University of Georgia
November 2016
The Arts

‘Gifts and Prayers’

Exhibition of Russian gifts promotes cross-campus collaboration.

The cold and snowy climate of Saint Petersburg, Russia, may seem distant from Athens, Georgia, but through Dec. 31 the Georgia Museum of Art at UGA is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Russian imperial decorative arts.

The exhibition “Gifts and Prayers: The Romanovs and Their Subjects” is on view in two of the museum’s galleries, including during the holiday season. (Unlike most of the university, the museum remains open throughout December, closing only for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, as well as its usual Monday.)

So how did these objects of gold and silver, encrusted with jewels, make their way to UGA? The exhibition includes only a fraction of an extensive private collection on long-term loan to the museum that is also a promised gift from an anonymous collector. Because the collection was in private hands, it has never been displayed or studied previously. Luckily, UGA has Asen Kirin, professor of art history in the Lamar Dodd School of Art, who organized the exhibition and has been studying the nearly 2,000 objects it includes.

Kirin is an expert in Byzantine and Russian art and previously organized two other exhibitions at the museum, most recently “Exuberance of Meaning: The Art Patronage of Catherine the Great (1762–1796),” in 2013-14. “Gifts and Prayers” draws from a wide array of objects, dating from the 17th to the early 20th century, when the Russian Revolution overthrew the Romanov dynasty. This famed family of rulers held dominion over Russia from 1613 to 1917, a 300-year span in which they shaped the aesthetics as well as the politics of their empire.

Kirin’s research on the collection will continue even after the exhibition closes, and future exhibitions will use it to present new stories and generate more research. Already, it has served as an example of cross-campus collaboration. When Kirin needed to X-ray a previously unknown painting by famed portraitist Aleksei Venetsianov, UGA’s College of Veterinary Medicine was able to help out. Combined with infrared and multispectral imaging performed by Erich Uffelmann and Mallory Stephenson from Washington and Lee University, the X-ray results gave Kirin evidence that confirmed the painting’s authenticity.

Many of the objects in the exhibition were the personal property of tsars, tsarinas and nobles of the Russian court. For example, an elaborately decorated cigar box was a gift to Alexander II upon his coronation, in 1856. The box is covered with 56 hand-painted enamel miniatures—55 that represent the coats of arms of each governorate of the empire and one that shows a specific moment in the coronation ceremony when the names of all these parts of the empire were recited. Kirin says the box was designed to allow the new tsar to relive the splendid ceremony every time he opened it for a cigar.

“Minimalism” is not the word that comes to mind on viewing the objects in this exhibition. Kirin’s expertise lies partially in his ability to unpack and explain the complex layers of meaning each decoration brings to an object. The placement of an inscription, the symbolic import of an emblem like Russia’s double-headed eagle, the choice of specific saints on an icon—every choice these artisans made was designed to communicate a message. Similarly, the exhibition itself is carefully arranged to tell a story about the importance of gifts both from the emperors to their people and from the subjects to their rulers. Embedded among the glittering brooches, delicately painted icons and elaborately engraved silver boxes is a narrative about how this dynasty maintained its hold on power for centuries.

Kirin says his aim in organizing the exhibition was not to promote royalism. Instead, he often sees the human side of these objects as well as their complex meanings. He points out that they often marked the greatest accomplishments of or the proudest and happiest moments in the lives of individuals. He also sees their study as a statement about the value of humanism and the insight that the arts and humanities can provide into lives far removed from our own. Art can inspire, it can inform and it can help us all make connections.

UGA faculty collaboration creates gifts for exhibition sponsors

Kirin also organized a commission by Sunkoo Yuh, professor of art at Lamar Dodd and a ceramic artist of international renown, to create commemorative gifts for donors and sponsors of the exhibition. The result is a series of cast ceramic sculptures depicting various elements of the Romanov collection, presented in appreciation to donors and sponsors.

“I made mold from several actual objects, important images from emblems to the emperor’s portrait that Asen and I selected,” Yuh said. “Then I reconstructed the objects, which were then cast to make 30 objects out of the mold.”

“We wanted to find a special way to thank the exhibition sponsors and in some small way, perhaps, also mimic the subject of the exhibition itself,” Kirin said.

The result is a series of interpretive sculptures by Yuh, fired with a blue glaze, a nod to the imperial color indicative of the House of Romanov.

The gifts were presented to individual members of the Fraser-Parker Foundation, sponsors of the exhibition.

“It’s an unusual project and a different kind of commission for me, but as a faculty colleague who has supported my work on many occasions, I am happy to be able to collaborate with Asen and support this exhibition,” Yuh said. “It’s something out of the ordinary that I enjoyed very much.”

The museum is on the campus of the University of Georgia and offers free admission to all. It is open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m.–9 p.m. and Sunday 1–5 p.m.

—Hillary Brown, Georgia Museum of Art
and Alan Flurry, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences