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We treasure our lucid dreams. More than meets the eye

Ekaterina Wagner

01 February, 2020

Aleksandr Sardan. Symphony of the Cosmos, 1925. Watercolour and coloured pencil on paper. Museum of Organic Culture, Colomna

Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary art has opened a thought-provoking exhibition focused on spirituality, esoteric knowledge and Russia’s fascination with the East.

Rarely do curators of any exhibition claim to rewrite art history. Yet the young and bold creative minds behind a newly opened exhibition at Moscow’s Garage museum do exactly that. “We are tracing the alternative way of the developing art, far from the Modernist canon and far from the Russian Avant-Garde so favoured by Western critics,” one of its curators, Katya Inozemtseva, announced at the opening press conference.

The exhibition’s mission is to use the old in order to discover the new on what is a long and tragic journey, a litany of the dead begun in the early days of the brutal and merciless repression unleashed after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 

The curators have built a convoluted narrative that binds together the esoterically-minded early 20th century intelligentsia of Moscow and St. Petersburg, two marginalized artists who fled or were exiled to the republic of Kazakhstan in the Soviet era and the so-called Samarkand pre-Raphaelites, who developed a distinctly sophisticated style with exotic flair. 

Tragedy haunts the walls starting from the first room, which focuses on the Russian followers of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of anthroposophy. The adepts of that sect included Russian poet Andrei Bely (1880–1934) and his first wife Asya Turgeneva (1890-1996). Both of them worked on the construction of Steiner’s Goetheanum headquarters near Basel. Turgeneva’s powerfully mystical designs for the building’s stained glasses are on display at the exhibition.

Wilfully mixing historical documents and artworks, the curators add a touch of drama to the exhibition. Masons’ aprons, photographs of ghosts (don’t ask!), and sombre William Blake-like drawings by Ariadna Arendt (1906–1997) hang side by side in the hall dedicated to the weird and insanely intense spiritual life of the Russian Empire before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. 

Russian Steiner admirers dabbled in spiritualist experiments, something that attracted the eye of the Soviet secret police and set its meat-grinder in motion, according to Inozemtseva.

The next to be targeted were the Freemasons. Their leaders literally signed a pact with the Devil, having been promised that they would be allowed to leave Russia if each of them disclosed a sufficient number of names of lodge members. 

Predictably, both the ordinary Freemasons and their leaders suffered the same fate, execution by firing squad, according to the curator.

Ironically, freemason and NKVD officer Gleb Bokii was one of the founders of the first Soviet labour camp on the island of Solovki in the White Sea. Bokii eventually turned from butcher to victim and was executed in 1937, during the peak of Soviet terror. The covers of his and other victims’ NKVD files are juxtaposed with the wildly expressive drawings of homeless children who were brought by a charity-minded lady anthroposophist into her rural boarding school to study agriculture and the works of the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. Unsurprisingly, that institution did not last long under Soviet rule.

A gentle sound haunts the end of the exhibition. The score of that music is laid out on a table. An expert hand has boldly drawn Chinese hieroglyphs on its first page. Inozemtseva explains that the music was composed by the philologist Julian Shutsky (1897–1938) who had been sent to Japan on a research trip by the Soviets. Ten years after his return to the motherland, he was executed as a Japanese spy.

The exhibition will include a performance called ‘Sleep sessions’ by artist Alexandra Sukhareva (b. 1983), which will take place sporadically after hours and leave no traces. “You just have to know it was here,” Andrei Misiano, one of the curators, explained enigmatically. There will be eurithmic dancing based on the system developed by Steiner himself, as well as a site-specific performance by the Moscow collective VasyaBegi, based on the “Sacral Movements”, a concept created by Georgy Gurjiev (1866-1949), a controversial mystic of Armenian and Greek descent. 

A real feast for the eyes awaits in the hall dedicated to the group of Russian artists who were sent by the Soviet state to Samarkand to conserve that ancient city’s historical monuments. One of them, Alexander Nikolaev (1897–1957) went as far as settling in an Uzbek neighborhood, converting to Islam and changing his name to Usto Mumin (The Faithful Master). Their painting style, an unlikely mixture of Italian Renaissance, Persian miniature and Russian icon painting, with references to local Muslim culture and visible homo-erotic undertones was later recognized in the West. Two members of the group, Alexei Isupov (1889-1957) and Daniil Stepanov (1881-1937) managed to get to Italy and never came back. Very few of their works survived and even those that did have never been exhibited together.

"We Treasure Our Lucid Dreams." The Other East and Esoteric Knowledge in Russian Art 1905–1969

Garage Museum for Contemporary Art

Moscow, Russia

31 January – 10 May 2020

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