So you woke up this morning* to find that the smog had irredeemably settled thickly over your block of flats and that taking the Star out, or even opening the windows was clearly not an option. You therefore fled the flat, leaving the Star to the tender mercies of his babushka, and went to the Tretyakov Gallery, the Twentieth Century version.
You had the place to yourself, almost literally. It’s not all Soviet Realism and paintings of St Alin. Some of it is Kandinsky, for goodness sake. There are baffling and slightly disquieting installations. And it’s particularly interesting, because all of it is Soviet, in the same way that the Old Tretyakov Gallery is interesting because all of it is Russian. Kandinsky on his own is less interesting than Kandinsky with all of his peers, the people who were thinking the same way, trying out the same things. Or rejecting that group’s vision. It’s not about whether the pictures are any good or not, it’s just about seeing the way people of a particular type of society thought and developed themes through art.
That said, in contrast, for you the Old Tretyakov is about the paintings although you lost the ability to tell if these are any good or not a long time ago. You’ve visited the gallery so many times that you just enjoy seeing some of your old favourites. And in doing so you seem to have absorbed some of the cultural optical baggage that Russians pick up in doing so. You feel right at home with sentimental forest views now. Birch trees. Luminous green colours. Bears. Bears hugging the birch trees. That sort of thing.
You distinctly remember being somewhat snobbish when you first saw such scenes represented in hack artists work for sale on souvenir markets all over Moscow. Now, suddenly, you look at them almost fondly. Although you do wonder if they really sell as well to foreigners new to the genre as pastiches of iconic Soviet posters made over as adverts to McDonalds.
But such thoughts show that although you might think you have soaked up some cultural sensitivity, you have clearly been spending too much time away from the wellspring of the deep Russian soul.
So it should come as no surprise that what you found most shocking about the Tretyakov, Old or New, is the woeful lack of determination to strip the last tourist dollar from visitors. There is a pretty extensive selection of luscious looking art books. For the regular punter, however, there are a few mugs inscribed with various artists’ signatures, some coasters with one or two of the more iconic images on and one type of headscarf with another, but that is pretty much your lot. They don’t even offer a particularly good selection of postcards any more. In fact, in the New Tretyakov didn’t even have that, because both small memento kiosks were closed for your visit. Considering that the shops in the big art galleries in London are always busier than the rooms with the paintings actually in them, you feel that it’s an appalling waste of fund-raising opportunities.
You are quite disgusted. You wanted a T-Shirt of his namesake for the Star at least.
*Or not. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.
** I give you Shishkin. He does like the bears though.