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To Russia with love

Just as Moscow’s neglected marvels of avant-garde architecture should be objects of local affection, Russia’s magnificent pre-revolutionary artists deserve to be appreciated in the West, says Andrew Graham-Dixon

I was in Moscow for a week over the summer, revisiting some of my favourite places and museums in the city as well as making some new discoveries — as I always seem to do in Russia, where so many overlooked treasures are still to be found hidden in plain sight, victims of neglect, indifference or mere ignorance.

The highlight of my trip was an unscheduled visit, suggested by friends, to a building I had never seen before (to my shame, I had never even heard of it): the so-called Melnikov House, which was formerly the private residence of a leading architect of the Russian avant-garde, one Konstantin Melnikov.

During the mid-1920s, when he was at the peak of his short-lived popularity with the ruling Communist regime, Melnikov somehow managed to secure a prime plot in the centre of town with permission to build. The house that he created for himself and his family, formed from two interlocking cylinders of brick clad in a white façade, is quite simply one of the wonders of early modern architecture: not a single ivory tower but two, twinned to shape a kind of urban fortress or citadel for the creative soul.

The former home of architect Konstantin Melnikov in Moscow. © Collection ArtediaView

The former home of architect Konstantin Melnikov in Moscow. © Collection Artedia/View

Pierced by some 60 hexagonal windows of the architect’s own unorthodox design, from the outside the house has something of the honeycomb about it. Inside, it is part refuge, part temple, designed to protect and nurture the sacred activities of the Idealistic Architect.

To rise through the different levels of the house, by a slightly rickety circular staircase, is to make a spiritual ascent of sorts. From the ground floor, devoted to worldly activities like cooking and washing, you move upwards to the realm of sleep and dreaming: a grand, circular communal bedroom painted in a beguiling golden yellow, once shared by Melnikov and his wife with their two children, the modesty of the family preserved only by partition walls.

From there, it is up again, to a grand, double-height studio space lit by a vast array of those nearly diamond-shaped windows Melnikov loved so much. The studio is connected to the roof of the house by a distinctly dodgy set of wooden steps. From the circular roof terrace, Melnikov used to admire the skyline of Moscow. 

‘How many people realise that Moscow is home to the most extraordinary engineered structure of the early modern period?’

Nowadays, the view from the house has been obliterated, blocked by ugly new-build apartments and the like. The fact that his house survives at all is something of a miracle, in a city where developers have generally been allowed free rein to demolish just about anything that might get in the way of their profits. Yet it has endured, even to the point of being accorded the status of a museum — albeit rather grudgingly, it would appear.

Funding and manpower only permit a single visit of a few people per day, by telephone appointment, so Melnikov House is unlikely to make it onto the radar of most tourists visiting Moscow any time soon. But as the Michelin guides of old used to say, it is worth making a detour to see it.

The developers were busy on my recent visit. Herds of bulldozers were replacing entire streets with acres of new pavement in order to create a network of pedestrian precincts across the centre of town in time for 2018, when Russia is due to host the World Cup. The aim of the exercise is ‘beautification’, according to the city authorities, although the idea of beauty to which they are in thrall is certainly an odd one. The streets have been cluttered with bright green plastic arches festooned with artificial flowers, so that the whole area looks as though it has been made over by the designers of that perfectly kitsch range of children’s toys, My Little Pony.

The Shukhov Tower — a 160m-high broadcasting tower built in the early 1920s. Photo FotoimediaITAR-TASS

The Shukhov Tower — a 160m-high broadcasting tower built in the early 1920s. Photo: Fotoimedia/ITAR-TASS

The Shukhov Tower — a majestic paraboloid of meshed steel. Photo Fine Art ImagesHeritage ImagesScala, Florence

The Shukhov Tower — a majestic paraboloid of meshed steel. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Scala, Florence

Given Moscow’s wealth of neglected or run-down masterpieces of modern architecture, another approach could have been taken: to restore and renovate what is already there but insufficiently known and appreciated, and to place that at the centre of a renewed vision for the city. For example, how many people realise that Moscow is home to the most extraordinary engineered structure of the early modern period — a structure far taller, more beautiful and more innovative than that rather well-known tower put up in the heart of Paris by Gustave Eiffel?

