the sunset, as if to remark on how the sun would soon set on his dynasty and even his life. In Repin’s painting he appeared as a tired ragdoll of a Tsar, one touch away from completely falling apart. When you consider that this was painted in 1895, the whole painting takes on an eerily prophetic tone. I was particularly moved by this one painting.
In conclusion, I am very happy that I attended Art and Museums in Russia. I believe I have grown as a person and as an artist. I believe that completing this program means that I no longer have to be afraid of being an artist. I know that I can tell future potential employers about how I studied art for a month in Russia and that it doesn’t just mean that my portfolio stands out because I went abroad when maybe others didn’t. I went to a place that the art world considers neither Western nor Eastern. I went to a place where history and art are inescapable and frequently influence one another. A place where the past is never forgotten, but the present is lively and active. A place that has known both extremes of decadence and deprivation, and can, therefore, find beauty in both. I went to the place beyond everything the world thinks it knows about art: Russia.