Arts Curriculum


September 16, 2005–January 11, 2006

RUSSIA! explores the vast and complex historical phenomenon embodied by the word “Russia” through the lens of the greatest masterworks of Russian art from the 13th century to today. The exhibition also includes works from the world-class collections amassed by Russian tsars and merchants. With more than 250 objects, including many that have never been seen abroad, the exhibition presents a unique opportunity to consider and study the breadth, depth, and complexity of Russian art.


The Age of the Icon: 13th–17th Centuries
The Age of the Icon: 13th–17th Centuries
The Late 18th Century: The Reign of Catherine the Great
The Late 18th Century: The Reign of Catherine the Great
The Early 20th Century
The Early 20th Century
Art and Ideology: Late 1920s–1940s
Art and Ideology: Late 1920s–1940s
Opening New Spaces: 1980 to the Present
Opening New Spaces: 1980 to the Present

Exhibition Overview

The show is organized by a team of Russian and American specialists who have structured this presentation as a series of smaller exhibitions that when added together tell the remarkable and interconnected history of Russian art over the last eight centuries. The exhibition also demonstrates Russia’s outstanding achievements in and contributions to the history of world art that extend far beyond the already well-known and revered Russian icons and avant-garde. The spiral of the museum is filled with Russian art—including icons, portraiture in both painting and sculpture from the 18th through the 20th centuries, social and Socialist Realist works since the 19th century, landscapes through the centuries, pioneering abstraction, and experimental contemporary art. Two galleries house selections of European masterworks amassed by Peter and Catherine the Great during the 18th century and collected by the early-20th-century connoisseurs Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. These collections testify to the courage and foresight of Russian collectors and highlight the interesting relationship between Russia and the West since the 18th century. The broad historical scope coupled with works of the highest quality result in an exhibition that is one of the most representative in the whole history of Russian art exhibitions held abroad.

While the exhibition is organized in chronological order, specific themes and approaches are explored, which illuminate the greatest achievements of Russian art. These themes include:

The Age of the Icon: 13th–17th Centuries includes a partial reconstruction of a monastery through the inclusion of the Deesis Tier of the famous iconostasis of the Kirillo-Belozersk Monastery, which has been dispersed among four Russian museums since nationalization. This impressive set of images is brought to life through a dramatic exhibition design that transports the viewer to another time and place. Within this section is also a small but outstanding selection of icons representing the most important subjects and schools including one work by each of the most famous Russian icon painters, Andrei Rublev and Dionysii, and a version of one the most revered icons, the Virgin of Vladimir, which was painted in 1514. These works demonstrate how Russian artists absorbed and relied upon the Byzantine model, even as they transformed it and created their own style and artistic language.

The 18th Century (the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great). During the 18th century Russian artists moved beyond icon painting and captured their times through portraits of the tsars and nobility and through representations of the changing landscape of the Russian nation. During this period, Russian artists were exposed to the European tradition through the outstanding collections of Western art made available to them at Catherine’s Hermitage and through travels abroad made possible by the Academy of Art founded under her patronage. As was the case with their contemporaries in other countries, Russian artists’ encounters with masterworks from the history of art provided them with a living textbook. But also like their colleagues abroad, they brought to bear their own context, talents, and interests on these models, thus producing unique works of the highest caliber. This section begins with Western works from imperial collections and then presents portraiture of the 18th century, which is intimately connected with the world of the Russian aristocracy, and neoclassical academic painting.

The 19th Century (from Romanticism to critical realism). The brilliance and diversity of Russian art in the first half of this century has contributed to its being dubbed “The Golden Age” of Russian art. In the second half of the century, Russian artists took a path that diverged from the West. The group of artists that formed in the 1860s and is known historically as the Wanderers emphasized the high social mission of art, using art as a tool for social commentary and criticism. Like many of their literary contemporaries, the Wanderers stressed the importance of man and his individuality. In their emphasis on the content of the artistic work, Russian artists departed drastically from the reigning Europe tendencies in that period, which focussed almost exclusively on formal quests. This section, which strongly reflects the taste of the legendary collector Pavel Tretyakov, whose collection is in the State Tretyakov Gallery, will demonstrate that art collecting was by no means confined to the acquisition of Western art.

Shchukin and Morozov. Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were Moscow merchants and art connoisseurs who amassed collections that included some of the most important examples of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, and Cubist works, including paintings by Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. These collections exerted a strong influence on the generation of Russian artists that emerged in the early 20th century. However, the Russian artists fused the diverse Western influences with national traditions, such as the icon and folk art, creating a vision uniquely their own.

The Early 20th Century (Avant-Garde) was a time when many Russian artists returned to their national roots, to the ancient Russian icon and indigenous folk art, sources that allowed them to elaborate a new artistic language that was no less abstract and conventional than that of the prototypes. This generation merged Russian and European influences to pioneer a succession of radical movements in rapid succession including Cubo-Futurism, Rayonism, Suprematism, Constructivism, and others. While in the past a great deal of emphasis has been placed on abstraction in early-20th-century Russian art, this exhibition equally stresses the point that the tradition of figurative art continued to thrive at a time when Russian artists produced some of the most innovative artworks in the history of art. The pioneering work of these artists had a major influence on the development of 20th-century international art.

