Reflections on Magie Du Paysage Russe

How it was to connect to my Russian roots, while in Switzerland |

Many weeks before this blog existed, I was exploring around Lausanne for the first time with a relaxed meandering gait when suddenly my brain was excited to be informed by my eyes that some light bouncing off of Russian text was hitting them. My eyes darted towards these unexpected words amid the sea of French, and I saw that it was a poster advertising this:

This is what this blog post is about
This is what this blog post is about

This was strange for me. Magie Du Paysage Russe, for those who do not speak French, means “Magic of the Russian Landscape.” A brief history: I was born in Ukraine to Russian parents, moved to Israel at age 5 and then the US at age 12, and have only visited Israel once since. It may have been 8 years since I have last been in Ukraine, or maybe 6 years, or in any case long enough to not remember when I was last there. A long time. Aside from my family and memories of the past, the thing that most made me feel Russian in this long time has been Russian art – more than anything films by Russia’s great directors, so rich in unique identity and feeling. And now this exhibition promised to teach me of “a generation of artists who turned their backs on academicism, and set out in search of a national, realistic, romantic art, appropriate for conveying the special characteristics of the ‘Russian soul’.”

Go see Stalker
On top of this blog, a clue to my appreciation of Russian films

So I was intrigued. Intrigued not only because of all this Russian soul stuff, but also because of my limited exposure and appreciation of painting as a medium of art. After all, most of these paintings were created before film existed and when photography was yet young. Putting aside theatre, this was the visual medium of self expression, and it has been years since I have bothered to go to a museum or felt inclined to appreciate a painting. I have aged in these years, and after all there was the Russian soul stuff, so it was interesting to see whether in this context I‘d have a stronger reaction to a bunch of paintings than I have had in the past.

The painting that set the tone for the exhibit  (Ivan Chichkine, In the forest of Countess Mordinova of Peterhof)

When I got to the museum, I was getting a bit tired of hearing and seeing French I could not comprehend all the time, and of the small confusing situations I got myself into due to the inability to speak said language (magnified by my resonant awkwardness).  So then, it was a relief that when the man who took my ticket started saying further information in incomprehensible French, a Russian who could translate happened to be passing by. The Russian remarked it was “a wonderful exhibition” before moving on, and then, naturally, I entered this wonderful exhibition. The first room had “лес” written in large text on a mildly green wall, and the paintings above and below, and the power to make me contemplate the Russian soul as captured in these paintings.

The expression of this woman says it all (Return the Forest, Nikolai Pimonenko)

Don’t get me wrong, I did not go through any particularly touching experience in this museum. But I did engage with these paintings more than I have with any in the past. I noticed the lack of detail behind the subject in the painting above, really in all paintings with human subjects. I was impressed by some paintings, unimpressed by others, surprised by how strongly I reacted to only a few. I was struck by how powerful the sea could be in a still painting, how energetic a spring landscape or dour a winter one could be through choice of color, how a painting could express a political attitude with subtle detail, how effective the later impressionist styles are, and so on. But I did not write this to talk about any of that, and I will not list the artists, themes, subjects, or the substance of the exhibition here – why not fly out here and go for yourself? Maybe you’ll even get a sense for some of that Russial soul stuff, which incidentally is also not something I wrote this to talk about.

The sea paintings captured it's strength like no film I have seen (Agitated Sea, Ivan Aivazovski)

What I did write this to talk about was my having those reactions, the experience of going to an art gallery with the desire and curiosity for exploring the medium, and the realization that this is how those works of art are best enjoyed. Just as a movie is best appreciated in a good movie theatre, these paintings are best appreciated in a curated art gallery rather than the constraining window to the internet your are reading this from. Furthermore, these not being world-renowned artists means most of their work actually cannot be found in the virtual realm. As most art becomes increasingly digital, it was refreshing to look through these analog pieces from the past that were best seen without any silicon being involved. Though I can only hope the future of virtual reality will obliterate that thought, for now I can still suggest you consider going to some nearby art gallery to have a contemplative little date with art of your own – after all, it’ll probably be time better spent than the internet browsing you would undertake otherwise.