Of a Life/Time

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Imagine it’s early January 2019 and you are walking the back streets of Marylebone, wrapped up against the chill of the winter air. Chances are you will find yourself turning into Chiltern Street, a street full of character and red-bricked buildings. Full of specialist shops, Chiltern Street was voted “London’s Coolest Street” by the magazine Condé Nast Traveler due to its timeless quality and historical atmosphere.

Despite the selection of premium niche retailers, your eyes are instantly drawn to a small bright red shop front with a bold sign that boasts “Barber Shop”. Complete with a bench against the front window, and striped barber’s pole, it almost feels as though you have travelled back in time, however, if you wanted to get your hair cut, you are about to be disappointed.

The old barber shop is now the location of The Gallery of Everything, opened in 2009 by curator director James Brett. The gallery belongs to the critically acclaimed touring installation The Museum of Everything founded the same year, which is the leading advocate for non-academic and private art-making, collaborating with a whole host of contemporary artists, curators, writers and institutions. The gallery is the museum’s personal space to display works by masters and newly discovered creators of all backgrounds.

“Our aim is to challenge institutions which, often unintentionally, deny wall-space to people of colour, vulnerable adults, untrained artists and other so-called minorities. Look at many of the most important museums in the world, from the Whitney to Tate Modern, you will find their definitions of art are much narrower and more restrictive than you imagine. What we lobby for is not simply equality, but change. We are not here to read art history, we are here to write it.”

Walking past the gallery during the first weeks of the year, you would have seen a brightly coloured tapestry featuring images of people and writing in Russian. This was just one of many contemporary tapestries created by the octogenarian Olga Frantskevich that featured in an exhibition titled Of a Life/Time, which ran between 25th November 2018 and 27th January 2019. Using her artwork as a discourse of memory, this was Frantskevich’s first exhibition outside of the eastern bloc.

Frantskevich has sewn all her life and recalls being taught by her grandmother at an early age. Sewing gave Frantskevich a creative outlet at a time that paper was not readily available and, therefore, drawing out of the question. Whilst working on a farm to earn some money to help support her mother and younger siblings, Frantskevich would practice her embroidery on pieces of sackcloth she found discarded about the place.

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Swans

Although the majority of Frantskevich’s tapestries have been produced within the last decade, they recall her personal life and memories of a childhood traumatised by war. Born in 1937 in Vitebsk in northeast Belarus, a country that was ruled by the USSR throughout the twentieth century until receiving independence in the 1990s, Olga Frantskevich was a child of war living under German occupation during WWII until she was seven years old. Her embroidered autobiography summarises the things she and her neighbours went through, including being challenged by soldiers, losing loved ones, celebrating their freedom and welcoming home the war heroes.

Occupation of Belarus (or Byelorussia as it was then called) began on 22nd of June 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union by German troops. At the time, Frantskevich was four years old and the occupation would not end until she was seven. During the war, the Nazis destroyed over 5,295 Belarusian settlements, in the process killing most, if not all, the inhabitants. Some towns and cities were deliberately attacked and burnt down, whereas others were bombed by planes flying overhead, just like many areas throughout Europe. A number of villages, for instance, Khatyn in central Belarus, were massacred by police battalions, resulting in the death of all 156 inhabitants. Although German occupation only lasted for three years, it is believed an estimated 2,230,000 people were killed in total.

Frantskevich embroidered her memory of bomb attacks in one of her tapestries. Women and children can be seen fleeing from burning buildings, their arms raised in panic whilst forbidding, grey aeroplanes fly overhead. Since the majority of men were in the army, women were left to fend for themselves during these attacks, often finding themselves homeless after their houses had been destroyed. They could not even find shelter in nearby forests due to soldiers and attack dogs patrolling the area.

During the early days of the German occupation, a resistance Soviet partisan movement began, engaging in guerilla warfare against the invaders. They used the woods and swamps as places to hide and plan their next attacks, hence Nazi soldiers began to keep a close eye on the Belarussian woodlands, as shown in a couple of Frantskevich’s tapestries. The partisans were responsible for the heavy damage to German supply lines and communications. They disrupted railways and bridges, intercepted telegrams and attacked depots in order to block or hinder the enemy. On occasion, the partisans ambushed and captured Axis soldiers (Germans, Italians and Japanese). Due to the amount of sabotage, the Germans ended up withdrawing many of their forces from the front line.

Many of Frantskevich’s memories of the war period are actually recollections of stories told by her aunt who was a nurse during the war. Frantskevich dedicated her piece called The Final Offensive to her aunt – her mother’s sister – Olga Yakovlevna Ginko, and her uncle Nikolai Dmitrievich. Frantskevich’s uncle was a soldier during the war, however, he was wounded in battle. As a result, he lost the use of one of his hands and could no longer serve in the army. Nonetheless, he continued to fight for his country by assisting the partisans for the remainder of the war.

Frantskevich’s aunt spoke of the wounded soldiers, those who lost their limbs, those she nursed and those she could not save. She spoke of things she saw, things no one should ever witness, and Frantskevich, many decades later, translated them onto tapestry. With precise embroidery, the horrors of war are vividly shown, complete with bloodstains and flames. Although Frantskevich never witnessed the combat first hand, her aunt’s haunting tales have stayed with her all her life.

