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British filmmaker opens Moscow show under Ukraine shadow
A file picture taken on November 12, 2012, shows British director Peter Greenaway attending the 7th edition of Rome's film fetival. It was meant to be a highlight of a year-long British-Russian cultural exchange, but a huge multi-media exhibition by British filmmaker Peter Greenaway has failed to escape tensions over the Ukraine crisis. AFP PHOTO / TIZIANA FABI.

By: Anna Malpas

MOSCOW (AFP).- It was meant to be a highlight of a year-long British-Russian cultural exchange, but a huge multi-media exhibition by British filmmaker Peter Greenaway has failed to escape tensions over the Ukraine crisis.

The event, which showcases the short-lived but powerful Russian Avant-Garde movement of the late 19th-early 20th century, opened Monday -- with British officials conspicuously absent.

Greenaway, 72, celebrated worldwide for films like "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover", and his wife, Dutch director Saskia Boddeke, together created the video installation for the UK-Russia Year of Culture in 2014.

Both were on hand for the gala opening but "unfortunately for known reasons, there is no political presence of our British partners," Russian President Vladimir Putin's cultural representative Mikhail Shvydkoi told a news conference.

Without naming Ukraine, a British embassy spokesman confirmed there had been no senior official at the show. "In light of current circumstances, we are reviewing all engagements with Russia on an event-by-event basis," the spokesman said.

The exchange, supported by both the British Council and the Russian culture ministry, will also see a landmark visit to Moscow by London's Royal Ballet among other events. All was planned well before the Ukraine crisis plunged relations between Russia and the West to a post-Cold War low.

Shvydkoi, however, insisted at the opening that "all our cultural and educational links with foreign countries... will remain, despite the complex political events".

The artist himself steered away from politics. "Religions change every week and politics change every afternoon. Whatever the current situation, it's not permanent," Greenaway told AFP at the opening.

"One thing continually holds its value for me, and that's cultural experience," he said.

Entitled "The Golden Age of the Russian Avant-Garde", the show at the Manege exhibition hall in central Moscow outside the Kremlin walls focuses on Russia's iconoclastic Russian painters, writers and film directors of the late 19th-early 20th century. Their radical experiments rejected the period's academic norms, before Soviet authorities declared that art must be representational and depict the lives of workers.

"The Russian avant-garde never really became the establishment. They were censored out of existence," Greenaway told journalists at the opening.

A very subjective event
The artist, who switched to video art a decade ago after declaring that "cinema is dead", created the libretto for the expo which plays out on 18 giant screens where actors portray 12 key figures from revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to artist Kazimir Malevich.

Greenaway and Boddeke used Malevich's 1915 painting "Black Square" as their visual theme, echoed in the shape of stands and throw cushions for viewers, while a paintbrush drags black paint across the screens.

Known for pushing limits, Greenaway has merged past and present with the show's multimedia approach. He acknowledged that Russians might "be very surprised" and disagree with the couple's vision of the Russian avant-garde.

"Somebody... suggested that 'That's not the way I imagined Mayakovsky, that 'That's not the way Malevich appeals to us as Russian people.'"

"We make absolutely no apology for it whatsoever -- a very subjective event," said Greenaway, sporting a pinstriped jacket and firing out anecdotes.

"When you go in, please immerse yourself and take your time," said Boddeke, recommending people spend 1 1/2 hours inside.

Reviewers praised the show but some were disappointed that it was not more "daring".

The exhibition "tells viewers in an accessible and effective way about the brightest years of Russian avant-garde art, long canonised all over the world, but alas, not in Russia," critic Anton Dolin said on Vesti FM radio.

Dolin said the show presented the artists "in the guise of hipsters" and "is guilty of populism and inevitable superficiality."

For the business daily Vedomosti, meanwhile, "the exhibition materials talk a lot about the innovation of this project, but alas, it is more like a popular fairground attraction than an aesthetic breakthrough."

The show runs to May 18.

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse

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