The Soviet Era: ca. 1930–1957 (Socialist Realism through the Thaw) is strongly associated with the official doctrine for art known as Socialist Realism, which was established in 1934. Long seen as merely propaganda or historical curiosity, this style nonetheless produced highly talented artists, both official and unofficial. The main turning point away from the propagandistic approach that characterized Soviet art of the 1930s was the Great Patriotic War (World War II), when artists began to move beyond absolute idealism in art.

The Late- and Post-Soviet Era: 1957–present. This section charts developments in Soviet art between Stalin’s death and the end of the Cold War and further documents attempts by artists to combat the standardization of Socialist Realism. In the wake of Stalin’s death in 1953, many artists began to explore more personal approaches and subjects. In 1957 the new leader of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the cult of Stalin’s personality and his abuses of power. This period, which lasted until the mid-1960s and became known as the Thaw, led to greater liberties in artistic style and inaugurated a new era in Soviet art and culture. Beginning in the 1960s a growing number of artists worked unofficially in styles that did not conform to the rules of Socialist Realism and often explicitly criticized Soviet ideology and the state. This section concludes with select works by contemporary Russian artists that highlight the ongoing presence and strength of Russian art on the international scene.

The works in the exhibition are on loan from Russia’s greatest museums—the State Russian Museum, the State Tretyakov Gallery, the State Hermitage Museum, and the Kremlin Museum—as well as regional museums, private collections, and a select number of museums and private collections outside of Russia. According to Thomas Krens, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, “This exhibition will serve as a unique opportunity to introduce the international public to the most valued artistic treasures culled from Russia’s greatest museums.”

–Adapted from an essay by Valerie Hillings, Curatorial Assistant, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Historical Overview

Russia is the largest country on earth, covering one-eighth of the world’s land surface. It is nearly twice as large as the United States, and spans 11 time zones. Russia stretches east from the Baltic Sea across the northernmost stretches of Europe, through Central Asia, all the way to the western edge of the Pacific Ocean north of China. In the middle of the 20th century it was even larger. Then called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) or Soviet Union, it included a number of now independent nations, such as Estonia and Kazakhstan.

Russia, known today also as the Russian Federation, has played a huge role in the history of the 20th century as the center of two major political upheavals. The first came in 1917, when Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party established communism, and the second in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

For hundreds of years before this, there were essentially two kinds of Russians. One group, the nobles, inherited and bequeathed fortunes and property. The other vastly larger group, the peasants, barely had enough to survive. The role of the poor was to perform services from which the rich would benefit, but the rich had little obligation in return. Contempt grew among the peasants throughout the 19th century, but few felt that they had the power to change things. While the poor lived in dirtfloored huts on a diet of thin soup and heavy bread, the wealthy had several homes, and a steady stream of parties, balls, and social visits. Life was very pleasant for the Russian elite. By the late 19th century, however, several tsars had noticed growing discontent among the poor and began to realize that if they were going to stay in power they would have to be perceived as doing something for the people. In 1861 serfdom was abolished; peasants who had formerly been forced to stay on a particular piece of land could move to cities, hire themselves out as laborers on a noble’s land, or become small, independent farmers. The number of schools for Russian children skyrocketed, as did the number and size of universities. Many poor children learned to read. With literacy and urbanization ordinary Russians began to form ideas about their place in Russian society. Along with the poor, a growing middle class and university-educated intellectuals increasingly resented the power of the rich. Rumors of revolution were in the air.

In 1917, the Russians ended the rule of the tsars whose luxurious lifestyle had robbed the people of a decent livelihood. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party established communism, a system where every business—including farms—was owned collectively by all the members of the society. From the Soviet perspective, collectivism allowed the fruits of society’s labors to be fairly distributed. This new country, the Soviet Union, was the first world communist state. Sadly, however, the Russian people only ended up trading one set of uncaring masters for another. Life for the common people was one of oppression under both sets of rulers.

The USSR had a totalitarian political system in which Communist Party leaders held political and economic power. The state owned all companies and land, and the government controlled production of goods and other aspects of the economy. Years later, although the Russian people could be proud that the Soviet Union had put the first man into space and won many gold medals at the Olympics, they were still hungry, overtaxed, and unable to get decent housing.

In 1991, the USSR broke apart and Russia became an independent country. After the end of over 70 years of communist rule, today’s Russians, finally liberated from the excesses of both the tsars and the Soviets, have taken the first steps toward freedom. Russia has begun to transform itself into a more democratic society with an economy based on market mechanisms and principles. There have been free elections at all levels of government; private ownership of property has been legalized; and large segments of the economy are now privately owned.

The new Russian Federation faces new challenges. Arms control, the safeguarding of nuclear materials, combating environmental pollution, and the development of legal and economic institutions to support Russia’s reorganized society and economy are some of the important issues that will accompany this nation into the 21st century.