Russia Through the Looking Glass
Terror, Humanity, and Geo-Politics Through History
With Russia again erupting onto the world stage via often-puzzling actions, a new art exhibit, Russia Through the Looking Glass, immerses us in a world whose logic at first appears to be the opposite of our own. Artist Anne Bobroff-Hajal’s whimsical, icon-like triptychs — some of them massive, up to 6 x 9 feet — include hundreds of tiny, colorful portraits of Russians from the time of Ivan the Terrible to the end of the 20th century, from the lowliest peasants through the vastly wealthy nobility to the Tsars and Stalin. And these portraits aren’t stiff or impassive. They portray each individual competing for power within a complex clan system, periodically terrorized back into line by the ultimate boss, whether Tsar or Stalin, protecting the populace against Mongols, slave-raiders, or Nazis.
Comical yet deadly serious, Bobroff-Hajal’s art helps us understand even the most horrifying historical events by making them fun yet accurate. Characters “sing” in rhyming lyrics composed by Bobroff-Hajal. Stalin appears as an infant in swaddling, his mustache already full-grown. Catherine the Great has magnificent wings of gold so heavy she must be hoisted aloft by a team of mightily-struggling serfs.
Bobroff-Hajal is a painter and mixed-media artist highly influenced by animation techniques. She also has a Ph.D. in Russian History, and lived in Russia for a year before the fall of Communism. Each of the panels in her triptychs take a year or more to research (both historically and visually), to plan and paint. Her work helps us understand the inner logic and continuity of Russia’s long, autocratic history.
Following critical acclaim for Bobroff-Hajal’s 7-foot-wide triptych “Dress It Up In Resplendent Clothes,” the Board of the College of New Rochelle’s art galleries selected her from among all Westchester Biennial 2014 artists for this solo show. The exhibit is a rare opportunity to view all of the artist’s large Playground of the Autocrats triptychs together in one place here in Westchester. Russia Through the Looking Glass is designed to generate conversation and illuminate history in a provocative and enjoyable way. Bring your family and friends, as this exhibit will amaze, educate, and stir you and them to think — perhaps even to argue — about how history has shaped the events we are living today.
Russia Through the Looking Glass runs from October 25 to November 16. The opening reception will be October 26, from 4-6, and will feature delicious Russian snacks as well as a chance to speak with the artist. The Mooney Gallery is located on the ground floor of the Helen & Peter Mooney Art & Educational Technology Center on the college’s campus at 29 Castle Place, New Rochelle, NY 10805. The Gallery is open Monday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, phone (914) 654-5423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
My artistic passion is to portray – whimsically – the fiery struggles of individual human beings within vast social systems, against the foundation of their geography.
My current series of mixed media polyptychs, collectively entitled PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS, is about Russia. Visually the series is something of a cross between icons, animation storyboards, graphic novels, and political cartoons. It integrates influences from my background in painting, animation, and as a historian of Russia. The polyptychs are painted with acrylics on canvas and board, and integrate digital images, including computer-manipulated images of my own paintings. Each polyptych is “narrated” by my satirical version of one of the Russian tsars, in original lyrics I wrote to the tune of the well-known folk tune, Kalinka.
Just as animators work with layers of cells – or with digital layers in the computer – I work with layers of my painting together with digital images. I have some of these paintings/collages photographed. Then I further collage them in Photoshop, have them printed, and paint more original work atop the new layer. I may repeat this process several times for each panel.
Each of the tens of tiny people in my PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS series is drawn and painted as an individual portrait with a focus on body language and facial expression. I paint the raw feelings and most basic life struggles of tsars and subjects alike.
PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS pieces also include my imaginative visualizations of Russia’s social structures. Russian society was organized as a military command in a permanent state of emergency. Russia encompasses by far the largest plain on Earth – the endless steppes – making it uniquely and terribly vulnerable to enemies. For centuries, Tatar slave raiders swept through the flat landscape virtually every year. Hundreds of thousands of Russians were abducted and sold into slavery. Our word “slave” in fact comes from “Slav.”
I earned a Ph.D. in Russian history from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and lived in the USSR for a year doing research. Each of my PLAYGROUND OF THE AUTOCRATS polyptychs is exhaustively researched visually and historically.