Yesterday I attended, as the luncheon guest, a very fascinating lecture given by Professor Wendy Salmond at the NEH Summer Institute. Professor Salmond of Chapman University in Orange, CA specializes in Russian and early Soviet art, architecture and design.
The theme of this year’s Institute, titled “America Engages Russia, Circa 1880-ca. 1930:
Studies in Cultural Interaction” focused on “the implications of the various forms of cultural engagement between the United States and the Russian Empire/Soviet Union from the late 19th century to the beginning of the 1930s.” Professor Salmond’s lecture revolved around the Russian fine and decorative arts and the ways in which they were presented at three major exhibitions and how these objects helped to created a Russian style in the mind of the American collector.
Her argument, an interesting one, was that display of objects at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which included goods in the “Russian style” such as enamels, lace, bear skin rugs, hard-stone mosaic fireplaces, bronze statuettes of horse-drawn carriages and peasants by Evgeni Lansere and various objects in metal defined for the American public what the Russian style was. For the American visitor, these good began to be a visual representation of Russia. The Russian authorities decided to bring these objects after the Russian Pavilion failed to impress foreigners at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London. The general sentiment amongst critics at that point was that the Russian Pavilion included art which Western countries brought with them as well, like malachite and porcelain vases, and failed to capture what made Russian art unique.
Professor Salmond then presented two state sponsored exhibitions, the 1924 Russian Art Exhibition at the Grand Central Palace and also the 1931-1932 Soviet Loan Exhibition of Icons. Both of these exhibitions were quite remarkable and surprisingly are not part of the design lexicon. The goal was to sell the artwork and create a market for Russian art. Here again, the Russians sent artwork could be easily, and stereotypically, associated with the country: beautiful snowy landscapes and sweeping views of the countryside by many well-known Russian artists. However, absent was the avant-garde work which Russian presented in its Pavilion at the “International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts” a year later in 1925. This type of work, instead, traveled to Berlin. Here, again, the question raised was did “Russia find that this avant-garde work was too sophisticated and did not conform to the Americans view of this country?”
The latter exhibition, of 1931-1932, toured eight cities in eight months and featured an impressive collection of 15th- 19th c. icons which can now be seen in some of Russia’s most famous museums. However, the Soviet government had an ulterior motive for sending these renowned Icons. They wanted to show to the world that they were serious about their heritage and were painstakingly restoring this newly discovered work. The Icons that were actually for sale were not these rare, high quality pieces but later and therefore less valuable ones. While the 1924 sale proved to be a complete failure, this sale was the opposite. It helped to create a market for Russian icons, partly due to unstoppable nature of art dealer Armand Hammer. Hammer placed numerous Icons in museum collections worldwide including the Hillwood Museum, the museum founded by Marjorie Merriweather Post, who was his client.
I am hoping that this research will be part of a future book for Prof. Salmond, who recently published “Treasure into Tractors: The Selling of Russia’s Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938” with Anne Odom.
This was the third NEH (The National Endowment for the Humanities) Institute organized by The New York Public Library (NYPL) and it brings together 25 university teaching faculty, curators, and senior bibliographers with nine Session Leaders and ten Discussants to explore a particular thesis.