What Frantskevich experienced herself was the poverty and hunger of the people left behind while their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were out fighting. At this time in history, women were not seen as equal to men and had not been allowed certain “male” careers. The war, however, took many men away from their jobs and women had to fill their places.

Frantskevich captions one of her works with “My mother was given 300 grams of bread for all the work that she did.” Under the Nazi regime, some workers were paid with food rather than money, however, the amount was paltry. Three-hundred grams of bread does not last long, particularly in large families, and who knew how long it would be until the next payment?

A number of Frantskevich’s tapestries set in 1945 are titled Widows of Russia and focus on women whose husbands have been killed or are missing. Rather than showing a group of weeping ladies, Frantskevich reveals the determination these people had to keep going. One image shows women working hard in a field doing the work their husbands once did. The caption reads, “With love in their hearts, the faithful wait. Perhaps their husbands are alive, perhaps one day they will come home.” The one-line heartbreaking story, however, that accompanies the piece indicates, “It is already autumn, still they wait.”

Another tapestry shows the widows cooking potatoes in a pot over a fire. Whether this in some way indicates their financial or home situation is unknown, however, the most important part is the embroidered text at the bottom of the 142 cm length of cloth: “They hide love in their hearts. Their silent song is weeping.” A different tapestry, featuring the women seated around a table spread of potatoes and bread has a similar caption: “They keep love hidden in their hearts, but their songs are not silent, they are weeping.”

The widows shown in Frantskevich’s work have united in their grief. They may have lost a husband but they still have each other. Life must continue, upon which these women are endeavouring to focus. Frantskevich was obviously too young to have a husband, however, she did lose her father in the war, so she understood the feeling of grief.

Victory Day occurred on 9th May 1945 beginning with the Soviet Union following the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender in the early hours of the morning. Since Belarus gained independence from the USSR in 1991, the 9th May has become a non-working day with a ceremony on Victory Square in Minsk to commemorate the ending on the war. In Frantskevich’s tapestry The Hero, she shows their village accordion player, Leonid, still in uniform, delivering the news that the war had been won. A similar piece, Victory Day, contains two fictional people who represent that “when they heard that the war was over, people met and sang and cried with joy.”

The joy people felt can be seen in The Champions in which three soldiers are dancing in celebration. This particular scene represents the liberation of the burnt-out village of Sarya after the soldiers had cleared the area of mines, making it safe for the villagers to return home – or, at least, what remained of home. The middle soldier wears a women’s headscarf, although he is clearly a man. The silly behaviour emphasises the happiness of the soldiers who then invited the village-folk to share a meal and celebrate together.

The end of the war meant the return of loved ones, those who had survived the fighting and lived to tell the tale. Hello, Mamma! shows a returning son greeting his mother much to her delight. It may have been months, even years since they had last seen each other and they have been reunited at last. Scenes like this were common all over the world as the soldiers gradually made their way home to their families. Life, however, could not return to the way things were before. Places had changed, people had changed and the echoes of war were not easily eradicated.

Although most men returned to their day jobs, others were in no physical and mental shape to be able to do so. The Hero Returns shows the fate of one of the soldiers who, despite being lucky to survive, has returned home an amputee. He can no longer work on the farm as he once did, therefore, the women who took on the jobs of men during the war were required to continue.

For Frantskevich, her family life could not return to the way things were before the war. In the years after Victory Day, she remembers visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where she laid down flowers in memory of her father who had no grave of his own.

Nonetheless, Frantskevich’s post-war childhood was not all doom and gloom. One tapestry shows a scene from 1951 when she was in the seventh grade at school. Apparently, there were only nine children in her class, however, that did not stop them from joining in state celebrations, such as May Day on the first of the month. Frantskevich remembers designing the posters for the school, state farm and rallies with slogans, such as, “We celebrate May Day.”

Not all of Frantskevich’s embroidery shown at The Gallery of Everything was about the war. A few small pieces were intended for pillow or cushion cases, such as Autumn with birds and rowan-berries that are frequently seen in Belarus at that time of year. Two other cases feature two pigs and are both titled I Love You. Whether the animals represent specific people is unknown but the idea is clear. In one, the pigs express their love for each other by sharing gifts of vegetables. In the other, they display the same sentiment by giving flowers.

The display of Olga Frantskevich’s work at The Gallery of Everything unfortunately finished at the end of January, however, her work is held in several museums in Russia, including Muzey Balashikhskiy and the Muzey Russkogo Lubka i Naivnogo Iskusstva. Although the style of her tapestries may not appeal to all, it is amazing how easily she captures her memories and history of the war in the former USSR. History books tend to focus on the facts, usually directed at those who played significant parts in the making of history. Frantskevich, however, gives the lesser known perspective of the common people, those who were oppressed by the Germans; lost their homes and their fathers and husbands; those whose lives were changed forever.

Another factor that makes Frantskevich’s work so remarkable is that it is all hand-woven, a time-consuming task that is even more extraordinary for someone in their eighties. Where some artists may sketch their memories, Frantskevich embroiders hers instead, resulting in some bright, precise designs that perfectly portray the thoughts, pictures and memories in her head. Thanks to The Gallery of Everything, the people of London were able to experience and admire these phenomenal works.

