Art Beat: A dynasty's scattered legacy

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December 4, 2013
By: Dylan Thomas
Treasures of the Romanov dynasty were sold off after the Bolsheviks took control of Russia's government.
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Dylan Thomas
Romanov art and objects at The Museum of Russian Art; plus, new paintings from Ruben Nusz at Weinstein Gallery

WINDOM — In the course of more than 1,000 years, only two dynasties ruled over Russia.

The first was the House of Rurik, founded by a Viking in about 862. Ivan the Terrible was one of theirs.

That dynasty crumbled with the death of heirless Czar Feodor, Ivan’s son, in 1598. Fifteen years later, an assembly of Russian leaders picked a 16-year-old cousin of the former ruling family, Michael Romanov, for their czar.

That’s where The Museum of Russian Arts’ latest exhibit, “The Romanovs: Legacy of an Empire Lost,” begins. But as the title suggests, it’s not the beginning of the Romanov Dynsasty but its end three centuries later that makes this exhibition possible.

Many of Russia’s royal treasures were sold off in the years after the 1917 Russian Revolution and the civil war between the Bolsheviks and the anti-communist White Army that followed. Artworks and objects from the royal households ended up in museums and private collections abroad, especially in the United State and Europe.

Russia’s royals had a taste for fine porcelain, and a plate from 18th century ruler Empress Elizabeth’s service is a prime example. Gold lines spiral out from the dish’s center in an intricate Fibonacci pattern, with pink flowers wherever they intersect.

From the University of Minnesota’s James Ford Bell Library comes a 1753 print from an engraving by Mikhail Makhaev depicting St. Petersburg half a century after its founding by Czar Peter the Great. It’s an extraordinarily detailed image of ships loading and unloading in the Neva River, lined on both banks by neoclassical buildings.

One of the richer archives on display comes from the household of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, the grandson of a czar who was also an actor, playwright and poet. Like most of the royal men, the grand duke is most often depicted in a military uniform; here, we also see him as Hamlet.

A side room is dedicated to the final days of Czar Nicholas II, the final Romanov ruler, and his family, who were murdered during the early days of the civil war. These objects have a particular poignancy, like the single pearl earring believed to have been worn by Empress Alexandra Federovna, Nicholas’ wife. The year after her execution by secret police, an investigator found the single earring in an abandoned mineshaft.

The Romanovs: Legacy of an Empire Lost

When: Through March 23

Where: The Museum of Russian Art, 5500 Stevens Ave. S.

Info: tmora.org, 821-9045

Whose hues?

EAST HARRIET — Ruben Nusz’s new exhibition of paintings at Weinstein Gallery argues that color theory, as most artists understand it, is wrong.

Non-artists may understand color theory very little, if at all, but that shouldn’t detract from their enjoyment Nusz’s work one bit. These abstract paintings are all small experiments — formalist studies of how the human eye understands light and color ­— but they are also vivid and peppered with playful touches. Nusz makes his own rules and then breaks them.

Here is a common set-up: Nusz paints overlapping blocks of bright colors, like a mixed-bag of paint samples neatly stacked one on top of the other, and places them in a trompe l’oeil frame. Over that illusion of a frame he paints a solid, flat color, like a sheet half pulled over the canvas. The shadow it casts is yet another painterly sleight-of-hand, a sharp line where Nusz’s hues transition from vibrant to subdued.

At other times, Nusz’s blocks of color function more like semi-transparent screens, adding a tint to the other colors on a canvas. A series of four “Edge” paintings explore color relationships in a more dynamic setting: a six-box grid that seems to stretch and even break out of one of Nusz’s optical-illusion frames.

On a recent visit, Nusz’s paintings took up two of the three rooms at Weinstein Gallery. Hanging in the third room was a piece that resonated strongly with Nusz’s work: a sheet of aluminum painted azure blue, with squares of purple, green, orange and yellow projecting from its surface like stacked blocks.

It’s a relief sculpture by the late Charles Biederman, circa 1990. The artist, who spent much of his life in Minnesota, was preoccupied with how we perceive color and the interactions of light and shadow. Like Nusz, he was a theorist who used abstract art as a testing ground.

Biederman, famously reclusive, died in 2004. But one wonders what he’d make of Nusz’s paintings.

Ruben Nusz: Severed Hues

When: Through Jan. 11

Where: Weinstein Gallery, 908 W. 46th St.

Info: weinstein-gallery.com, 822-1722