A U.S. collectorÂ’s Russian holiday ornaments on display at The Museum of Russian Art. Plus, Untitled 11 at Soo Visual Arts Center.
TANGLETOWN — The Christmas tree tradition was imported to Russia just two centuries ago, arriving in 1817 with Princess Charlotte of Prussia, wife-to-be of the future Czar Nicholas I.
One hundred years later, the Bolshevik revolutionaries did away with both Russia’s imperial dynasty and public celebrations of Christmas. But the “yolka,” or fir tree, survived, and it would even be embraced by the Communist regime as the centerpiece of a secular midwinter celebration.
“Winter Holidays in the Soviet Era” at The Museum of Russian Art charts the rise of New Year’s as one of Russia’s most beloved holidays. That story is lushly illustrated by hundreds of Soviet-era holiday ornaments drawn from the collection of Kim Balaschak, a Philadelphian who hunted down her prizes while living in Moscow between 1995 and 2008.
Displayed in themed groupings on miniature trees, they give the exhibition heaps of holiday charm. Russians’ endearing fondness for wild mushrooms and garden produce, pride in their rich circus culture and their deep well of native folk tales all find expression in yolka decorations.
So do nationalistic themes. Ornaments celebrate Soviet military, industrial and aeronautic accomplishments, including miniature mortars, tanks, planes and dirigibles in glittering silver and gold.
There’s an odd, through-the-looking glass quality to a Soviet-era holiday tree, the paratrooper and sickle ornaments dangling from its boughs. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, citizens were encouraged to top their trees with a red star, the symbol of communism. Holiday pageants starred Grandfather Frost and not Old St. Nick in the officially atheist state — although the rosy cheeks, white beard and paunch do seem awfully familiar.
The Communist Party was at first wary of the winter holiday, and for nearly two decades after the revolution the yolka tradition was mainly carried on in secret. Religious Russian Orthodox households quietly celebrated Christmas, decorating their trees with handmade crepe paper ornaments or in some cases German cardboard and glass decorations saved since the pre-revolution years.
In the 1920s, Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth wing, even staged anti-religious Christmastime celebrations that involved the burning of effigies of Orthodox priests. But in 1935, an editorial in the Communist Party-tied newspaper Pravda called for a revival of the New Year celebration. The yolka would return to Russian homes and schools for the sake of children, although Jan. 1 wasn’t declared an official holiday until 1947.
In a collection of sepia-toned family photos dating from the 1930s to 1950s, we see a yolka in a crowded public square, men and women toasting around a holiday table, children in their pajamas gathered by a tree strung with garland. For all its idiosyncrasies, the Soviet-era New Year’s celebration is in many ways very familiar.
Winter Holidays in the Soviet Era
Where: The Museum of Russian Art
When: Through Jan. 25
Info: tmora.org, 821-9045
Untitled turns 11
THE WEDGE — The eleventh edition of Soo Visual Arts Center’s annual juried exhibition of work by local artists includes, as usual, a little bit of everything.
Maybe more than that, even, if you weren’t expecting the dried-up remains of several microbial colonies presented as art. Courtesy Jamie Winter Dawson, they come pressed between two pieces of glass and, backlit, they glow golden brown like the harvest moon.
Admire the catholic tastes of jurors Caroline Kent, artist and co-founder of St. Paul’s Bindery Projects art space, and Tom Rassieur, curator of prints and drawings at Minneapolis Institute of Arts, who also selected a zine of obliquely related photographs for the show. For a head trip straight to your teenage bedroom, the artist, Sho Nikaido, pairs the newsprint pamphlet with a dreamy soundtrack played over headphones.
Stephen Stevens photographs a mountain of road salt, tinted an unearthly green, where it’s stored amid the cottonwoods on the river flats. Contrast that image’s eerie stillness with the furtive human interactions in a Laura Crosby photo from a documentary series on sex trafficking.
A cut-paper piece by Adam White extracts the overheated dialogue from what appears to be a 1968 issue of the “Twilight Zone” comic book. Nearly invisible spacers make the narrative boxes and word balloons hover over a white background in an overlapping visual cacophony.
Also worth spending some time with is Margaret Pezalla-Granlund’s “Dream Objects,” which pairs a set of cyanotypes with “written complications” from local author and designer Vivek Chadaga. But save that for the end, because Chadaga’s mental exercises are both strongly evocative and exhausting.
(A photograph by Stephen Stevens. Submitted image.)
Where: Soo Visual Arts Center, 2638 Lyndale Ave. S.
When: Through Dec. 28
Info: soovac.org, 871–2263