The Museum of Modern Art, which is not where the handy “In Your Pocket” city guide says it is, wants to be the shockingly avant garde collection of Odessan art. The museum grew, so far as I can tell, from two sources: the private collection of one Mikhail Knobel who spent thirty years gathering many of these works; the work that was quietly, secretively shown in “apartment exhibits” until Mikhail Gorbachev changed the world. The collection, upstairs in what I hope are temporary quarters, follows a chronological path, one that a real art historian could probably plot on a European time line without much struggle. That is, it does not seem to me that the Odessan avant garde, in its southeastern outpost, demonstrates a distinctive Odessan eye. The gallery below may confirm or dismiss my view. Let me know.
The Museum of Modern Art loses the title of shocking to the Western and Eastern Art Museum. The pocket guide says, “If you have time to visit one museum in Odessa, this is the one.” Two rooms were open on the first floor, one of them rather a cloak room with works on the wall. The upstairs, for which you purchased a second ticket, was under renovation. The main room is a palatial ballroom; about half the renovation is complete, and it will be magnificent when it’s done. At present, you’re treated to scaffolding and some posters announcing a lecture on “The Secret of the Tiara: The Work of the Goldsmith Israel Rouchmovsky,” a work housed in the Louvre.
No one tells you, of course, that most of the museum is off limits. You can see for yourself, however, that what is open is a general disgrace to curatorship. The rooms are lit by very large windows so that direct sunlight has been assaulting the canvases for years. Many are cracked and scored. Frames are made of tacked-on lath work. The first few identifying placards are bilingual, and then the practice is abandoned. And to top it off, the walls, floors, ceilings are all shabby, ill-kempt, in need of paint, plaster, perhaps a little taste.
When I left, I asked a group of smartly dressed, up-market thirty-something Odessans if this was in fact the Museum of Western and Eastern Art. Each of them asked the next if they could formulate an answer. They drifted off rather than try. After a few moments, the woman who had been washing the immense and criminal windows smoothed her hands on her blue smock and sidled over to me. “Yes, this is the museum,” she confided. She looked through the open door where the security officer stood. “Some rooms work,” she said, and with that ample defense, she moved, carefully, crabwise away.
Count Pototsky’s palace atop the cliff above the port of Odessa told a different story. The house itself is museum-worthy. Every room sports a different pattern in its parquet floor. Every painted and plastered ceiling looked down from a new fantasy of 19th century noble life. This, the Museum of Fine Art, houses icons and paintings of the past several centuries, with an emphasis on Ukrainian and Russian painting. The works that consider the Black Sea world are wonderfully evocative romantic sea- and landscapes, mostly night scenes, windy night scenes, windy night scenes with a distinct moon laboring to reach us through the forest branches. Atmosphere, atmosphere. My favorite was a picture by Makovskiy called “Sick to Death of Her” (1897). The rural scene gives us a morning farmyard in the background and a fence running towards us. Having spilled her pail in her despair, the milkmaid buries her face in her arms, leans into the fence, and weeps her poor eyes out. Her lover, the cad, his attitude clear both in the title and in his face, turns away from her, looks straight out at us, folds his arms across his chest, but keeps his cigarette close enough for easy access.
Gus, in his mind, is on the bus. Stan has a plan, and Lee has left the key.
I regret that neither the East/West Museum nor the Fine Arts Museum allows photography. All these are from the Odessa MoMA.