The Gallery of Everything is open from Wednesday to Saturday from 11am until 6:30pm. It is also open on Sundays at 2pm until 6pm. A number of exhibitions run throughout the year, details of which can be found on their website: www.gallevery.com

Russia in London

This winter, Russia has come to the UK capital with a double exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The two exhibitions explore Britain’s relationship with Russia through works of art belonging to Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. The contrasting displays show two sides of a relationship between two countries: war and peace, positive and negative, dynasty and military. Coinciding with the centenary of the end of the Russian monarchy, the Royal Collection Trust reflects on the past and examines our ties with the world’s largest nation.

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The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887 – Laurits Regner Tuxen

The earliest links between Britain and Russia date back to the mid-sixteenth century through trade relations. In later years, political and military alliances formed, particularly during the Napoleonic War (1803-15), however, it was not until the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) that strong connections began to form. The Queen was the matriarch of a remarkably large family, as can be seen in Laurits Regner Tuxen’s (1853-1927) painting The Family of Queen Victoria in 1887, in which 54 members of her family surround Victoria in the Green Drawing Room at Windsor Castle.

Queen Victoria and Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61) were the parents of nine children who went on to provide them with 42 grandchildren. Subsequently, this generation went on to provide the Queen with 87 great-grandchildren, many of whom belonged to foreign royal houses through intermarriage. Princess Alice of Battenberg (1885-1969), for example, Victoria’s great-granddaughter, the small child on the far right of the painting, went on to marry Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark (1882-1944) in 1903. Of their five children, their youngest went on the become the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip (b.1921).

At the back of the painting on the far left are two cousins who, unbeknownst to them at the time, would grow up to become monarchs of two warring countries. These are the future George V (1865-1936) and Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) of Germany. The year 2018 also marks the end of their battle, World War One.

Russia: Royalty and the Romanovs

Royalty and the Romanovs begins with a bust of William III (1650-1702) who was on the throne at the time Tsar Peter the Great of Russia (1672-1725) visited England in 1698, the first Russian ruler to do so. Peter later went on to proclaim the establishment of the Russian empire in 1721, thus becoming its first emperor.

The portrait of Peter the Great was painted during his stay in England by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the leading portrait painter in the country at the time. It was gifted to William III who hung it in the Drawing Room at Kensington Palace. Peter’s visit was part of his ‘Grand Embassy’ of 1697-8 in which he aimed to discover more advanced information about countries of Western Europe. He was particularly interested in the ship-building of the English and the Dutch, having set up the Russian Navy a few years previously.

This initial contact was the start of a new, dynastic relationship between Britain and Russia and the portrait of Peter I was not the only painting of a Russian ruler to be gifted to a British monarch. Other gifts also found their way into Britain, for example, a box featuring the profile of Peter the Great on a Renaissance style medallion, which Queen Mary (1867-1953) gave to George V on his birthday in 1932.

The exhibition features a large number of portraits of Russian royals that now belong in the Royal Collection. One of the most significant of these is the coronation portrait of Catherine II (1729-96), Empress of Russia painted by the Danish artist Vigilis Eriksen (1722-82). Twice a day, a short talk is given by the gallery staff about the clothes Catherine the Great is wearing, her crown and the objects she is holding. The orb and sceptre are symbols of rulership, just as they are in Britain, thus emphasising her power. Her silver brocade robe also emphasises her leadership with numerous hand-stitched embellishments of the imperial double-headed eagle.

Unlike many other monarchies who pass their royal crowns down from one ruler to the next, the Russian monarchs each had their own personal crown. In the portrait, Catherine II is wearing her imperial crown, which had been made especially for her by the court jeweller, Jérémie Pauzié (1716-79). It was an extremely valuable item, decorated with over 5000 diamonds.

It is uncertain how this portrait found its way into the Royal Collection, however, the most likely explanation is that it was a gift for either George III (1738-1820) or the Prince of Wales, later George IV (1762-1830). Records state that it was eventually relocated to Carlton House in 1813 where it furnished the royal apartments in preparation of Alexander I’s (1777-1825) visit the following year.

Portraits of the Russian monarchs’ families are also in abundance at the exhibition. Positioned opposite Catherine II is Elizabeth Alexeievna (1779-1826), previously known as Princess Louise of Baden until her marriage to Tsar Alexander I. The demeanour and dress of the Russian empress starkly contrasts the opulent outfit of Catherine the Great. This painting was produced by George Dawes during the interim period between Alexander’s death on 1st December 1825 and Elizabeth’s on 16th May 1826. She is dressed in typical black mourning clothes and clutches her heart as if in grief. Standing next to a bust of her late husband, it is not certain whether her facial expression is one of mourning or perhaps something of the opposite since it is believed the couple’s relationship was rather unhappy. Nonetheless, Queen Victoria was inspired to purchase the painting a mere six months after her own husband’s death.

Hanging next to Elizabeth is the Emperor of Russia himself, Alexander I, also painted by Dawes. Dawes spent ten years in the service of the Tsar and this is one of his highest quality paintings. It shows Alexander in the uniform of a Russian field marshal decorated with the star of St Andrew of Russia with the Order of the Garter, badges of St George of Russia and Maria Theresa of Austria, the Iron Cross of Prussia and the 1812 medal. He also has the Sword of Sweden on his hip, adding to his majestic pose and emphasising his height. Queen Victoria was offered this portrait in 1861 and it was eventually hung in the Household Corridor of Buckingham Palace.

