Steve Nash, Curator of Archaeology, and Rick Wicker, Photographer
Today, we had the remarkable experience of actually going into the Gokhran, roughly translated as "Reserves of the Diamond Fund". This Russian institution has held the most valuable national treasures since 1920. The Gokhran supplies the collections for exhbition in the Diamond Fund Museum within Red Square, in the Kremlin. Rather than go there, however, we went to a different site way out in the suburbs, in a higly secure building that can only be described as a Russian Fort Knox.
After being escorted through multiple levels of security, and having our passports scrutenized (but interestingly not confiscated), we were led to a small room off of a windowless corridor. The shock on Rick's face was redundant, as I was already in the process of asking him "Do we have a problem?" The room was long and narrow, the very opposite of what he needs to provide proper lighting in order to take good shots. With some finagling, we were able to put together an ersatz photo studio. The two Konovalenko sculptures we had come to photograph Likbez (roughly Liquidation of Illiteracy) and Brezniki (a variant of Bosom Pals at DMNS) were in steel transport cases and lovingly swaddled in linens. When they had last seen the light of day, we can only speculate. The two ladies who were personally responsible for the sculptures watched over us nervously..... and Rick got to work.
So far as we know, Likbez has never been photographed until now, and it's beautiful. A tall man in a Red Army uniform leans over three students who are trying to learn to read and write. They have slate blackboards and chalk in their hands; one woman is sticking her tongue out in concentration (you'll have to wait to see Rick's detail shot if you don't believe us!). This is one of the last sculptures Konovalenko made while in the Soviet Union and clearly demonstrates his evolution as a master gem carver.
Brezhniki, on the other hand, is one of the first sculptures Konovalenko ever made, and is a much simpler version of Bosom Pals. Even here there are exquisite details, however like the punch bowl and the balilaika. Bosom Pals in Denver has a much more elaborate enamel punch bowl, among other elaborations.
Two days ago, on Saturday, we spent much of the day at Anna Konovalenko's house, photographing her spectular rendition of Tsar's Henchman, her unusual Kovsch (punch bowl), and a malachite placque made with the DMNS Bosom Pals image on it in metal. We also met with Galia Gupapova, a scholar from St. Petersburg who is writing a book on Konovalenko, and recently discovered his autobiography in archives there. She has agreed to share our findings with us.
Speaking of St. Petersburg, in a few hours we're off to take the overnight train to St. Petersburg. There, we will photograph and visit the Russian State Museum, where Konovalenko had his first exhbition in 1973, and the Maryinsky Theatre, where he worked from 1953-63 and where he began gem carving in 1957. Then, it's back to Denver!
Steve and Rick