ON November 19th, the Russian Mission to the United Nations,on East Sixty th. Street, will be the setting for a party that "would have been quite unthinkable a few years ago," as Arcadi Nebolsine, one of the party's organizers, puts it. Nebolsine, the grandson of a courtier to Russia's last czar, is a member of the Russian Nobility Association and a man who characterizes the First World War, with gentle emphasis, as "a fatal mistake." Until recently, he says, he would never have been on speaking terms with diplomats from his ancestral homeland. For the past several months, however he has been negotiating with Uli M. Vorontsov, Russia's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, to bring about a onetime showing of paintings at the Mission by a largely under-heralded thirty-nine-year-old American artist named Richard Osterweil.
The style of the paintings--lyrical, pasteltoned, and naively representational-- will probably startle no one, but their subject matter, given the context in which they will be displayed, is at least slightly revolutionary. Or counter-revolutionary. Inspired exclusively by photographs taken before1917, the works portray Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, and their four children relaxing in imperial style at their summer and winter palaces and on their royal yacht. "To have in the former Soviet, Mission an exhibition dedicated to the family of Czar Nicholas II, that is very paradoxical," Nebolsine says. The show, which is being overseen by Barbara Braathen, a New York gallery owner, and Charlotte Boline, a veteran United Nations hostess, and which, for security reasons, can be seen by invitation only, will mark what Janet Romanoff, who is the American wife of Prince Nikita Romanoff, a grandnephew of the czar, points out is "the first time we can bring our fnends into the Mission." A spokesman for the Mission, Victor Romashov, describes the event as a manifestation of "the new Wave of interest in the history of Russia before 1917," and explains, "We are now in a state of mind of rethinking, looking around, and reestablishing the cultural past of a great country."
When Janet Romanoff was first shown the paintings, last spring, she sensed in the ostensibly cheerful scenes "a kind of sinister tone, so that you know what's going to happen." 0sterweil concedes that his work has an elegiac sensibility, but says he never intended it to have my specific ideological resonance. His studio, a cluttered Bleecker Street loft, is stocked with hundreds of paintings of such cultural icons as George Balanchine, Gertrude Stein, and Louise Brooks, and also of Claude Monet, whom color palette informs much of Osterweil's own work, and with innumerable yellowing tabloid photographs of socialites and movie stars. Sitting at a kitchen table there, he says that his response to the royal family was largely visual, and was engendered by some photographs he came upon in the late seventies. He has been painting the family ever since. "Believe it or not, I'm not interested in the Romanoff's as people, although I've read a great deal about them," he explains. "They were possibly not the most interesting people. It was the era I liked--I felt a nostalgia for a time in which I didn't exist. They're just genre paintings of the everyday life of them people, who happen to be Romanoffs. I don't make a point of being either sycophantic or derogatory."
In a twenty-year career, 0sterweil has had only one previous one-man show, and has supported himself by driving a taxi and by checking coats at the Cafe des Artistes, where he still works every other Tuesday and Saturday night. "Basically, people have not even wanted to look at my paintings," he says. "I can't blame them, because they're not what people are used to looking at. I've always felt that I'm a real fin-de-siecle type of guy. And now that it is the fin-de-siecle I feel that my time has come."
Actually, the Romanoff show represents the second wave of celebrity for 0sterweil: he is the subject of a feature documentary film called "Painting the Town" which was made by two former neighbors of his, Andrew Behar and Sara Sackner, and received affectionate reviews when it was released for limited runs in New York and Los Angeles last spring.
It will be re-released nationally, starting in November. The movie is devoted largely to a doggedly and inventively pursued hobby of Osterweil's, which a crashing celebrity parties and funerals. Perhaps because of the high security at the Mission show, he is at pains to point out that the film itself represents "a past time for me, really, which has sort of gone by." He does hope that his new stardom will last long enough for him to be written about in the Star and the National Enquirer, and says, "Tell them I'll believe anything they want to print about me: Secret Torment, Mystery Illness . . . "
0sterweil has been "sort of kept away" from the negotiations to mount his show, but he feels that his presence at the opening event will be singularly appropriate, for several reasons. "First of all, the paintings are about the Romanoffs - and the aristocracy. My life as a taxidriver and as a crasher shows that I'm truly a member of the proletariat as well. And my upbringing was middle-class. So I combine all three." Back to the home page.
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