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Review – Mikhail Olenev – Back to Reality – VKhUTEMAS Gallery, Moscow

Mikhail Olenev – Back to Reality – Architecture, Graphics, Painting. VKhUTEMAS Gallery

28th. April-29th. May 2015

Design for Bashkiri Exhibition Pavillion, 1938. Drawing 1948

Design for Bashkiri Exhibition Pavillion, 1938. Drawing 1948

There are often quite diverting small exhibitions in the various cultural haunts of Moscow.  They vary in ambition but tend to fade rather quickly from the memory.  The current event at the world-famous but unknown (yes it does make sense) VKhUTEMAS Gallery in Moscow really sticks out from the crowd – surpassing all expectations for such an esoteric and seemingly inaccessible subject.

Sketch for a fresco on a worker's club, 1944

Sketch for a fresco on a worker’s club, 1944

Olenev was a student at VKhUTEMAS (his professor was one of the great avant-gardists, Vesnin) and then taught architecture in Moscow as well as pursuing his own independent creative directions.  In a way, his works and reputation are being re-connected to their roots, in the very building where his formal artistic and professional life started nearly 100 years ago. The curators, Tatyana Lisova and Maria Troshina, have constructed a narrative and conjured up a feel for the works that allows full appreciation of this understated genius.

Orlenev - Apple-sellers, 1937

Olenev – Apple-sellers, 1937

The unassuming master of so many arts and crafts was born in 1907.  His short but productive life ended at the age of 46 – a victim of the scourge of the time, tuberculosis.  He was a good architect, that is for sure.  He had a varied and sometimes slightly bizarre imagination that seemed to fit well with the crypto-byzantine world of Stalin’s Moscow.  This is evident from his adoption into emblematic designs for public works such as exhibition pavilions the styles and shapes of the great Eastern Roman Empire of the middle ages.

Orlenev's last painting

Olenev’s last painting

The exhibition shows  he was about a great deal more than ‘just’ architecture.  Sketches and formal designs narrate his formative years in a family business involved in glass cutting and polishing, producing ornamental works during the post-civil war New Economic Policy period.  He had a craftsman’s eye for the practicality of a design but the imagination of a progressive and expressive artist.  We are presented with the drawings he submitted to VKhUTEMAS when he applied for entry in the 1920s.  He was accepted and graduated from there as an architect.  He went on to teach the subject and here, according to the testaments of his students still surviving to this day,  his great humanism appears to have shone through.

He designed important social buildings and participated in prestigious competitions.  He designed vast chandeliers, some 3 or 4m in height, which to this day illuminate buildings such as the Czech Embassy in Moscow.  Later works – naturalistic paintings – still maintained and referred to the spatial discipline of architectural structure whilst concentrating on the verdant richness of the summer Russian countryside.

VKhUTEMAS Gallery - 100m from Kuznetky Most Metro

VKhUTEMAS Gallery – 100m from Kuznetky Most Metro

If you are in Moscow during the next month, do go along.  It’s relaxing, thought-provoking and a genuinely warming human experience to be afforded the chance to look back at the life of such a little-known but outstanding talent.

The VKhUTEMAS Gallery is quite hard to find – Go to Kuznetsky Most Metro, turn right out of the station and walk about 100m up Rozhdestvenka St.  The large neo-classical building on the left is MArkhI – the Moscow Institute of Architecture.  Go into the courtyard there and you will see the VKhUTEMAS Gallery on the right behind the trees, in the original VKhUTEMAS building.

Москва, м. Кузнецкий мост, ул. Рождественка, д. 11

Вход со двора МАРХИ 


Tuesday-Saturday, 12.00 – 20.00

Monday – maybe (you need to call and see if there will be someone around) 

Entrance: FREE

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