To subscribe to Afterall journal, starting with this issue, please click here.
Alternatively, if you wish to purchase this article individually, you may do so via the University of Chicago’s website.
A couple of years ago, as I was going through the twentieth-century section of the Tretyakov Gallery, in the more or less modernist Central House of Artists, overlooking the Moscow River, something made me stop in front of a rather large and almost square canvas. It would, I first thought, have looked more at home a few kilometres away, in the museum’s other building, an eclectic pre-revolutionary affair displaying earlier periods of Russian art. The self-confident anatomical rendering of a lifeless adolescent boy prostrate on a stretch of dry and curiously unidentifiable ground made me think of paintings by the likes of Axel Gallén-Kallela – ‘identity art’ for the turn of the twentieth century, pictures to make Finland (or Norway, or Serbia, or any other awakening nation) great again.
In the canvas we are looking at, the Russian peasant’s homespun outfit, complete with birchbark shoes, comes across like a film costume: a sign of a time that is not ours, articulated within a modern system of mass communication. Anachronistic, in other words. And while this is certainly not photorealism (to begin with, where is the blood if someone has just