Also by George Dawes is a portrait of Charlotte (1798-1860), the wife of Nicholas I (1796-1855), with her two eldest children. The daughter of Frederick William III of Prussia and Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was betrothed to the future Tsar for political reasons, however, the marriage was a happy one and the couple produced seven children. Rather than painting her alone, Dawes had Charlotte pose with her two eldest children, Alexander and Maria. The restless young boy would one day be Emperor Alexander II (1855-81), also the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Finland.

The clothing of the Russian royals, particularly the women, were particularly elegant and adorned. In a portrait of Princess Charlotte (1796-1817), the only daughter of George IV and wife of the future king of Belgium, a particular style of Russian dress can be seen. The gallery not only has this painting on display but also has the very same dress in a display cabinet nearby. Manufactured in England around 1817, this dress, a Sarafan-style ensemble, is made of French silk and comprises of a blue bodice and skirt with gold and red highlights, a gold fringe, and high, drawstring waist.

The royal men, however, were always painted in military clothing, for example, Nicholas I in the red uniform of the Russian Cavalier Guard. He is also shown wearing the badge of the Order of St George, and ribands and stars of the Order of the Garter and St Vladimir. The purpose of this was to emphasise the sitter or poser’s status. Whereas women were respected for their grace and beauty, men were exalted for their military achievements.

The outfit of Nicholas II (1868-1918) is far more familiar to the British public than the uniforms of the previous Tsars. Here, Nicholas wears the uniform of the 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys, a cavalry regiment of the British Army) to which he had been appointed colonel-in-chief in 1894 by Queen Victoria. This particular painting, however, was not completed until 1908 and, therefore, it was King Edward VII (1841-1910) who received it as a gift from the Tsar.

Of the numerous portraits, many of them help to identify the connections between the families of the Russian and British monarchies. Many of these occurred through marriages, both before and after the reign of Queen Victoria. One example is Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1781-1860) whose portrait the Queen had copied in 1844. Juliane was Victoria’s aunt who married into the Romanov family in 1796. By marrying Grand Duke Konstantin (1779-1831), she became the sister-in-law of Alexander I and Nicholas I.

The captivating portrait of Grand Duchess Alexandra (1830-1911) has connections to today’s royal family. Alexandra, or Sanny as she was often known, was the fifth daughter of Joseph, Duke of Saxe-Altenburg and Amalie Therese Louise, Duchess of Württemberg. In 1848, she married Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich (1827-92), the second son of Nicholas I, with whom she had six children. One of these, Olga Constantinovna (1855-1926) became the mother of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, thus completing the connection to the British royal family.

In stark contrast to the bold, vibrant paintings of the 19th century, two watercolour paintings by the Russian painter Savely Abramovich Sorine (1878-1953) show two important members of the British royal family. These are HRH The Duchess of York (1900-2002) and HRH the Duchess of Edinburgh (b.1926), or as they are known today, the Queen Mother Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Her Majesty the Queen. It is believed that the soon-to-be Queen Mother commissioned these portraits, although over 20 years apart.

It is without a doubt the extensive family of Queen Victoria marrying into foreign families that strengthened the ties between other countries, particularly Russia. Two famous wedding paintings are on display, the most significant, perhaps, being the marriage of the Queen’s second son Alfred to Maria (1853-1920), the only surviving daughter of Alexander II. Initially, Queen Victoria had misgivings about the match, stating in her diary that she:

“Felt quite bewildered. Not knowing Marie & realizing that there may still be many difficulties, my thoughts & feelings are rather mixed, but I said from my heart ‘God bless them’, & I hope and pray it may turn out for Affie’s happiness.”

Queen Victoria’s Journal, 11th July 1873

The wedding took place at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 23rd January 1874, directly uniting the British and Russian royal families for the first time. Unable to attend the wedding, Queen Victoria was provided with a series of watercolours of the marriage ceremony that Prince Alfred had commissioned the Russian-born artist Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) to produce. From these illustrations, the Queen commissioned an oil painting, which hung in Buckingham Palace from 1901.

Another wedding painting, also commissioned by Queen Victoria, was of her grandaughter’s, Princess Alix of Hesse (1872-1918), marriage to Tsar Nicholas II at the Winter Palace on 26th November 1894. The artist, Tuxen, beautifully highlights the faces of the bride and bridegroom with the soft glow of the candles they are holding. Known as Alexandra Feodorovna throughout Nicholas’ reign, she was assassinated in 1918 along with her husband and immediate family while in Bolshevik captivity. Thus ended the Russian monarchy. Princess Alix has since been canonized as Saint Alexandra the Passion-Bearer.

Not all the items in the exhibition are paintings. Within the Royal Collection are a number of objects that have been collected, bought, or gifted over time by the British royal family. Displayed amongst the paintings are a range of things that originated in Russia, for example, a number of malachite vases, candelabra, and columns.

