The Ransom of Russian Art
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The Ransom of Russian Art

3.69 of 5 stars 3.69  ·  rating details  ·  167 ratings  ·  20 reviews
In the 1960's and 1970's, American professor Norton Dodge forayed on his own in the Soviet Union, bought the work of underground "unofficial" artists, and brought it out himself or arranged to have it shipped illegally to the United States. John McPhee investigates Dodge's clandestine activities in the service of dissident Soviet art, his motives for his work, and the fate...more
Hardcover, 181 pages
Published December 31st 1994 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1994)
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The women often had at least as much talent as their husbands did, and the women prepared the sandwiches while the men drank vodka and held forth on art theory.

Even more striking than Norton Dodge's dangerous smuggling of thousands of noncomformist artworks out of the Soviet Union is the sheer will to create on the part of the artists themselves. Art supplies were available only to the state-approved, the official, the unionized, but underground painters pushed ahead with automobile paint, frame...more
John McPhee has an utterly unique topic here: Norton Dodge, a University of Maryland economics professor who spent nearly 30 years bringing out 9000 pieces of "unofficial" or "noncomformist" art by men and women living in the then-USSR. These artists were not officially sanctioned by the Kremlin and, as such, continued to paint in the 1950s through the 1980s in constant fear of incarceration in prisons or mental hospitals. This book could have benefited from better editing (I repeatedly found my...more
I met the late Norton Dodge a couple of times and I now regret that I hadn't read this quickie book before I had. I knew him to be legendary for some reason, but now I understand why. Here was a slovenly disheveled academic from Oklahoma who spoke poor Russian, but managed to single-handedly save thousands of Soviet dissident works of art and some of the artists with them at great risk to himself. It's easy to forget today how brutal the Soviet regime was and it's heartbreaking to read of lives...more
Mr. Magoo smuggles art out of communist Russia: McPhee is a Pulitzer Prize winner who in the past has specialized in geology but really can write anything that has real people in real situations (e.g., Giving Good Weight and Looking for a Ship). In this book a chance encounter with a truly eccentric man on a train leads to a story about -- an unparalleled rescue from the Soviet Union, not of Jews, not of intellectuals, not of political dissidents or of oppressed minorities, but of the canvases o...more
A captivating portrait of an unusual character, Norton Dodge, a professor of economics who bought a ton of underground art in Soviet Russia in the 1960s and 1970s and stored it on his vast estate in Maryland before making a deal with Rutgers University for it to be exhibited at the Zimmerli Art Museum in perpetuity. Although McPhee failed to make Dodge answer all major questions about his collecting (where did the money come from? was he ever in the pay of either the C.I.A or the KGB, or both? h...more
This is not about Russian art, thus no commentary about the merits and demerits of any work; this is about Norton Dodge's pursuing and purchasing of "unofficial" art in the early "thaw" of 1960 and 1970's. By all account, Dodge is such a messy, disorganized, easily disoriented academic, how did he get around Russian with a flash light and old maps, sans major harrassment from the KGB? Of course there are suspcion of artist death caused by their contacts with Dodge (thus the west); but still, his...more
What can I say? I love John McPhee and all the crazy, obscure subjects he chooses for books. This one is certainly one I knew nothing about--to the point that it had never even been on my radar, or however you say that. "Unofficial art of the Soviet Union from the 60's and 70's." I would now love to see a collection of it! The book is about this guy, Norton Dodge, who had a passion for collecting it and took all sorts of risks to do so. He eventually acquired over 9,000 works of art. The book is...more
This was the 1st John McPhee book I picked up, and it reads like a longer, immersive magazine article on an American economics professor who starts collecting underground/forbidden Soviet art. Of course there's questions about CIA involvement, smuggling, funding and the dynamics of art consumption.

It's not a tidy story though, and the unanswered (perhaps unanswerable) questions left me a bit frustrated. The color reproductions are fantastic though, and McPhee's prose will win you over. This sho...more
I was in a Mc Phee phase (Heirs of General Practice, Giving Good Weight and then the Ransom of Russian Art) when I read this book. Funny how some books sit unread on your shelf for years until the mood to read them strikes. A fascinating book on a scatterbrained American professor's lifelong passion for underground Russian art and how he amassed his collection of such dissident art.
A book about my former boss, Norton Dodge, and his furitive efforts to smuggle art out of the former Soviet Union. There isn't a great deal of details about how the art was removed, as Norton has not reveled his methods, but there is a charming story about Norton and his efforts to preserve the art that the Soviets deemed unworthy.
It was interesting - but more so in concept than execution.

I don't usually think of McPhee books as needing shortened (with the exception of Founding Fish), but nothing seemed to happen in later pages that didn't happen in the first pages. No new developments, no revelations, no insights....

Not my favorite McPhee book to date, but a fast read (easily handled in one unemployed-day). An interesting departure from his work of hard-science based pieces. I would recommend Rising Up From the Plains and In Control of Nature> more. I intend to tackle Coming Into the Country next...
Snail in Danger (Sid) Nicolaides
More like skimmed, to be honest. The story is not told in a very interesting way, but it is a basically interesting story. Most people will not have had the opportunity to be exposed to the works reproduced here. That's probably the most interesting aspect.
I will read anything John McPhee writes. The subject matter of this one (dissident art in Soviet Russia, smuggled out by an unlikely collector in America) wasn't quite my thing, but it made for an interesting look at another world.
Rich Biggs
A story well-told by Mr. McPhee. The story of a U.S. collector of Soviet dissident art didn't hold my interest as well as some other stories, but maybe that was my fault.
Nov 22, 2007 Natalie rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition Recommends it for: Art history nuts
This book did not have a flow to the story telling but I learned a lot. It is about unofficial Russian art and a man that saved this art from its own country.
Rambles a bit for McPhee. But a bad McPhee is better than...
Pretty pictures, but not McPhee's finest moment.
I admit a preference for fiction, but this amazing story tops that and more! Like modern art? Unlikely adventure and politics? Finely written!
Todd Berger
Todd Berger marked it as to-read
Apr 18, 2014
Max Gordon
Max Gordon marked it as to-read
Mar 31, 2014
Ruby marked it as to-read
Mar 18, 2014
Kay Rohrer
Kay Rohrer marked it as to-read
Mar 06, 2014
Wheeler marked it as to-read
Mar 01, 2014
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P...more
More about John McPhee...
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