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A portrait of Russian Tsar Alexander III.

A portrait of Tsar Alexander III painted with oil on canvas by Valentin Serov in 1920.

Art from Russia's Silver Age

Early 20th century Russian paintings on display at the Weisman Art Museum.

By Pauline Oo

December 7, 2005; updated December 21, 2005

What did Russia at the turn of the 20th century look like?

You can get a pretty good sense, especially of the people who lived during that time and the clothing they might have worn or the places they might have visited, when you stroll through the current exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum. The museum, overlooking the Mississippi River on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis, is hosting "Mir Iskusstva: Russian's Age of Elegance" through January 8.

Mir Iskusstva, or World of Art, was an artistic movement that flourished in Russia at the turn of the 20th century (between 1890 to 1917; the period commonly referred to as Russia's "Silver Age"). It's a lesser-known movement of Russian culture, but no less vibrant than its predecessors. While previous eras of Russia's cultural history were dotted with foreign artists and architects working in Russia, this new movement sought to develop a distinctive Russian flavor. Mir Iskusstva was most active from 1898 to 1905, when members of the group organized exhibitions of their own work, published a magazine, and held lectures, concerts, and discussions on cultural issues.

The most impressive quality of the Weisman exhibit--which includes more than fifty paintings and forty designs for costumes, stage sets, sculptures, and books from the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg--is actually the size of some of the paintings. A king-size bed is not big enough to hold two of the largest portraits there: that of actor and theatre director Vsyevolod Meyhold (the very first painting you will see when you arrive at the exhibit) and that of folk hero and patron Saint of Russia, St. Sergious of Radonezh.

Other paintings, though smaller in size, may hold your attention with their brilliant colors, mouth-gaping likeness to reality, and attention to detail. The latter is best found in the exhibit's "portrait room." Take a seat on the lone bench and before long, you'll start to feel at least 10 pairs of eyes on you--some staring intently, as if begging an answer to an unasked question; others giving you a dreamy, melancholy look that will leave you curious about their thoughts.

According to an exhibit brochure, Mir Iskusstva "was a time when artists were not concerned with expressing industrial or technical progress, or political or pragmatic ideas." Instead, "they were interested in creating beauty" and "teaching the public to respond aesthetically to the works of art."

"Mir Iskusstva: Russia's Age of Elegance," organized by the Foundation for International Arts and Education, Bethesda, Maryland, and presented in conjunction with the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, is made possible through the generosity of Gary and JoAnn Fink, the Jerry and Lisa O'Brien Family Fund of Minnesota Community Foundation, the Office of the Provost of the University of Minnesota, and the estate of Donald C. and Mary Jo Savelkoul. This exhibition is supported by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The Weisman Art Museum is located at 333 E. River Road. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.