Russian jewellery is also presented within display cases, the most famous being the Vladimir tiara. Made for Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna (1890-1958), wife of Grand Duke Vladimir (1847-1909), it consists of converging circles studded with diamonds and adorned with green pearls. It eventually made its way into the Royal Collection after being given as a gift to Mary of Teck (1867-1953), the wife of George V, in 1921.

Other jewellery included brooches, such as the Diamond Jubilee Brooch given to Queen Victoria by Nicholas II, Alexandra Feodorovna and her other grandchildren to celebrate the 60th year of her reign. Made of diamonds and sapphires, it features the Slavonic symbol for the number 60 within a heart-shape.

Finally, there were many items made by the most notable Russian jeweller, Peter Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Famous for the Fabergé egg, he and his company also produced other pieces, including chalcedony figurines, ladies’ fans, and cigarette cases.

Russia: Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea

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Self-portrait dressed as an Algerian Zouave

The second exhibition is far less glamorous than Royalty and the Romanovs, focusing on the aftermath of the Crimean War. Commissioned by the Manchester-based publishers Thomas Agnew & Sons, Roger Fenton (1819-69) went out to the areas affected by the conflicts and captured the scenes and people involved for consumption by the public. Until then, the true effects of war had been concealed from society, often being glamourised in paintings of war heroes.

The Crimean war began in 1853, pitching the allied nations of Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia against the Russian Empire. Despite the previous exhibition suggesting a positive relationship between British and Russian families, Britain and her allies were determined to prevent Russia from gaining territorial control of various regions in eastern Europe, including on the coast of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Many people when talking about the Crimean War, think of people like Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81), who played a vital role in caring for the injured troops. Fenton, however, concentrated on the soldiers and the major battles of 1854, including Alma (20th September), Balaklava (25th October), and Inkerman (5th November).

Photos include landscapes of the war-torn land, such as the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which Fenton titled after the passage in Psalm 23, suggesting that the barren scene full of spent cannon balls shows that humanity is walking a fine line between the realms of life and sudden death. With no sign of civilisation, this photograph evokes a feeling of the loss and destruction experienced in that area.

Fenton also captured shots of soldiers within their camps, revealing a role women played in the Crimean War. In the photo of the Camp of the 4th Dragoons, a woman can be seen serving refreshments to the troops.

A significant photograph Fenton managed to take is a portrait of Captain Alexander Leslie-Melville (1831–57), also known as Lord Balgonie. The Scotsman stands staring away from the camera, his clothes unkempt and his expression rather shaken, as if he had only momentarily stepped away from the battlefield. Today, this image is regarded as the first photographic portrait of shell-shock.

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The Queen inspecting wounded Coldstream Guardsmen in the Hall of Buckingham Palace – John Gilbert

As part of this exhibition, some focus is given to the British royal family’s involvement in the years after the war. This painting by John Gilbert (1817-97) shows a crowd of injured Guardsmen in the presence of Queen Victoria. This meeting took place at Buckingham Palace on 20th February 1855. Shortly after, the Queen awarded the first Victoria Cross, which is currently the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system, awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy”.

With an audio guide, which is provided free of charge for both exhibitions, visitors can listen to Prince Harry’s (b.1984) thoughts and opinions on the photographs, artwork and items featured in Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. Having been a Cornet in the Blues and Royals and an Apache co-pilot/gunner in the Army Air Corps during the Afghan War, he is sympathetic towards the soldiers, understanding what they had gone through and the way it would have affected the remainder of their lives.

Critics accused Fenton of staging many of the photographs he took in the Crimea, however, regardless as to the truth of this, they provide information about the war that no written account could ever hope to achieve. Through his photographs, the gallery has created a timeline of the war and helps visualise the scenes that are only ever heard about or even forgotten about, overshadowed by the two World Wars.

Whilst it is a pleasure to view the photographs of Roger Fenton and look at items in the Royal Collection as part of the Royalty and the Romanovs exhibition, both lack a sense of narrative. One feels as though they are going from one image to another thinking, “here’s a painting of a dead Tsar, and here’s another … and that’s so-and-so’s wife.”

The Crimean War almost has a narrative in that there is a clear timeline of events, however, the other exhibition has no sense of continuity. Being the centenary of the assassination of Nicholas II, the opportunity to focus on the lives of the Romanovs, their successes and their inevitable demise, would have been an obvious route to go down, however, the curators failed to rise to this occasion. Whilst this is a great shame, it is fascinating to see how far Queen Victoria’s immediate family stretched across Europe and Russia.

The Royal Collection Trust arguably has some of the finest works of art in the world and it is always a pleasure to view them at the Queen’s Gallery. Despite not quite living up to expectations, these two exhibitions are great for art lovers and historians with an interest in royalty and the Crimean War.

At £12 per adult, one ticket gives you access to both Royalty and the Romanovs and Roger Fenton’s Photographs of the Crimea. These exhibitions are open to the public in London until Sunday 28th April 2019. By asking the Gallery to treat your ticket purchase as a donation, you receive free access for the following twelve months.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia

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A gold plaque depicting a Scythian horseman with a spear in his right hand; Gold; late fifth to early fourth century BC; Kul’ Oba. © The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

Supported by BP, the British Museum’s major exhibition explores the lives of a barbaric tribe known as the Scythians. These Eurasian nomads inhabited the majority of the western and central Eurasian steppes for hundreds of years with evidence dating as far back as 900BC. Since 300BC, the Scythians gradually disappeared leaving very little proof of their existence.

