Rarely do I have a day so filled with fun as well as two adventures that could not be more different from each other. Tuesday began like any other. I hopped the bus to school with my coworkers (commuting with coworkers – definitely a skill I’m working on), but I grabbed my backpack as I headed out the door. My students and I were headed for our first field trip and it promised to be a bonding experience.
We headed for Meshchersky Park, a 45-minute drive from school in fairly heavy traffic (seems there is always traffic in Moscow). A handful of these so-called “panda parks” can be found around the city. These parks are usually found in the woods and feature multiple ropes courses of varying levels of difficulty. The panda part – while never actually explained – comes from the scampering and tree climbing, evidently.
It was surprisingly chilly in the park, a sure sign that autumn is upon us. The leaves are already changing and the grey skies threaten rain interspersed with moments of gorgeous sunlight. We got the run down for the day from our guides. The directions were in Russian, of course, so only about 1/4 of the kids understood and only one adult – good start. I am all too used to this from my time in Korea. Directions? Psshhaw.
My advisory (homeroom) group, 8 kids I see every day, was assigned a fairly difficulty course to begin with. Wobbling over log bridges and zip-lining from tree to tree (only a handful of collisions), the kids showed great determination to test their strength and agility. While calls of “Ms. P!” echoed from tree to tree, I craned my neck to watch them scurry like monkeys, 50 feet in the air.
As we used to say in Korea, “safety third”, and this ropes course was no exception. With my feet planted firmly on the ground, I was called in for pep talks – the kiddo caught in the middle of a rope swing, crying out of frustration/desperation. Not two minutes later, after figuring out his harness wouldn’t let him fall, that same kiddo was swinging rope to rope, singing to himself with glee.
It was a great excursion for all of us – even James, my little Korean bud who, despite having been airlifted down from a course he couldn’t handle, kindly offered me some of his kimbap lunch made by his mother. All in all, an awesome time with a great crew of kids. I feel lucky to have them to watch over.
Normally a day like that would have put me in bed early, but Tuesday night I had better plans. I hopped on the metro at Kievskaya and headed out for the northeast part of Moscow. Still shocked at how small downtown Moscow is, the requisite six stops flew by and I surfaced in the middle of a beautiful tree-lined square in a posh part of town. Finding my group (a number of older teachers who I don’t know yet), we made our way to the Opera House. Next door to the Opera stood a majestic wooden door, framed by sculptures of baby angels in the surrounding archway.
Entering a door on the third landing, we immediately fell down the rabbit hole. The foyer was lush, owing to its dark wood trim, oriental rugs, and Victorian loveseats. Following the gentle din of voices, we turned to enter an immense studio, bathed in light from its chandeliers. The parquet floor was splattered with oil paint, green and black.
The airy nature of the studio led us to jealously surmise what incredible natural light must fill the space during the day, shown only in the hint of blue light still visible as the sun set.
My eyes immediately flew to the brightly colored works lining the lower walls. Almost comic in their intensity, the paintings contrasted the elegant Victorian walls perfectly, invoking the image of the Paris Salon of 1905.
One of my favorite Art History stories to share involves a band of renegade painters led by Andre Derain and Henri Matisse. The year was 1905 and the annual autumn Salon was on in Paris. Derain and Matisse, having departed from the Impressionists and painted wild new landscapes full of blood red rivers and neon green skies, submitted their works for consideration. The original bohemian wild children of the 20th Century reveled in their shock-and-awe campaign.
Picture, if you will, a chaotic scene of artworks such as the one above stacked six rows in the air. The Salon facilities, housed in the Palais des Beaux-Arts on the Champs-Elysees, were designed in the style of 17th Century French architecture, featuring Greco-Roman finishes and little Italian cherubs, called putti, in the corners.
Upon entering the exhibition, the general public gasped in horror. An abomination! An outrage! Where were the waterlilies of Monet that they had finally accepted as their contemporary art? What were these futuristic eyesores full of color and bold brushstrokes? How horrible, the people remarked, for the paintings, those wild beasties, were scaring the angelic putti! That, my friends, is how the Fauves – the “wild beasties”, got their name.
Back in Alexander Aisenshtat‘s studio, it was immediately apparent that Alexander is himself a modern day Fauve – from the putti above his doorframe to the brash intensity his paintings imbue. Marching to the beat of his own drummer, he takes inspiration from religious Jewish texts, which he plays on a record player in his studio, and creates secular works in bold formation.
While we did have the chance to meet Alexander at the end of the evening, we were first treated to a lecture by his good friend, a scholar of Russian Art History. While the paintings were charming, I have to say that the two featured musicians – a cellist and a violinist – absolutely stole the show.
As my eyes surfed the room during a Bach concerto, the ambiance left me in total awe. I feel so lucky to have an experience like this, not only so soon in my Russian adventure but as a treasured memory of my time here.
Like so many of my days living and teaching abroad, this day was chock-full of adventures and surprises. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to combine my two loves – teaching and art – and I look forward to the experiences yet to come.