The Shukhov Tower, a majestic paraboloid of meshed steel originally constructed so that Lenin could broadcast the Communist message to the huddled masses, is celebrated among architects the world over — so much so that London’s Gherkin was blatantly modelled on it — but remains virtually unknown to a wider audience. One of the great landmarks of the Moscow cityscape, it has been left to languish for more than half a century.

The good news is that it has been spared from proposals under which it was to have been destroyed to make way for development. The bad news is that there is still no firm plan to secure its future and prevent it simply from collapsing due to the combined effects of age and neglect. So it still stands, for now, but the day when it might become a treasured symbol of the city that gave birth to it, as the Eiffel Tower has become for Paris, seems far off indeed.

‘Not only is the work of the great Russian artists brilliant, it is also extremely affordable at auction’

So why does Russia now treat the monuments of its early 20th-century past with such apparently cavalier disregard? I think the answer lies in the post-revolutionary history of the nation as a whole. From the 1930s onwards, a succession of Communist regimes became increasingly irritated by the creations of the Russian avant-garde — whether in architecture, painting, sculpture or indeed film and literature. Many of those at the forefront of the avant-garde were banished, persecuted, killed or just cruelly neutered — as in the case of Melnikov, who was simply prohibited from practising as an architect from 1937 until the end of his life.

It was not just that their work departed from the supposedly plain-speaking ideals of Soviet socialist realism, which became the house style of Russian Communism. It was that the sense of idealism and aspiration expressed with such naivety and joy in their work became a deep source of embarrassment to the world-weary, cynical, self-serving Communist regimes that eventually sprouted, like so many dark and twisted mutations, from the once-fresh soil of the Russian Revolution. For that same reason, they are no less embarrassing — and are perhaps even more so — to the nakedly autocratic and plutocratic regime of Russia under Vladimir Putin.

In many ways I find Russia’s neglect of its own avant-garde heritage less disturbing than the complete indifference to Russian art as a whole displayed over here, in the West. In fact, I sometimes think that in the West the only facet of Russian visual culture curators and other museum people are capable of getting excited by is the avant-garde moment that so embarrasses official Russia now.

The avant-garde has been the subject of numerous exhibitions, and there is no sign of the production line slowing: the last one in London, just a few years ago, was at Tate Modern; and next February the Royal Academy will stage yet another major show devoted to Russian art of the post-revolutionary period, Revolution: Russian Art 1917–1932

Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870–73 © State Russian Museum, St PetersburgBridgeman Images

Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870–73 © State Russian Museum, St Petersburg/Bridgeman Images

But that thin slice of time apart, most of the Western world’s great art museums continue to behave as if there were no such thing as Russian visual culture, and as if the story of Russian art does not deserve to be incorporated into the story of art as a whole. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has no serious collection of Russian paintings. Neither does the Getty. And I find it deeply shocking that the National Gallery, even as it has found the time and resources to collect in such previously uncharted areas as German or Scandinavian painting, still possesses not a single picture by any of the great Russian painters of the 19th century.

So while Dostoyevsky and Pushkin and Tolstoy are household names, Repin and Fedotov and Korovin remain more or less completely unknown outside Russia. It is all the more irritating because not only is their work brilliant, it is also extremely affordable at auction.

Pavel Fedotov, The Aristocrat’s Breakfast, 1849-50. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, RussiaBridgeman Images

Pavel Fedotov, The Aristocrat’s Breakfast, 1849-50. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia/Bridgeman Images

Inertia can be a terrible thing. Because our Western museums have no Russian pictures, they have employed no experts on Russian art — after all, what would they look after, and what would they research? And because of the absence of such experts in the museums, there is no one at their curatorial meetings to argue that they should buy Russian pictures. Meanwhile, the good Russian pictures that do come up for sale are bought almost exclusively by art-loving Russian oligarchs — which is a perfectly understandable expression of cultural patriotism, but does little to cure the disease of global ignorance about Russian visual culture.

What is the solution to all this? I do have one, but it relies rather on goodwill. Might some very rich Russian collector kindly consider creating a new museum of Russian art — not in Moscow, but in London? He or she would be doing Russia, and the world, a huge service. And of course I would be able to go and see the work of some of my favourite artists whenever I liked. Nasdrovia!

Andrew Graham-Dixon presented The Art of Russia, a three-art series for BBC4. For more information on Russian art, please contact a specialist in our Russian Pictures and Russian Works of Art and Fabergé departments