For centuries, historians have had to rely on Greek historians and Assyrian inscriptions for information about these primitive humans, in particular, Herodotus, “the father of history”, a fifth century BC Greek historian, with his magnum opus The Histories.

“For Herodotus, the Scythians were outlandish barbarians living north of the Black Sea in what are now Moldova, Ukraine and Crimea.” – Michael Kulikowski, Rome’s Gothic Wars from the Third Century to Alaric

Ancient manuscripts, whilst useful, are not always the most reliable of sources, therefore, a lot of Herodotus’ description is not to be completely trusted. Fortunately, within the past couple of centuries, the discoveries of graves and burial mounds in the areas the Scythians occupied have revealed a wealth of information about these ancient Indo-Europeans.

Objects excavated from Scythian tombs have been carefully stored at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia and are temporarily on loan to the British Museum where they can be viewed in this outstanding exhibition. Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia contains objects that are over 2,000 years old, astonishingly preserved in the permafrost of the cold landscape. Glass cases of gold and bronze jewellery, clothing, weapons and everyday items relates the story of a rich civilisation of formidable warriors.

Set in a darkened gallery, highlighting the exhibits with lit cabinets, the curators have created an atmospheric display complete with soundscapes that set the scene of the temperate grasslands, beginning with the resonance of a strong wind and moving on to the clamour of galloping horses. Wall-size digital panoramas present a computer-generated landscape complete with horsemen dressed in what it is believed the Scythian’s wore. Although the remains of items found during excavations provide enough information to understand the lives and culture of this society, these creative extras help to paint a fuller picture.

 

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Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia (1672-1725) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

A full-length portrait of Tsar Peter I (the Great) (1672-1725) introduces visitors to the man responsible for the first excavation of a Scythian burial site. For scientific purposes, Peter the Great sent men on an expedition to Siberia to study the land, not realising that he would receive more than he bargained for.

 

After accidentally discovering an ancient burial mound full of armour, sophisticated jewellery, belt buckles and weapons, the Tsar decreed that all findings should be brought back to St Petersburg to be documented. He also instructed that detailed drawings be produced of each object. Some of these are on display positioned next to the original item.

At least 250 Scythian gold artefacts found themselves in Peter the Great’s inventory, which prompted him to commission the building of the first Russian museum, Kunstkamera (cabinet of curiosities). Unfortunately, the Tsar was not to see the opening of his enterprise since he died earlier that year.

From these initial findings, and the many that have since occurred, a lot has been deduced about the lives of the Scythians. With the ancient texts by historians such as Herodotus to help place them in context, each object tells modern researchers about the Scythian’s beliefs, lifestyle and abilities. It is assumed that it was a funerary custom to be buried with important possessions, and most graves contained someone form of armour and weapon – even the females.

Although it cannot be proved, the burial mounds suggest the Scythians believed in some sort of religion, perhaps one where they believed they would need certain items in the afterlife, for instance, arrows. Herodotus notes, “Ares, the God of War, was the only deity whom the Scythians worshipped and to whom they built altars.” However, how the historian came to this conclusion is unknown and could be an assumption based on the Scythian’s fighting abilities. Further examination of the recently discovered decorative metalworks implies the warriors may have believed in other divinities too.

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Scythians with horses under a tree. Gold belt plaque. Siberia, 4th–3rd century BC.

The first example of the Scythian’s careful metalwork is on display at the entrance to the exhibition. Labelled a gold belt plaque, it is understood that this made up one half of a belt buckle. Although many of the artefacts presented at the British Museum are made of gold, it is likely that these would have belonged to nobility or royalty, thus implying something about the Scythian social structure.

Rather than being a plain, functional buckle, the goldsmith carved a detailed scene involving the death of a warrior. The deceased is lying on the ground in the arms of a female deity wearing a high ponytail – this goes to disprove Herodotus’ theory that the Scythian’s only worshipped the Greek god of war. On the left is a tree of life from which a quiver hangs from a branch, presumably belonging to the fallen man. On the right are a pair of horses, which emphasises the importance of the animal to the Scythians.

Scythians were not just formidable fighters, they were capable of defeating their enemies on horseback. Evidence suggests that they took great care of their horses and relied on them for many things including transport, milk and meat. Skeletons of horses have been found in many graves next to their owner, implying they were sacrificed in honour of the warrior’s death. Studies of the bones suggest that the horses were given a death blow to the forehead, potentially with an axe.

It was not only belt buckles that Scythians produced in lavish designs, the display cases contain jewellery, ornaments and appliqués for clothing and weaponry. Many of these have been made with gold, but bronze was also a popular material. Although highly detailed, these accessories were smaller than they seem in photographs, which was necessary in order for the Scythians to be able to wear or transport them. The above belt buckle was one of the middle-sized plaques at 16.1 centimetres wide and weighing 465.04 grams.

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Deer-shaped gold plaque. Barrow 1, Kostromskaya, Kuban region. The second half of the 7th century BC.

