From Russia with Love: Its Art, Food and Religion; Exhibits, Restaurant, Church Cater to Russophiles

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

From Russia with Love: Its Art, Food and Religion; Exhibits, Restaurant, Church Cater to Russophiles


Byline: Lisa Rauschart, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

omething about Russia and winter seems a natural fit. Perhaps it is the way the elements conspire to mimic our conception of Russian climes, with gray skies, long nights and the kind of cold that seeps into your bones. Or maybe it has something to do with the strains of "The Nutcracker." It takes more than Tchaikovsky, though, to get a true sampling of Russian soul.

Want to experience something of the medieval city of Novgorod? Head up to Baltimore to the Walters Art Museum's new exhibition, "Sacred Arts and City Life."

Interested in Faberge or other art and artifacts from 19th-century Russia? Make your way to Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Northwest, where collector Marjorie Merriweather Post's assortment of Russian art is showcased.

Afterward, kick back with some pelmeni and Russian Standard vodka at Dupont Circle's Russia House Restaurant and Lounge, a favorite of transplanted Russians.

Finally, take in a service at St. Nicholas Cathedral on Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, the Orthodox Church in America's see for all of North America. There light, music and soaring iconography come together in an experience designed to soothe the soul and transform the spirit. Russian Christmas, this Saturday, is the perfect time for such a spiritual adventure.

Much of this and more is featured in the upcoming Smithsonian Resident Associates' ambitious all-day study tour, "All Things Russian," which showcases the Walters exhibit.

"What's interesting about Russian art is that it was at the periphery of the art culture and art elitism that was centered in Paris," says Anne Odom, former chief curator of Russian art at the Hillwood Museum and author of several books on the Hillwood collections. She will lead the Smithsonian program at the end of the month.

Though the "All Things Russian" program is nearly sold out, you still can sniff out a few things Russian for yourself, although you won't have Mrs. Odom's expertise to help you along.

* * *

A good place to start is at the Walters Museum, where "Sacred Arts and City Life: The Glory of Medieval Novgorod" examines life in Russia's oldest medieval city. There, the intersection of tradition and trade routes allowed for a vibrant city life that reflected both sacred and secular concerns.

"The degree to which the exhibit tackles the historical aspects of Novgorod is remarkable," says Mrs. Odom, who will be talking on the exhibit in depth during the return bus trip with the Smithsonian. "It puts what might be seen as just pieces of metal and bits of leather into a historical context."

So much of Russian art is large and colorful that it's easy to let some of the smaller, more mundane pieces pass you by. Thankfully, the Walters enables you to experience them both.

Carefully written on a scrap of birch bark is a message from one monk to another, still legible after almost 900 years. What is it? A prayer perhaps, or a plea for intercession with a saint?

Not at all. "You get angry for no reason," the long-ago monk wrote. "It hurts me that you spoke ill to me."

Meanwhile, a small child's boot from the late 14th century provides mute testimony to a life lived in the town. Who crafted it? Who wore it? Most important, what happened to him or her?

In one section devoted to a recent archaeological excavation, something of the iconographer's art is revealed as the display takes the viewer through the various stages of icon making.

"It's fascinating," Mrs. Odom says. "I'm far more taken with it than I normally would be."

Even for those who are not Russian specialists, the exhibition is a revelation.

"I thought all there was to Russian art was icons," says Jody Siegel, visiting with her sister from New Jersey. "Now I can see that there is a whole lot more. It's really captured my interest. …

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