May 26, 2019

Czars’ silver sequel to ‘Black’

In last Saturday’s rant about the 1913 avant-garde painting “Black” – a piece of black canvas in a plain wood frame for which Russian tycoon Vladimir Potanin paid a million bucks and then donated to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum – I suggested that “Black” may be beautiful art, but I’d take a pass while awaiting the sequel.

Wait no longer – the sequels are here, a number of readers advised. “Drop down to Rockland’s Farnsworth Museum,” suggested e-mailer Fred Gralenski, whose posting gave no hint of hometown. “They have a couple of sequels – one in blue, and one in pink. I’m an ol’ dawg (geezer) too, so I hope I remembered the colors correctly…”

Jim McGregor of Augusta, a former newsman who subsequently was chief of staff for the late Gov. Jim Longley and presently labors for the Maine Merchants Association, also checked in. Disclosing that he has long concealed the fact that his art appreciation ends with “the Wyeths, Norman Rockwell and assorted American primitives,” this proud son of a Mississippi sharecropper wrote, “Thanks to your insightful piece in which you bravely confessed to not having a clue as to what ‘Black’ is all about, I will no longer have to utter loud, appreciative stage sighs and whispers when museum-viewing ‘White Dot on Purple Background,’ or a Pee-casso nude with only one breast, and the nose attached to the side of her face. I am now able to finally reveal my heretofore secret rule of thumb that if I can paint or draw it and achieve the same basic results, it ain’t art, because I don’t have an artistic bone in my body…”

But it was former 1st District Congressman Dave Emery of Tenants Harbor, once the pride of Rockland, who put “Black” into proper perspective for skeptics. “With all due respect to your singularly pedestrian tastes in art, and in defense of lovers of fine art everywhere, I indeed have the sequel you were hoping for which quite clearly explains the rationale behind the artist’s vision and the purchase you have described,” Emery’s e-mail began.

Before the fall of the Soviet Union Emery served in the Reagan administration and spent two weeks in Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad) – the creation of Peter the Great, and for many years the capital of Imperial Russia.

He visited the Heritage Museum, crown jewel of St. Petersburg, which was once the Winter Palace of the czars. “Words can’t adequately describe it,” Emery wrote. “It is utterly magnificent and today it contains one of the world’s largest collections of painting, sculpture and jewelry, including countless works from the Renaissance, the Masters, the Impressionists, the famous Fabrege eggs, and, of course, the czars’ jewelry and silver.

“Which brings me to your sequel…

“My Hermitage tour was guided by a young Russian who spoke perfect English, and who had an impressive grasp of the material she had the responsibility to present and explain. She could answer almost any question you might care to ask regarding a particular artist or his work, or about events that took place in or near the Hermitage during the 1917 revolution.

“Moreover, she was friendly and was obviously pleased at my interest in the Hermitage and its contents.

But, as was often the case with official guides during the Soviet era, she presented a decidedly Soviet point of view when asked about political events and was very careful to deflect questions that might be interpreted as too probing or critical. No curve balls allowed. But don’t get me wrong:

This one was a pro.

“Soon I was led into a particularly opulent gallery to view the czar’s silver. As soon as I laid my eyes upon it I was aghast. I could not believe what I was seeing. The czar’s silver – plates, goblets, candlesticks, chandeliers, flatware, every piece – was BLACK! Blacker than the ace of spades. Blacker than a lump of coal. Blacker than the blackest black hole in the universe. Even blacker, possibly, than Vladimir Potanin’s million-dollar painting.

“As soon as I gathered my senses, I managed to stammer out my questions: “But why have you not polished the silver? Why is it not in a modern display case, protected from moisture and pollution?”

“Not missing a beat, our guide popped back an answer the equal of Bill Clinton at his prevaricative best: ‘Why the coat of tarnish protects the silver, of course. That is why we never polish it.’

“So, as you can now see, and as Vladimir Potanin instinctively knows, in Russia black really is beautiful.”

NEWS columnist Kent Ward lives in Winterport. His e-mail address is

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