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Those Russians Have Come

July 19, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

Staff members at the County Museum of Art have the impression that more tour buses than ever disgorge waves of vacationers into the galleries. They are not surprised that the Southland--fabled paradise of sunny beaches and fantastic amusement parks--should attract folks taking a rest from cornfields or stock exchanges. What does surprise them slightly is that--on evidence--we are growing into a place where cultural ornaments are part of the attraction. It makes the town feel like an urbane center where cultivated residents watch waves of eager pilgrims come to drink at the well of aesthetic wisdom and refreshment, somewhat in the way they descend on the museums and monuments lining the Mall in Washington.

This has to ignite that slight feeling of polite disdain that locals always feel toward summer residents and that summer residents pass on to day visitors. It also has to kindle kindly hope that the visitors are amused by the institutional distractions. For all the popularity of the National Gallery, for example, it seems to be outdrawn by the soaring mechanisms of the Air and Space Museum or even the stuffed goats in the Natural History Museum. It must be a problem for an art museum to come up with summer shows of sufficient dignity to satisfy the knowledgeable audience while nourishing the attention of the innocent visitor whose next stop is Farmers Market.

Well, the County Museum could not have done better on the second count than to find "Russia, the Land, the People" to take up three galleries in the Ahmanson Building until Aug. 2. The exhibit includes 62 paintings on loan from the State Tretyakova Gallery in Moscow and the State Russian Museum in Leningrad as part of an exchange of 19th-Century art with the Smithsonian Institution, which sent a comparable batch of American paintings over there. Los Angeles was included in the tour due to the initiative of Dr. Armand Hammer.

It is the kind of art beloved of unpretentious citizens who like to go to museums once in a while but rarely find what they are looking for when they get there, namely pictures that are good because they look exactly like what the citizen wants to see, interesting faces and scenes that are by turns stirring and touching. Well, that is mostly what the viewer gets from "Russia." The other day a visiting journalist found large clumps of happy viewers in two of the three galleries. (The third, a bit more modern, even includes some early works by Malevich, Kandinsky and Gontcharova and was noticeably emptier.)

The audience was having a fine time with the rest. Two young matrons in white were cooing over a little picture by Vasili Nikolaevich Baksheev that depicts a girl in white feeding white doves. A pair of senior citizens were riveted by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskois' "Mina Moiseev," a portrait of a cuddly old peasant looking wise and amused, possibly at having grown a white beard in which you can count every hair.

"Now that is a face!" pronounced the senior citizen.

It is the kind of art that any middlingly knowledgeable viewer has been taught to disdain by subtextual contempt built into the lectures of art history professors. What is this compared to the grandiosity of Rubens, the subtlety of Vermeer, the originality of Picasso? Illustration. Kitsch. Pandering to popular taste.

So the show is a crowd-pleaser that will put off all groups save the tour-bus bunch?

Not quite. It has considerable interest for the jaded minority so steeped in art that any unfamiliar work provides a welcome occasion to learn something new, if not about art, then maybe about the Russian artistic character.

These paintings come out of a period when a peasant-farmer society was transmuting into a city-industrial society. Artists of the day--many of whom counted themselves among a group called the Itinerants--wanted to make an art free of European influence but wound up with a style that diverged from continental models more by its subject matter and pictorial attitude than by any truly radical stylistic breakthrough.

If that sounds familiar, it is because it so closely echoes the situation surrounding American art during the same period. As a matter of fact, the objections to this art sound very much like those still harbored by people who think that American art was a rather second-rate affair until the great breakthrough by the Abstract Expressionists.

The Russian pictures even look like our pictures, fueling the hypotheses that despite our superpower antagonisms the Americans and the Soviets have temperamental affinities as occupants of vast countries made up of diverse peoples. Both tribes are realistic, according to this art.

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