THINK OF MOSCOW and you think in monochrome: Black and white breadlines, gray skies, red flags and giant iconic images of politicians.
At the Smithsonian's International Gallery in the S. Dillon Ripley Center, "Moscow: Treasures and Traditions" brings the great city into focus in living color. A major exhibition of more than 200 works of art -- both humble (slippers and tea services) and exalted (bejeweled icons and enameled eggs) -- it encompasses five centuries of the city's life, from a provincial Orthodox Christian outpost to contemporary capital of the Soviet Union.
There are many roads to accumulating a vision of Moscow, certainly, and the Russians have lent us a dizzying trove of riches, handsomely displayed, intelligently curated, leading us impression by impression through the labyrinth at the heart of Russia.
After entering through the gingerbread house doors (a representation of the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow), one finds the first rooms of the exhibition dominated by religious iconography -- chalices and Bible covers, painted wooden devotional icons in the Byzantine tradition, so ornately encrusted with silver filigree and precious stones that the saints depicted are barely discernible. Later magnificent liturgical stoles and robes, their cuffs encrusted with pearls, resemble the kind of fortunes promised by genies.
At a certain point you may find yourself doing a double-take when you realize just where a certain item came from. The State Museums of the Moscow Kremlin, for instance, supplied, among many other things, a graceful drinking bowl enameled with Old Testament scenes that belonged to one of Peter the Great's buddies -- imagine the Kremlin trusting us with their good dishes just a few short years ago! The extraordinary undertaking was arranged by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) in collaboration with the Soviet Ministry of Culture.
The rooms abound in beautiful objects and craftsmanship, of course, but this humanizing exhibition focuses on Moscow's people as well, conjuring the names we know -- Peter and Catherine the Greats, Ivan the Terrible -- and connecting them to faces. Among the extraordinary objects are a gold, ruby and emerald plate given to Peter the Great's grandson by the czar's mom and a handsome black cut-velvet caftan made for the young Peter, one of the few remaining examples of Old Russian clothing.
A walk through these rooms provides a feel for the city and how it grew, burned down (in 1812, when Napoleon set up headquarters there) and grew again. Sabers and scabbards, a double-headed axe and shirt of chain mail illustrate how Moscow was defended; engraved maps of the city show the circles of fortification, and the physical changes that ensued when the ruling power moved to St. Petersburg and back.
As the city grew outward, Western influences begin seeping in. Painting styles softened up, for instance, becoming less stylized and more "human." Nicely grouped portraits of rich and royal Russians are fascinating for the changing painting styles they illustrate and the intimate glimpses of personal life they provide.
The upheavals in Moscow's political and personal life are echoed in its art, which went through its own revolutions: We see social realism pitted against the avant-garde, traditional stylization and rustic idealism, with Moscow's artists depicting national achievement (Vera Mukhina's 1936 monumental sculpture "The Industrial Worker and the Collective Farmer"), dissatisfaction (Vladimir Makovsky's 1889 "The Doss House," a scene of Moscow's freezing homeless) and unease (Petr Petrovich Konchalovsky's jumpy brushstrokes and anxious colors in his 1943 "Self-Portrait in a Yellow Shirt"). Nostalgia and nationalism have their say as well, and Norman Rockwell had a Russian counterpart in Fedor Reshetnikov, whose 1952 "Poor Grades Again" might have graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
Finally, there's a quick survey of contemporary artists, highlighted by a pair of explosive Kandinskys and Alexander Sitnikov's wildly psychedelic 1985 impresssion of a Shostakovich concert. The wide-ranging exhibition is brought to a satisfying close by two last works, positioned before you exit into the gift shop, which is stocked with cards, catalogues and gifts imported from the Soviet Union.
In his carved wood portrait sculpture, Leonid Barabov imagines a meeting between the literary giants Pushkin and Tolstoy, who inhabited different periods of the 19th century and represent different corners of the heart of Russia. And Tatyana Nazarenko's 1983 triptych (which consciously harkens back to the medieval icon form) is a meditation that seems to encompass all that's gone before it in the exhibition. Nazarenko pictures herself in the left frame, painting, her studio cluttered with photos and icons, summoning all the ages of Russia in one place. In the right frame, an open studio window looks out on Moscow, recognizably changed but somehow the same as it ever was.
MOSCOW: TREASURES AND TRADITIONS -- Through Feb. 3 at the S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW. Metro: Smithsonian. Open daily 10 to 5:30.