This Moscow Subway Car Brings an Art Museum to Commuters

Experience some of Russia’s most notable pieces of art while traveling by train

"Intensive XX" contains 78 reproductions of paintings by notable Russian artists. Their display space: the Moscow Metro. (Evgeny Alekseev/The Tretyakov Gallery)

An overly crowded subway train is likely to be among the last places on earth where you would expect to find an art exhibition—but that’s not the case in Moscow. For the past several years, the Moscow Metro, the elaborate rapid transit system of Russia's capital, has been creating topic-specific subway trains that focus on everything from literature to cinema to fine art. For its latest edition, “Intensive XX,” the focus is on Russian art of the 20th century, and the exhibition’s purpose is to educate the public about this important era in the country’s cultural history.

From now through June, subway riders on the system’s popular Koltsevaya Line (Circle Line), which makes a loop around the city center, can expect to see a variety of artwork on display from the Tretyakov State Gallery, which holds one of the largest collections of Russian fine art in the world and which worked in conjunction with the Department for Transport and Road Infrastructure Development on the project. 

For “Intensive XX,” curator Faina Balakhovkaya compiled 78 reproductions of paintings by an array of notable Russian artists, including avant-gardists Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko, along with modern artists Yuri Zlotnikov, Viacheslav Koleichuk and Eric Bulatov. 

“We’ve selected the most important, interesting and spectacular artworks, thinking also about the mass audience and people who know nothing about the art of the [20th] century,” Balakhovkaya tells Smithsonian.com. “The national art of the [20th] century is quite diverse and contradictory—the development of the avant-garde was severely interrupted by Socialist realism [a style of realistic art developed during the Soviet Union’s reign] that was compulsory for everybody.”

So why not just hold an exhibition above ground in a setting that is more aligned to viewing fine art—say, for example, in a museum? When you think about it, the idea to blend public transportation with artwork is actually quite ingenious. Just ask anyone who has ever commuted via subway and forgot to bring along a distraction like a book or a cell phone; the result is a long (and boring) ride. Plus, using a crowded venue like the subway guarantees a substantial amount of eyes on the paintings. Approximately 2.4 billion people use Moscow’s rapid transit system each year, according to the International Association of Public Transport.

Previous train exhibits in the series have included replicas of 20th-century watercolors, displayed with gallery-like frames and lighting.

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Still, Balakhovkaya admits that one of the most challenging aspects she faced while curating this project was working with such an unorthodox venue.

“Underground is not a gallery or a museum,” Balakhovkaya says. “It’s impossible to hang up the reproductions of art and expect that they will be perceived as intensively as the originals. I wanted to build up an idea connected to ​​art that would be the most complete and strong, but not exhaustive. Therefore, [for this exhibit] we showed only fragments of paintings.”

In addition to what is displayed, riders can use their smart phones to access a collection of stories and video clips pertaining to the masterpieces on view. The underground exhibition is also a way for the gallery to lure visitors to the museum itself—its stop is conveniently on the same subway line—so that visitors can experience some of the original paintings. 

“It’s an experiment for us,” Balakhovkaya says. “We have written texts about artists, their works, and other important events in art. I think the most important information is always in the works of art themselves.”

About Jennifer Nalewicki

Jennifer Nalewicki is a Brooklyn-based journalist. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, United Hemispheres and more. You can find more of her work at her website.

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