11/12/2012 09:50 am ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Challenging Contemporary Art -- From the Depths of Mother Russia

I've reported on Russian art from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, but a recent invitation to Ulyanovsk took me by surprise. It came from the Plastov Awards, which I had never heard of. I didn't know much about Ulyanovsk either.

Ulyanovsk, ex-Simbirsk, lies 550 miles east of Moscow on a bluff above the Volga. My flight descended over blacklands of rich soil, quilted with emerald fields and endless yellow avenues of autumnal silver birches.

Lenin was born here as Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov in 1870, and grew up to 'experience cloudless child's happiness in the bosom of harmonious family' (as the city guidebook reveals) before spreading happiness and harmony to millions around the world. Simbirsk's name was changed after Lenin's death in 1924 and, unlike St Petersburg, Ulyanovsk has never looked back. In Lenin's day it had about 30,000 inhabitants. Today there are 600,000 but the city feels smaller. Although aircraft-manufacture is the main industry, there is a refreshingly modest airport -- where I am met by my guide Selena Gargarina, a distant cousin of the great Yuri (and with some unspeakable family insight as to his untimely death).

Young, savvy, polyglot, with distant White Russian roots, Selena takes me to meet the Regional Culture Minister, Tatyana Murdasova, six feet (mostly leg) of short-skirted political superstar. Ms Murdasova greets me with tea and a stained-glass plaque of Plastov's head -- which almost makes up for missing out on a Plastov Honorary Award for the Promotion of Art as bestowed a few days earlier upon London auctioneer William MacDougall, the peripatetic head of the world's premier Russian art saleroom.

Tatyana tells me that the Plastov Awards were launched in 2011, when Ulyanovsk was Russian Culture Capital, to promote the academic tradition of technically skilled, 'Realistic' (read Figurative) Art -- as famously embodied by local artist Arkady Plastov (1893-1972). She believes that the Awards can help raise the region's profile and attract investment, and is keen for them to become an event of international importance. A sort of 'Nobel Prize for Painting' she adds, with a billion-ruble smile.

Living in the Plastov Age

Plastov was a country lad and, even after becoming a darling of the nomenklatura, and landing enough Soviet medals to floor an over-producing ox, returned to his village and painted till the cows came home. His work exudes the earnest enthusiasm of a Millet, Pissarro or early Van Gogh, and is a far cry from the conceptual introspection of much of today's art. His portraits of grizzled peasants have endearing empathy, and his larger canvases -- horses and cavalry bathing in a river, youngsters piled into the back of a speeding truck -- have an epic sweep tinged by only slight sentimentality.

A 50-mile drive down endless avenues of birch-trees leads to Plastov's home village of Prislonikha, a charming jumble of colorful, frilly-carved wooden houses. Goats graze in front of the onion-domed church. Trees and hills roll into the distance. You can understand why Plastov backtracked hither from Moscow to embrace Mother Russia.

I am embraced by Antonina Romanova, the warm-hearted curator of the Plastov Museum, and plied with vodka and her giant pickled mushrooms. 'Call me Tonya' she beams, as anyone might if they sounded like a cross between Marie-Antoinette and Nicholas II.

The museum is full of Plastov's deft sketches and sober snow scenes, and bright landscapes by local children. In front is a new bronze statue of Plastov, palette in hand, and across the road is the old farmhouse where he lived and worked, its garden littered with cabbages as big as bushes. Much to the annoyance of Mrs Plastov, one suspects, Plastov used to clean his brushes on the log wall outside the back door, which is splattered with paint.

Pitbulls & Syringes

The Plastov Awards Exhibition is staged in Ulyanovsk's Lenin Memorial, a magnificent culture centre erected in 1970 to mark the centenary of Lenin's birth, and which retains its original furniture, fittings and gleaming parquet floors. Light floods in through the giant windows lining the exhibition hall. Some 80 paintings are on show, by 32 artists -- most from Ulyanovsk, the rest from Moscow, none from abroad. There are landscapes, still lifes, works with social comment and Plastovy nods to country workers.

The overall standard is competent but unexciting, and it's impossible to tell who the winners are - presumably from among the eight artists who account for two-thirds of the works. They disconcertingly include Alexey & Sergey Tkachev and Tair Salakhov, all born in the 1920s. Just a quarter of the works date from 2011/2012. One, by Viktor Safronov, is a lurid view of two wild-eyed teenage girls flat out in a toilet next to a syringe. Even more disconcertingly, Viktor is 80.

By far the youngest winner is Alexandra Radevich (born 1986), whose works include a babushka in khaki uniform whitewashing tree-trunks; a driverless tractor named Belarus a-swarm with pigeons; and a masked, padded dog-trainer being attacked by pitbulls in front of a wire fence. It would be nice to speak to Alexandra or Viktor -- or to Viktor Kharlov, whose skilfully lit, unglamorous scenes of rural life caught the eye of William MacDougall. But requests to meet artists go unheeded.

The top prize, it transpires, has gone to Zurab Tsereteli, the kitschmeister President of the Russian Academy of Art since 1997. Having Zurab on-side is presumably good politics - he reportedly donated his €25,000 prize to a children's art school, and has talked about opening a branch of the Academy in Ulyanovsk -- but his name is up in inappropriately large letters on the Memorial façade. Reference to the Plastov Awards is nowhere to be seen.

