Dr. Wendy Salmond

Dr. Wendy Salmond

Wendy Salmond remembers the moment that a New Zealander raised in a small farming town met and fell in love with Russian art. It was 1976 and Salmond sat in a small classroom studying slides of Russian modern art during a University of Otago art history course.

“What I saw that day knocked my socks off,” says Salmond, a professor of art history in the Department of Art at Chapman University. “The paintings on the slides were incredibly beautiful and rich and like nothing I’d ever seen. It was a life-changing revelation for a small town New Zealand girl located 8,000 miles from Russia.”

Salmond found the experience so profound that she dedicated her career to writing and teaching about Russian art. After graduating with her Bachelors of Art in Russian Language and Literature in 1978, she left New Zealand to study for her Masters in Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

Widely Unknown Russian Art Movement

“Back in the late 1970s and 1980s few people knew about Russian Art, and many still don’t,” notes Salmond, who joined Chapman’s faculty in 1989 and played a major role in creating the university’s art history program that today has 30 majors, 23 minors and three fulltime faculty.

“Russian Modernism, which spanned the 1880s-1930s, ran parallel to French Impressionism and Cubism, but few people know about it because Stalinism shut down all artistic experimentation in the country, much like what occurred during the Nazi period. Even though the art was incredibly important, we weren’t allowed to experience it,” says Salmond, who teaches Russian and Soviet art classes at Chapman, which is one of the few educational institutions offering this curriculum.

During those dark decades, Russian modern art was relegated to provincial museums, put in storage, destroyed, or sold off throughout the world. “Those artists who didn’t emigrate were persecuted for their art, some of them winding up imprisoned or shot,” says Salmond. “The destruction of such works of art and what can happen when artists and art movements conflict with political systems is a stirring and poignant story. Artists from that period are now considered some of the most important of the 20th Century.”

An author and prolific translator of texts about Russian art, Salmond recently finished collaborating on a 2,000+ page book about the Polish-Russian artist, Kazimir Malevich, whose 1913 painting of a black square is considered the first purely non-objective work of modern art. As English editor of this five-year-long translation project, Salmond believes making primary documents and artists’ writings available to an English-speaking audience is vital to increasing our understanding of Russian art and culture. 

First Trip to Russia

Salmond has visited Russia on many occasions over the years, but her first trip as a master’s student in the fall of 1981 during the Cold War proved especially significant. “I was in the Soviet Union on New Year’s Eve 1981 when the Polish government announced martial law, which created a chill in the air,” she says. “I had the opportunity to study in the Lenin Library and like many westerners I visited underground artists’ studios. Those experiences made me realize that it wasn’t just about art—but the social and political messages.”

Over the years, Salmond has garnered an impressive array of accomplishments, including serving as a visiting curator at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens in Washington DC. In 2006, she curated at the New York Public Library the exhibit, Russia Imagined, 1825-1925: The Art and Impact of Fedor Solntsev. And this year she is returning to Hillwood to co-curate an exhibition around one of the museum’s most popular works, a painting of life in Old Russia that was once one of the best-known paintings in the U.S.

Unplanned Dual Citizenship

Born and raised in the 1950s in Gore, a small farming community in the south of New Zealand, Salmond intended to study in the U.S. for a year when she came in 1979 and then return, but that never happened.

After earning her Masters in 1983 at the University of Texas at Austin, she got her PhD in Art History there in 1989. Salmond’s dissertation focused on Russia’s Arts and Crafts revival, and it became the subject of her first book, Arts and Crafts in Late Imperial Russia. “When I finished my dissertation, I realized I had gravitated toward that particular topic from a strong sense of connection with the Russian peasant women I was studying. I spent my teen years keeping house for my family and doing crafts common in New Zealand at the time, including spinning, embroidery, lacemaking and dyeing. Growing up in a quite traditional rural community turned out to be great preparation for understanding the stresses and strains of peasant Russia.”

Sharing Knowledge

At Chapman, Salmond greatly enjoys teaching about Russian art. “The best classes occur when it doesn’t feel like teaching, but is more like a conversation,” she says. “Effective teachers get students so enthused that everyone forgets they’re in a classroom setting.”

Salmond’s colleagues say she accomplishes her goal. Kevin O’Brien is an associate professor of English at Chapman, who has translated a number of books from Russian and taught classes with Salmond. “What is remarkable about Wendy as an educator is the depth of her knowledge about her subjects and her dedication to promoting critical thinking,” he says. “Rather than teach a pre-determined point of view, she fosters each student’s exploration, analysis and interests. As a result, students engage in lively, intellectual cross-exchanges and ultimately come away with the message that learning is open-ended, stimulating and enjoyable.”

Marilyn Harran, Chapman’s Stern Chair in Holocaust Education and founding Director of the University’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education, has also created and taught classes with Salmond. “Wendy is a Chapman treasure and one of the most beloved and admired people at the University,” she says. “She epitomizes the true teacher-scholar-mentor. Many of her students stay in touch with her after they graduate. They admire her knowledge and love her passion for ideas and her truly limitless generosity. Her home is a welcoming gathering spot for colleagues, students and alumni.”

Both Harran and O’Brien also comment on Salmond’s modesty. “Wendy serves without making a big deal about it,” says Harran. “She’s been on countless committees, chaired the art department and is now chairing the Senate Executive Board. If it were up to her, we wouldn’t know that she is a groundbreaking scholar in the field of Russian and early Soviet art, architecture and design. I was so excited a few years ago when I was in New York City and happened to see the exhibit she curated at the New York Public Library.”

Salmond is definitely modest about the extent of her contributions to the field, agrees O’Brien. “She is in high demand as an art historian specialist and lecturer, and her contributions to the field of Russian art are important, because she brings highly original, fresh perspectives to her areas of interest. (Very often studies by native-born scholars in Russian-related areas of research can be too hidebound and dry.)”

Salmond’s current project is an exploration of the many Russian icons (religious works of art) that came to America after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Even Chapman University owns a small collection of icons, donated by the late Evelynn LaLanne of Laguna Beach. Salmond came up with the idea for the book while working as a visiting curator at Hillwood Museum from 1995-1996.

“When researching and cataloguing Hillwood’s Russian icons, I discovered that Marjorie Merriweather Post, the daughter to the founder of Post cereals and the museum’s original owner, had acquired them in the Soviet Union during the late 1930s, when her husband, Ambassador Joseph Davies, made his ‘mission to Moscow,’” says Salmond. “Many icons in American collections have similar colorful histories. The book is a long and laborious project, but, I hope, well worth the effort.”

Guggenheim Gallery

Located in Moulton Center near Chapman University’s Waltmar Theatre at the corner of Palm and Center in Old Towne, the Guggenheim Gallery was built in 1975. Throughout the year, the facility features innovative exhibitions of contemporary art by professional artists, as well as shows curated by students, faculty and community arts organizations.

Published in the May/Jun 2015 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review

Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph by Gary Campbell

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