An example of a larger plaque is this deer-shaped ornament that probably adorned a case for a set of bow and arrows. It is approximately 30 centimetres long and is made from a thick sheet of gold. The animal is typical of what has become known as “Scythian animal style art”. The ornamental antlers indicate that this was made by a very skilled artisan and, due to the material, belonged to a member of the Scythian royals.

As the journey through the exhibition continues, the displays go from impressive ornaments to the more mundane, everyday life objects expected of an ancient civilisation. The weather conditions in the Altai mountains where the majority of Scythian burial sites have been found meant the ground was often frozen. It is because of this that so many items have been preserved. Clothes and fabrics, which would easily decay under normal circumstances, are still recognisable and show the workmanship and effort that went into making them. They are not the primitive garments many have envisaged people wearing thousands of years ago, they are well designed and suitable for the harsh weathers to which they would have been subjected.

 

Similarly to their belt buckles, Scythian clothing was not only a matter of function, they were richly decorated too. Before reaching the examples of clothing, the British Museum has laid out some of the gold appliqués that would have been sewn onto important figures’ clothing in intricate patterns, but this was not their only method of embellishment.

An example of a woman’s shoe has been found in extremely good condition. Made from leather, delicate patterns have been sewn across the toe and ankle in a material that imitates silver – presumably, this would have belonged to someone of high ranking. Interestingly, the sole is enriched in pyrite crystals, which, although may have made a sturdier bottom, was probably a method of showing status. Scythians spent a lot of time on horseback, therefore the soles of their feet would be visible to those on the ground.

From the clothing found in the graves and the accounts of ancient historians, artists have been able to determine what the Scythian’s outfits may have looked like. Both men and women wore trousers to make riding horses easier, however, women may also have worn skirt-like garments. Women also wore “high caps tapering to a point and stiffly upright” (Herodotus) but the purpose of this remains unknown.

The belts that may have been ornamented with golden plaques, would have been less about keeping one’s trousers up, instead used as a method of storing weapons. Evidence of a wide variety of tools and weaponry has been unearthed, including double- and single-edged swords, daggers and spears. The Scythian’s weapon of choice, however, was the bow and arrow.

The Scythians were the finest bowmen of their time and were capable of shooting at a considerable range. Their bows were crafted in a way which made them capable of accuracy, an important aspect when relying on them whilst on horseback. The arrows themselves were sharp and deadly, and if the shot was not fatal, removing the shaft may have proven to be. Ancient texts suggest that the Scythians may also have covered the tips in poison; no one could escape with their lives.

“None who attacks them can escape … ” – Herodotus

These ancient Siberian warriors, with their power and strength, were also human, and therefore, needed items similar to those still used today. Wooden bowls and cups made from pottery were also found in burial sites, however, these were probably used for something more significant than the average meal.

In comparison to their jewellery and clothing, their forms of crockery were fairly basic. In this instance, the item’s function was probably more important than what it looked like. Nevertheless, a lot can be learnt about the Scythians from these simple objects.

Backing up the claims of Herodotus, excavators have come across a hemp-smoking set, which insinuates the Scythians occasionally smoked to get intoxicated by the fumes, either for pleasure or part of a religious ceremony.

“Let us not again this evening
With our shouts and noisy uproar
Get ourselves as drunk as Scythians,
Let’s get moderately tipsy
And our best songs sing with fervour.”
– Anacreon (c.582-485BC), Greek poet

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Wooden coffin. Late 4th–early 3rd century BC.

The exhibition ends with a closer look at the notable burial tombs that kept these amazing object safe for two or three thousand years. The graves were dug deep into the ground – another reason they have been so well preserved – with a wooden structure at the bottom. These were, apparently, similar to log cabins carpeted with felt. Within this chamber, a coffin, made from a tree trunk, was placed with body and important possessions inside. The graves that contained horses revealed the animal’s skeleton outside of the coffin but within the walls of the cabin. According to the British Museum’s blog, the horses were always positioned facing east – something to do with religion, perhaps?

The wooden coffin in the exhibition shows how well protected its contents were, with its thick walls and sturdy roof. It also conveys the impression that the Scythians took death seriously and were, perhaps, not as savage as past historians have made them out to be.

The Scythians would not have known how well preserved their deceased and possessions would be, but thanks to the diligence of their burial processes, they will be forever remembered as a formidable civilisation rather than the stuff of legend. Archaeologists are even able to determine their physical appearance due to the survival of mummified heads and bodies. Warning: the head and tattooed skin of a Scythian is on display for those with strong stomachs to marvel over!

The British Museum has excelled itself with this exhibition of such a fierce but sophisticated culture. It takes visitors on a journey through the lives of a nomadic tribe that, until recently, has only existed in myths and legends. Being able to see the objects up close (and the body parts) brings the stories to life and reveals how advanced the human race was in terms of survival as far back as the early Iron Age.

Only a week remains before Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia closes to the public. The items will be returned to the State Hermitage Museum so, unless you are planning a trip to Russia, this is your final opportunity to see this amazing proof of a rich, ancient civilisation.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is on at the British Museum until 14 January 2018. Tickets are £16.50, Members/under 16s free. 

Revolution!

