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NO civilization that gave us the great Wassily Kandinsky, possibly the best painter of the last 100 years, can justly be said to lack a visual culture. But beyond that, how big a claim can we make for Russian art, now that the Guggenheim's new blockbuster, "Russia!," has rolled into town, with nearly 300 works on view?

The odd thing about this exhibition is that it feels very spotty and uneven, precisely because it accurately reflects its subject over the past eight centuries. When Russian art rises to greatness, so does the show. When, as more often, that art wallows in kitsch for centuries on end, the show itself seems to lie down and play dead.

Indisputably, the cultural greatness of Russia consists in its literature and, to a lesser extent, its music. But its visual art has mostly been content with a servile imitation of other nations. starting with Byzantine Greece, then Italy in the 18th century, France under Modernism and now, apparently, the United States.

And through all that time, there is a steady nervousness in Russian Art, a fear of not measuring up to the international art world, a dark, brooding earnestness, enlivened on occasion by hysterical glee.

This is expressed in the brooding portraits on view at the Guggenheim, no less than in the rows of genre scenes and landscapes depicting the interminable fields of Russia. These were painted by men like Repin and Levatin, who are household names in Russia but almost unknown abroad.

The best art - no surprise - is the glistening, gold-graven icons at the beginning and, toward the end, the works of such Russian avant-garde masters as Malevich and Rodschenko. Nothing that precedes or follows those later artists can prepare us for their dazzling spasm of creativity and originality.

Crushed by the communists who originally encouraged them, the revolutionary artists of 1920 soon gave way to what is known as Socialist Realism, with its cloyingly idealized representations of Lenin and Stalin, not to mention tractors and then men who love them. But even if this art is bad, it is endlessly fascinating all the same and no worse, surely, than much of what you see in Chelsea these days.

As to that, the latest art is indistinguishable from what we see in lower Manhattan these days, now that Russia's desire to imitate the West is once more in the ascendant.

RUSSIA! Guggenheim Museum, Fifth Avenue at 89th Street; (212) 423-0173. Through Jan. 11.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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