DATE: January 10, 2008
How depressing. "A Hundred Summers, A Hundred
Winters," the exhibition of Bertien van Manen's photographs at the
Yancey Richardson Gallery, portrays life in the territories of the
former Soviet Union. Ms. Manen shoots in color, in contrast to Jason
Eskenazi, whose "Wonderland: A Fairytale of the Soviet Monolith," seen
last year, covered much the same material in black-and-white, but both
bodies of work expose the awfulness of three-quarters of a century under
Communist rule: Every physical object is worn, and the people — not
all, but most — appear spiritually depleted. Mind you, it is the subject
matter that is depressing; the photographs are exemplary.
Novokuznetsk, (Two Boys), 1991, 16 x 20 inch chromogenic
print, Edition of 10. Courtesy Yancey Richardson Gallery
(Two Boys)" (1991) is a marvelous illustration of the psychological
lassitude that seems to be a chronic affliction of the Russian people.
The two boys of Novokuznetsk, a city of roughly 600,000 in south-central
Siberia, are seen from mid-chest up, and look squarely at the camera.
The boy in front wears a newsboy-style cap and an inner jacket of bright
lavender and aqua under his outer jacket of dark blue. Both boys have
characteristically Russian features and look intelligent, capable, and
attractive. Ms. Manen used a flash that blanched their pale, Slavic,
wintertime complexions so that they stand out from the dark greenery
behind them. The boys are in their late teens, as much young men as
adolescents, and their expressions — especially that of the boy in the
foreground — are drained of emotion. There seems only to be a long,
enduring sorrow, the psychic equivalent of Siberia's permafrost. Only
the tiny white dots that can be seen in the centers of each of the four
eyes, the reflections of Ms. Manen's flash, hint at some small spark
Ms. Manen is a Dutch photographer — better known in Europe than she is
here — with a long and distinguished list of exhibitions, books, prizes,
and articles to her credit. She has the same eye and feel for
domesticity as the masters of the Northern Renaissance, as well as their
curiosity for how others live their lives and their generosity toward
human weaknesses. The 20 pictures at the Richardson Gallery are all
16-by-20-inch chromogenic prints, many of which display a northerner's
preference for muted earth tones. But, of course, there is no bourgeois
amplitude for her to show off; mostly just people coping with what
history dealt them.
"Kazan (Vlada on Bed)" (1992) is a girl of about the same age as the
boys in "Novokuznetsk." She sits hunched over on the edge of her bed
wearing only a camisole, her left arm draped listlessly in her lap, and
her right arm balanced on her right thigh so that the hand covers the
bottom half of her face. Again, Ms. Manen's flash has blanched Vlada's
skin, making it as anemically white as the bed clothes behind her. Fine
black hairs are visible on her forearms and shins. A small Japanese
print of a kabuki actress or geisha is tacked to the wall, a marker of
formal beauty. Vlada stares at the camera, but her mind seems lost in
trying to figure out if it is worth getting up and actually getting
There are several pictures with no people in them. "Apanas (Vera's
Laundry)" (1993) shows the torn sheets and other items hanging outside
on a clothesline, frozen solid. "Kluvinko, Siberia (Recreation at
Brickmaking Yard)" (1992) shows a ping-pong table that seems barely able
to stand as the only object in a room with a concrete floor, bare
concrete walls, and two black iron doors, one of which is padlocked.
"St. Petersburg (Birds in Room)" (1991) shows a small room with a naked
lightbulb, its casement window open so the flock of pigeons that have
covered the chair and chest with their droppings can fly in and out.
"Kazakhstan Sovkhoz (The Red Flag)" (1992) mocks the Dutch genre of
ample larders and tables of heaped game with a pyramid of empty metal
serving bowls stacked in the kitchen of a communal farm.
Not all is drear. In "Apanas (Michael and Pjotr after Bath-House)
Siberia" (1994), two men stand in the ice and snow wearing only their
skivvies, and pouring buckets of water over their heads; they seem
pleased with themselves. In "Vachtan (Irina in the Snow)" (1991), an
attractive young woman just come from a bathhouse stands in the snow
and, in the harsh glare on Ms. Manen's flash, naked except for a cross
on a silver chain, she smiles. "Novokuznetsk (Volodja and his Baby)"
(1994) is playful, but fraught; Volodja has tossed the naked infant high
up overhead, higher than it seems a prudent parent would. Ms. Manen
clicked the shutter with the baby at the top of his trajectory, where he
seems suspended in air, his arms outstretched in a gesture that
incorporates the iconography of Jesus both as an infant and as a martyr
on the cross. The religious reference is not out of place. Volodja has a
full beard like the one in the picture on the wall behind him of a
mitered figure, apparently a venerated priest or saint. Above that is
painted the esoteric symbol of one of Russia's mystical sects, and above
that a conventional icon. We are somewhat appalled at the baby's
exposure to peril, but hope that he — like all the people in straitened
circumstances in Ms. Manen's sympathetic pictures — comes down safely.
As for Russia, only a miracle can save it.
Until February 16 (Yancey Richardson, 535 W. 22nd St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 646-230-9619).
By William Meyers
For The New York Sun