Russian Art 1917-1932

What do you think of when you hear the term ‘Russian Art’? The majority would probably picture geometric shapes, sharp angles and bright colours, but this is only an example of one genre of art that has emerged from Eastern Europe. It is one of the few styles that managed to spread to the Western world before the Russian government had an opportunity to crush it. Russian art is actually so protean, it cannot be summed up in a simple description. How would you describe British art, American art, French art, Italian art etc? So many movements have influenced artists, thus constantly changing the styles and fashions of each country. Russia was no different.

For centuries, Russia was under the autocratic rule of the Tsars until in 1917, provoking a civil war, Vladmir Lenin rose to power as a Communist leader. With this revolution came dramatic changes to Russian society, and art was swept up alongside it. Avant-garde artists were excited about the new developments and the opportunities they would bring about for creative individuals.  However, their eagerness was short lived.

Lenin and the Bolshevik party came to power so suddenly, they has been unable to gain the support of the majority; therefore drastic measures needed to be taken to ensure they gained popularity. This, however, was not going to be an easy thing to tackle in the profusely illiterate country. For that reason, artists were given the task of spreading ideology through the means of mass propaganda.

In April 1918, Lenin revealed his Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which relied heavily on artists and photographers to carry out. Paintings, sculptures and everyday paraphernalia were utilised in order to glorify Lenin and the Bolshevik party. Graphic designers were commissioned to design posters sporting slogans that honoured the party. The colour red was often used to represent the revolution.

One of the most shocking tasks Lenin demanded was the removal of artworks used by the Russian Orthodox Church, replacing the figure of Jesus with an icon of himself. It is hard to imagine how a predominantly Christian country would agree to let this happen, however, it did, and Lenin became almost saint-like.

After Lenin’s death, Russia became a very dangerous place to live, especially for artists who wanted to express their own voices. Joseph Stalin took Lenin’s place as leader of the Soviet Union. Throughout his dictatorship, Stalin made many changes and demands. One of these was the proclamation that Socialist Realism was the only acceptable artistic style. Gone were the opportunities for artists to experiment with their creativity. Ironically, the artworks accepted hardly revealed the truth about the Soviet Union, despite being classified as Realism.

Stalin believed that Russia was behind the times and was determined to industrialise the country. He introduced the concept of a Five-year Plan, which would set targets for every factory and farm belonging to the Soviet Union. Physical labour was demanded of all citizens in order to reach these goals. To encourage the population, Stalin commissioned – or more likely forced – designers, photographers, film producers etc. to promote his scheme. Photography was perhaps the preferred medium since its content is more believable than a painting and could be easily reproduced on posters and spread amongst the masses. However, these photographs were often staged in order to make situations appear better than they really were. Behind the lies of smiling faces, most workers were treated like slaves, often imprisoned or killed for not working as well as others. Thousands died from accidents, starvation or poor living and working conditions during this period.

Kazimir Malevich

The effects of the Russian revolution and Stalin’s dictatorship is evident through many artists’ changing styles. Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935) is a significant example of this. Although Social Realism was not enforced until the very end of his life, the reshaping of Malevich’s personal style documents the gradual elimination of techniques by the Soviet Union.

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Black Square 1929 by Kazimir Malevich. Photograph: State Tretyakov, Moscow, Russia

Born pre-revolution, Malevich believed that art was a method of expressing spirituality, therefore outcomes need not be realistic, and could be based on metaphor rather than truth. At the height of his career in 1915, Malevich patented a style named Suprematism, a purely abstract art movement characterised by the use of geometric shapes and a limited range of colour.  A particular famous piece that symbolises this movement is Black Square.

Unfortunately, Malevich’s movement was eventually denounced by Soviet authorities on the basis that it failed to convey social realities.

Malevich attempted to conform to Soviet ideology, however was still adamant to work in an abstract style. Despite rebelling against the governments artistic rules and regulations, Malevich’s new paintings were accepted and displayed at the State Russian Museum in 1932.

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Woman with Rake, c.1932 Photo:as above

Presumably the subject matter of Malevich’s paintings were what granted him approval to painting in an abstract style. Depicted were anonymous figures showing peasant workers out in their fields. The blank faces and limited colour make up a characterless person that hides the truth about their working conditions. On the other hand, it also represents the loss of identity these people felt under the oppressive rule of Joseph Stalin.

At the very end of his life, shortly before dying of cancer, Malevich was painting in a style that the Soviet Union was enforcing throughout the country. Contrasting Malevich’s final self-portrait with an earlier one shows these dramatic changes and emphasises the control the Soviets’ held.

Although there were artists who refused to conform, yearning for the days when art showed the beauty and charm of Tsarist Russia, the world saw a utopian version, hiding the terrible truths.

As you can see, it is impossible to categorise something as “Russian Art”. There is pre-revolution art, which encompasses a wide variety of styles, and then there is Soviet Art, a “realistic” portrayal of Russia under Lenin, and then Stalin – as long as it expressed Communist ideology. Then, of course, there are contemporary artists living in a post-Soviet country, giving “Russian Art” a brand new meaning.

To fully understand the effects the Soviet Union had on the art world, it is best to see it with your own eyes. Luckily we have hindsight on our side, preventing us from falling into the trap of believing the lies and exaggerations shown in paintings and photographs.

Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1931 is an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. You have until 17th April 2017 to go and see it.