Shaping Historical Perception

Along with oceans of exhibition space, the Lenin Memorial contains the world's largest extant Lenin Museum. A giant statue of the great man is enthroned inside a towering marble shrine lined with whacky red and gold mosaics. LENIN is spelt out in evergreen bushes (not cabbages) on the steep banking outside, overlooking the Volga.

The Memorial was once among the most popular sites in the USSR, with 2500 visitors a day. But excitement at its stated mission -- to 'shape objective historical perception' by having Lenin's writings 'available in all the languages of the world' -- has dimmed. I spot more staff than tourists. Most visitors these days troop off one of the 60 cruise ships that dock in Ulyanovsk on summer trips down the Volga; far more, alas, follow the 1858 example of Alexandre Dumas, and sail past Ulyanovsk at night.

That's a pity, because Ulyanovsk can offer any visitor a pleasant day or two. It has a delightful promenade overlooking the Volga, here as wide as Lake Geneva; streetfuls of charming wooden architecture; and a Belle Epoque Art Museum with works (a vase of flowers by Ambrosius Bossaert, 17th century bronzes by François Girardon and Gaspard Marsy) to wow any foreign connoisseur. In the Modern Art Museum Gonchorava, Korovin, Mashkov and Serebriakova rub Avant-Garde shoulders with Yelena Bebutova's unforgettable 1932 view of lady bottling-plant workers sporting Soviet Designer Sunglasses.

There is also a museum devoted to the city's most famous literary son, Ivan Goncharov (1812-91), and a quirky statue in honour of the letter ë, introduced to the Russian alphabet by the local-born historian Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826).

Even so, one suspects Culture Minister Murdasova is right to think Ulyanovsk needs something extra special to lure back the crowds. Can the Plastov Awards do the trick?

I discuss this at an audience with Regional Governor Sergey Morozov, deep in his colonnaded Stalinist palace above Lenin Square. After some brisk how-de-do's, the steely-eyed Sergey, something of a cross between Paul Newman and the Sheriff from Deputy Dawg, asks me bluntly what I think about the Plastov Awards.

I reply that a truly international competition devoted to Figurative Art may have innovative potential, and that many art-lovers feel a Figurative fightback long overdue. But the Awards' selection criteria are currently opaque and parochial; the competition needs global participation and foreign jurors; eligible works should be hot off the easel, not museum relics; and artistic credibility is seldom boosted by extended association with Zurab Tsereteli.

Governor Morozov, who earlier this year spurned the chance to become Russian Culture Minister, strokes his silver moustache and surveys me with quizzical blue eyes.

He agrees that the Awards need to aim for universal appeal - matching that of Plastov's art. Although, like the Governor, Plastov eschewed the Moscow bright lights and stayed put on home soil, he looked far beyond the boundaries of Mother Russia for inspiration. His heroes were Veronese, Velazquez, Holbein and Millet. Plastov, whispers the Governor, found it 'embarrassing and painful to look into the eyes of these men of genius, who did not besmirch their art with a single drop of vulgarity or tedious irrelevance.'

Weird Thoughts in Turin

I left Ulyanovsk for Turin, to attend the Artissima contemporary art fair (November 8-11) and inspect a new installation by Valery Koshlaykov, one of Russia's greatest living artists - equally at home working with bronze, cardboard, string, tape, metal or polystyrene as well as paint.

None of Valery's output is remotely Soviet, Socialist, Realist or Impressionistic, but he is nonetheless impressed to hear I am just back from Ulyanovsk, and unhesitatingly declares Plastov 'a Master.'

Across town, at Artissima, I run Plastov past Olga Temnikova -- an ethnic Russian from Tallinn who spearheads one of the most dynamic galleries in Eastern Europe. She's never heard of him, and dismisses Russian art as 'light years behind.' Then, for good measure, she dismisses me as 'weird' for travelling to Ulyanovsk-Of-All-Places.

Olga's booth is dominated by a work by Estonian artist Denés Farjkas, called Substructures. It is a neatly-pinned array of 120 black-and-white photographs of geometrically-arranged pieces of card, each with a single-word title accompanied by a dictionary definition. One is entitled Construction.

The act or art of constructing... something that is constructed... a structure... a group of words or morphemes....

Not knowing what morphemes means, or how they can possibly enhance a work of art, makes me feel even weirder.

Elsewhere at Artissima I come across a sculpture made from half-opened umbrellas; two pallets piled with cartons of milk wrapped in cling-foil; and a cluster of seven red fire extinguishers chained off near a sign saying Area Fumatori/Smoking Area.

I presume they are all works of art, though I'm not sure about the fire extinguishers.

Perhaps a Contemporary Art Insider would spot something weirdly meaningful about how the extinguishers are arranged, or their chain's degree of sag, or the redness of their red.

But I like to think the artworld needs fewer fire extinguishers or umbrellas (and fewer balloon dogs or pickled sharks, come to that) - and a few more Plastovs.

A little less vulgarity or tedious irrelevance - and a bit more beauty.

Could Lenin's home city be the place to launch a Revolution in Post-Cold-War Aesthetics?

I don't know, but I can think of a couple of slogans Sergey and Tatyana might care to conjure with.

Artists of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your conceptual chains!