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A Vision of the French Revolution

August 02, 1989|MARLENA DONOHUE

Those who couldn't stay awake in history class may be charmed into erudition by "The French Revolution Through American Eyes," at the Otis/ Parsons gallery through Aug. 19. The traveling show, sponsored by the French-American Foundation, crams the high ceilings and three rooms of the gallery with colorful interpretations of the philosophical founders and key characters of the French civil war.

No standard Yankee take on the Revolution, this show is the work of an American artist of Russian parentage who lives in Paris. She calls herself Zuka, short for Zunaida Booyakovitch Mitelberg. Her parents immigrated to the United States in the '20s.

"My father came from an old Russian military family. He was a dashing, handsome soldier who fought on the side of the monarchy during the Russian revolt. As a child I heard great heroic tales about war and internal strife. I was probably sensitized early on to a historical outlook, but I never really felt like I was very interested in the past," she said.

Zuka studied art at USC in the late '40s, then went to Europe when a dealer and mentor told her she lacked culture. In Paris she married a "very foreign" young Frenchman with "long, wild hair and an ascot." She and her husband, political cartoonist Louis Mitelberg, have lived in Paris ever since.

"When I arrived in Europe I did the standard cafe scenes," she said. "Then one day my husband brought home these great-names-in-history portraits for our kids to play with. Something clicked. I thought: 'What a wonderful, ripe subject.' I started looking at all the historical imagery I could get my hands on for ideas. I used a lot of children's history primers because they had more pictures than words. My first series done in the '70s was on the American Revolution."

Like those earlier works, many pieces currently on view are done in a patchwork combination of deftly cut and collaged wall paper and paint. The effect is of grand, mural-like figures embedded in a patterned quilt. Zuka acknowledges the work's obvious nod to feminist art. "I have always visited the U.S. regularly and on a trip in the '70s I met Miriam Schapiro. That got me cutting--wall paper, book binding paper, everything. Though I'm moving toward straight brush painting, I have used collage and pattern to describe my subjects for nearly 15 years," she said.

Zuka began her French Revolution suite five or six years ago by looking at French literature for period portraits and other appropriate images, then reconstructing people and events. "The more art I made, the more interested I became. I began reading voraciously and by the time the works were completed, I'd read and incorporated into the pieces dozens of volumes on the French Revolution," she said.

Works on view depict notables and critical events in a light-hearted style that resembles children's book illustrations. Though lively as fanciful inventions, the imagery is carefully researched and as historically accurate as existing documents allow. We find the infamous Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, the passionate orator Mirabeau, the revolutionary philosopher Voltaire and a wonderful dual portrait of the King and Queen in their thwarted attempt to dress like peasants and flee France.

How do the French take to her work? "Many French don't like to talk about the Revolution in graphic detail because of the violence and mayhem. When this show opened in Paris, an 18-foot banner announcing it was torn down and stolen. But once viewers actually confronted the work, responses were quite favorable," she said.

"The French are very intellectual people, they know a great deal about history and when they don't know, they fake it. As I read and read and became more and more informed, I realized there was a great ignorance about the facts of the Revolution even among the French. For instance, few people ever mention the key role that women played in the movement. If you look at my art, women predominate because history bears out that they fueled the fires of liberty and then paid dearly for it.

"Though I deal in truth, many French people say there's the stamp of Hollywood in the work, in the dioramas set up like stage backdrops across walls, in the colorful palette and great sense of spectacle I like to create," she said.

"I thought about that observation and instead of being offended, I have to agree. My parents moved from New York to Hollywood to work in the movies. Many Russians worked as movie extras and when they weren't working they gathered at the Russian Club where they put on performances, had poetry readings and gave lectures. I was always asleep on a chair in the audience or listening to it all percolate. Maybe that's another source for my love of high drama. I'm not ashamed of it, I want to capture the frenzied, epoch-making spirit of the times."

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