Making an impression — Russian style

Sitkovsky Monastery by Nikolai Timkov, 1971

Sitkovsky Monastery by Nikolai Timkov, 1971

Timothy Wyman admits his wife Lisa thought he was bonkers when he purchased hundreds of paintings by the late Russian Impressionist painter Nikolai Efimovich Timkov some 16 years ago. Sure the Easton, Md., resident loves all genres of art, but he also was on the lookout for the ultimate deal.

Luckily for him, when the Soviet Union breathed its final gasp in 1991, St. Petersburg's Russia Museum, the largest repository of Russian art, was scrambling to survive. Gone were the years of government support; now the museum, along with countless other galleries, needed good old capitalist cash. The trouble was that these museum directors didn't know how to finesse the system. Worse, but for dissident artwork, Westerners weren't all that familiar with Russia's Impressionist artists or their work.

Amid all the confusion, Wyman learned from former college roommates that Russia's undervalued artwork was up for sale; soon, he and his wife were flying to Russia and being escorted to a crumbling industrial section of St. Petersburg. Inside a decaying brick warehouse, they explored Timkov's dusty studio, filled to the brim with some 700 paintings.

Eventually, Wyman spent more than a million dollars on the collection — from purchasing to transporting to cleaning and stabilizing the paintings, to categorizing and housing the hundreds of works, to framing a select group of landscapes in 22-carat gold leaf frames for exhibition. It wasn't about making money; rather, the Wymans have "good aesthetic sense" and wanted to keep Timkov's work together, explains Dr. Curtis Sandberg, vice president for arts at the District's Meridian International Center, who, with Dr. Allison Hilton of Georgetown University, first curated the exhibition for the center last year.

Early on, the art collector sold a few paintings to offset the costs, but now, regrets not keeping them. No matter the expense, Wyman's goal was to exhibit this plein aire artist's work, and after a thorough restoration, "The Timkov Collection," featuring 44 landscapes, is on view through Saturday, Feb. 20, at The Mansion at Strathmore in North Bethesda. The retrospective offers Timkov's perspective of rural Russia over some 60 years from the 1930s to his death in 1993.

The Russian Impressionist's work is decidedly different from the work Impressionists created in the South of France. Wyman sees a parallel between the Russian and American styles of Impressionism. Perhaps it's the "scenery and the day-to-day activities. A parasol in France doesn't look like a parasol in Russia," he says.

The "neutrality" of his subject matter enabled Timkov to "circumvent Soviet mandates," Hilton explained in an interview published in Georgetown University's Research News. She was unavailable to comment here.

The Soviet Union insisted that artists create "nothing frivolous, and nothing European. It was important to tell the state story," Wyman explains. Timkov often offered his opinion, albeit with subtlety.

In one painting, the artist created a vast landscape with a barely visible, tiny smudge of a person.

"The small person would be wearing a red scarf and a red hat [symbolizing Communism]. It was his way of saying the State is not important in the big picture," Wyman observes.

While Timkov's work was exhibited throughout Russia, with no real art market, the artist was recognized first when he was a soldier in World War II for his drawing of the Siege of Leningrad, now on view at the Russia Museum.

While painters were expected to stick to the party politics, "he was given a pass, because of his immense talent," Sandberg notes.

It wasn't an easy life — Timkov made his own oil paints — and with canvas almost impossible to acquire, the artist mostly painted on board and paper.

Exactly why Strathmore opted to highlight Russian culture has a lot to do with the "large Russian population" in this region. "Whenever we have Russian-related performances, they sell out," explains Monica Jefferies, Strathmore's executive vice president of administration.

A little détente and old-fashioned capitalism go a long way.

Along with the exhibition, the Wymans are donating Timkov's painting "Growing Green" to be auctioned off along with two books chronicling the life and art of Nikolai Timkov and VIP Access to Art and Cultural events at Meridian International Center and a Strathmore membership for one year. The auction ends at 3 p.m. on Feb. 20; bids can be taken in person or by mail.

"The Timkov Collection" is on view Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., at The Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Admission is free. An opening reception is planned for Thursday, Jan. 14, 7 to 9 p.m. RSVP or call 301-581-5125. A free artist talk and tour for children is planned for 10:15 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 16; RSVP at 301-581-5109. A free art talk for adults is set for 1 p.m. on the same day; no reservation is required.

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