Totalitarian Two


Worlds Apart, South African, Russian Artists Bond over Brutality

The Kreeger Museum — tucked away at the top of Foxhall Road in far Northwest Washington — doesn’t always grab headlines with splashy art openings and appearances by celebrated artists.

Instead, what it does is consistently showcase excellent classic and contemporary art, as well as some of the city’s best artists, in one of the most beautiful settings in the region. The Kreeger’s latest exhibition is certainly no departure from that high standard.

“Kentridge and Kudryashov: Against the Grain” melds the work of two artists from two different parts of the world who have never even met each other. But the museum (converted from a spectacular private home that is an architectural work of art in itself) reveals surprising similarities between the two artists in technique, composition and content.

In addition, all of the pieces on display are borrowed from private collectors in the Washington area, lending another element of cohesion to the exhibition.

The work of William Kentridge, a native of apartheid-era of South Africa, and Oleg Kudryashov, who grew up in Moscow under the former Soviet Union, both convey the heavy-handed politics of those places, while maintaining an inherent, eerie beauty.

Kudryashov’s work is more direct and far more colorful, but that’s not to say it’s cheerful or even overly accessible. In fact, it is rarely either. Fear and paranoia are palpable in many of the images.

In the first work displayed, “Soldier with Doll,” the artist depicts a bearish brute of a man, unshaven and smoking, clutching the arm of what appears to be an expressionless, miniature woman. They stand on the edge of a wooded area with houses and buildings visible in the background. The unsettling image begs the question: Where is he taking her?

Kudryashov’s dark and industrial cubist paper collage “Installation” is vaguely representational of homes with a pink-hued smokestack placed directly in the middle, belching fire. While appearing abstract, the artist insists it’s not.

“My works are not abstract — I build myself a house, a home, a shelter from the elements, from everything that weighs upon the soul,” the artist has said. “I build out of whatever comes to hand, that is, in whatever way the form came to me and how I drew it. I live in this form, and it is immense.”

“Coronation Day,” the massive centerpiece of the Kudryashov portion of the show, is almost absurdist with its garish color and cartoonish brushstrokes. But upon closer inspection, the effect approaches the sinister. An extremely energetic work of art, “Coronation” is filled with boxy, masculine images in contradictory poses. A grim-faced man in a black coat carries what appears to be a birthday cake, as another man sits on a chair appearing to hold a coffee cup? Or is it a beggar’s cup? And what’s with the bottle at his feet? Meanwhile, two men nearby appear to be wheeling another man on a cart — and it seems his arms are tethered in a straitjacket of sorts.

Kentridge’s work, in contrast to Kudryashov’s, is rendered almost exclusively in sharp black and white, although he occasionally adds splashes of blue and red. The artist is also fiercely intellectual, often using big ideas instead of images to get his points across. But sometimes, the ideas are too obtuse, blunting the impact of the art.

In “Ubu Tells the Truth,” we learn from wall text that Kentridge uses a self-portrait to depict his alter-ago as a bumbling, venal and vulgar man. The soft-ground etchings project a dream-like, illogical quality as the naked Ubu sleeps, dances, showers, etc. to the beat of some unheard psychological drum. The effect is nonsensical.

Better understood is the sketch “General,” as a powerfully authoritarian — but slightly abstract — face glares at the viewer. The image offers a stark contrast to the more submissive, almost aching visage depicted in ”Blue Head,” in which a man with closed eyes tilts his head toward the sky.

In many of Kentridge’s works, metamorphosis is a theme, whether it’s the kinetic panels in the silhouette-driven “Portage,” or the complex, forward-moving “Telephone Lady” and “Walking Man.”

As compelling as they are, Kentridge and Kudryashov aren’t the only artistic reasons to visit the Kreeger.

As mentioned, the museum itself is a masterpiece. Designed as a home by acclaimed architect Philip Johnson for Geico insurance magnate David Lloyd Kreeger and his wife Carmen, the sprawling, light-filled space includes works by Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Chagall and other masters — all from the Kreeger’s private collection.

The supremely serene and sublimely sophisticated Kreeger Museum feels worlds away from the hustle and bustle of downtown D.C. and the hulking uber-museums that populate the dense urban core.

Now, with this compelling new exhibition, “Kentridge and Kudryashov: Against the Grain,” there are more reasons than ever to head to the outskirts of town and see a museum that itself goes against the grain.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.