"Moscow: Treasures and Traditions" is a lavish Russian buffet of an exhibit, spread over the depths of the International Gallery in the Smithsonian's S. Dillon Ripley Center.
Its elements are as different as blinis, caviar, chopped eggs, onions and capers -- some 200 icons, porcelain tea cups, embroidered costumes, folk art, avant-garde art, maps and armor, including a 16th-century helmet that obviously was the model for Hershey's chocolate kiss.
Some things are plain tacky, the sort collected by the aunt whose heirlooms all went to the consignment shop. For instance, the ceramic inkstand made in the image of a stupid-looking mustachioed cossack, waving a flag and sitting by a drum. Many would cherish it. Many would accidentally knock it off the table.
Other objects are the products of amazing craftsmanship, reflecting elaborate religious rituals. Consider the early 15th-century travel panagia, a pectoral icon, shown at the entrance to the exhibit.
From the outside, the pendant is a circle of entwining filigree around circles of Christ and the four Evangelists. Inside are graven images of the Virgin and the Trinity. The silver votive object was cast, chased, carved, gilded, blackened (niello) and ornamented with pearl and almandine. Once it doubtless held small pieces, soon crumbs, from the Service of the Panagia, a bread blessed, marked with the image of the Virgin and carried in a procession to the refectory of a monastery.
Other religious works have a pagan quality, an awkwardness rather like a Latin prayer incorrectly chanted -- namely, the altar cross ordered by Ivan the Terrible in 1562, encrusted with cabochon (unfaceted) stones. Sometimes, the composition doesn't seem to make sense, but perhaps it is in an unknown tongue.
The mid-16th-century icon to Basil the Blessed, a certifiable Holy Fool, depicts him mostly naked, and apparently tattooed, trapped behind an elaborate gold okhlad, or cover, haloed and hung with cabochons.
"The Miracle of St. George and the Dragon" celebrates an unlikely warrior, a mass of gold and vermilion, on a friendly white horse slaying a lacy dragon. The vigor of the drawing, despite its primitive flatness, enchants the eye.
Indeed, the icons are so marvelous and so strange that if the rest of the show turned out to be steam from a teapot, the show would still be well worth the trouble to go down, down, down in the underground gallery.
The gesso and tempera on wood icon of the "Life of Saint Sergius of Radonezh," from the early 16th-century is imaginative both in design and execution. The stylized portrait of the statesman who founded the Holy Trinity Monastery at Zagorsk is surrounded by pictures of his visits by angels.
A late-17th-century series of single and double panels -- "The Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple," "The Nativity," "The Washing of the Feet," among others -- are mounted like a screen, making a wall of wonder.
The icons are difficult to leave. Still the metal objects are magnificent.
Ivan Grigoriev, in 1751, needed three pounds of silver, chased and gilded, to make a Bible cover. Not all the elaborate work belongs to previous centuries -- a 1908-1917 century miter by the Olovyanishnikov required embroidery, pearls, semi-precious stones, engraving and enamelwork. Faberge used a folk story about Father Frost ("Morozko") and a sleeping girl in making a cigar case that would frighten the most addicted smoker.
The 1557 chocolate-kiss-shaped steel helmet incised with gold once sat, surely uncomfortably, on the head of the tragic 3-year-old heir of Ivan the Terrible.
The medals and their ribbons attest to honors long forgotten, but the wearing apparel, including the ecclesiastical textiles, have a magnificence and heroic scale easy to remember. Vestments are embroidered with pearls, fashioned from brocade almost too heavy to carry, and are illuminated with threads spun of precious metals. The glittering embroidery of a man's fireside boots is so bright there's no need to light the fire.
The china plates, cups and coffee pots must have delighted the European visitors in search of souvenirs.
Not all the paintings in the exhibition are of two-dimensional saints. Some look like illustrations for children's travel books. But many of the street scenes, such as Fedor Yakovlevich Alekseyev's 1815 "The Kremlin and the Stone Bridge" are peepholes into the past. A few of the portraits, such as the "Portrait of the Writer Leonid Nikolaevich Andreyev" by Ilya Efimovich Repin tell enough about the subject to inform a biography. The circa 1670 portrait of Czar Aleksey Mikhailovich is a delightful introduction to a shy man hiding behind an exuberant mustache and pounds of richly ornamented robes. Boris Kustodiev is particularly adept at describing early 20th-century Moscow life with paint. His "Moscow Tavern," circa 1916, pictures long-bearded coachmen in their long blue robes at tea, a cat, bird cages, handsome young waiters and a roll of salami. His 1919 "Shrovetide" snow scene looks like a theater backdrop.
The 20th-century paintings include two choice works by Vasily Vasilevich Kandinsky -- "Improvisation #34," 1913, and "Moscow Red Square," 1916. Those who missed the National Gallery's recent splendid show of Kazimir Severinovich Malevich should at least see his innovative 1916 "Suprematism #56" abstraction and the 1928 "The Reaper," more figurative, though still defiant of the cultural communist czars.
The exhibit, shown earlier in Seattle, was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) and the U.S.S.R. Ministry of Culture in association with the Seattle Organizing Committee of the 1990 Goodwill Games and the Seattle Art Museum, with the help of a grant from the Boeing Co. Jay Gates, Seattle Art Museum director, and Donald R. McClelland, a SITES curator, helped choose the works from the State Kremlin Museums, History Museum, Tretyakov Gallery and others. The accompanying catalogue has 12 essays on Moscow history and art. The show, at the Smithsonian's Quadrangle, 1100 Jefferson Dr. SW, goes back to the Soviet Union after it closes Feb. 3.