Impressionist Favored Depicting Mother Nature over Motherland
Although U.S. relations with Russia have transformed since the days of the Cold War, they’ve also taken a hit in recent years as both sides lob heated rhetoric at each other that continues to test the fragile relationship — the latest exchange coming from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev challenging brand-new President-elect Barack Obama to drop the Bush administration’s controversial missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
So it’s appropriate that the Meridian International Center — whose aim is to promote global engagement and strengthen America’s ties with the world — would house an exhibition of paintings that offer American audiences a less controversial prism through which to see Russian culture.
“Painting the Heart of Russia: Nikolai Timkov’s Sustaining Vision” actually offers a vision of the nation’s landscape more so than its people, who can scarcely be seen among the works on display, many of which have never been exhibited publicly. But in these serenely captivating impressionist renderings of the Russian countryside, we see the land’s enduring connection to its people and its contribution to Russian identity — by a man who grew up and immersed himself in that land.
Nikolai Efimovich Timkov (1912-93) was raised by a farming family in a village along the lower Don River in the years prior to the Russian Revolution. His colorful depictions of other small villages, the Ural Mountains and the different seasons — along with his general appreciation for Russia’s rural vistas — eventually earned him the title of “honorable artist of the Russian Federation.” Albert Kostenevich, impressionist curator at the Heritage Museum in St. Petersburg, has even characterized him as “the greatest Russian impressionist landscape painter” of the latter 20th century.
Yet in a time when politics dominates all discussion of Russia, the Meridian exhibit of Timkov’s works is refreshingly apolitical. In fact, Timkov’s early career in Moscow and then Leningrad at the Academy of Art coincided with the wave of Soviet Socialist Realism, which essentially required all artists to reinforce the “reality of revolutionary Russia” — i.e., pushing Soviet propaganda. To avoid the state-run political machinery, some artists, including Timkov, turned to landscape painting to celebrate their nation without challenging — or at the same time succumbing to — the authorities.
Thus we see a peaceful picture of Russia that Timkov returned to paint time and again: the sleepy, rolling green hillsides by his native River Don, a field bursting with swaths of bright yellow flowers, or a church emerging from a hilltop, with its distinctive Russian Orthodox dome jutting out from amid the lush trees surrounding it.
There’s a quiet, almost lyrical simplicity to these works, which are devoid of human life, yet they reveal two vital aspects of Russian heritage: First, Timkov successfully conveys the awesome natural beauty of this sweeping country — especially the variations of seasons, deftly capturing autumn’s blush of oranges, yellows and reds, or the barren white that blankets the terrain in winter, or the reemergence of life and color in the springtime.
Second, though he shies away from people, Timkov portrays the ways in which they live, giving us a glimpse into charming towns such as Torzhok, for example, or the classic, omnipresent architecture of the Russian Orthodox Church as seen in paintings such as “Sitkovsky Monastery, 1971.”
Timkov’s style was often compared to French impressionism, yet his depictions are intrinsically Russian. And although today our image of Russia may correlate with drab communist tenement blocks or the more recent modern high-rise skyscrapers of Moscow — still the world’s most expensive city — remember that for many Russians, their expansive natural landscape remains a tremendous source of pride. Thus Timkov was able to tap into that nationalistic sentiment without sacrificing his own artistic integrity, although his decision to focus solely on landscapes did cost him the prestige garnered by other artists who towed the official Soviet line.
Nevertheless, today he’s getting some overdue recognition at the Meridian Center, whose president, Stuart Holliday, noted that the exhibition provides an opportunity to work with Russia at this crucial time of leadership change for both countries.
For his part though, Timkov would probably have been just fine steering clear of politicians and rhetoric about Mother Russia in favor of Mother Nature and the fertile opportunities she provided for his art.
“Timkov’s story embodies Russians’ sense of their land as refuge and sustenance,” wrote Alison Hilton, chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Georgetown University and co-curator of the exhibit. “It would be hard to name any artist working in the mid- to late 20th century who gave such constant, fertile, and profound attention to portraying familiar surroundings. Timkov’s paintings express his deep identification with his homeland and at the same time welcome viewers’ personal responses to the landscape.”
Painting the Heart of Russia: Nikolai Timkov’s Sustaining Vision through March 8 Meridian International Center’s Cafritz Galleries 1630 Crescent Place, NW For more information, please call (202) 667-6800 or visit www.meridian.org.
About the Author
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.