RA Magazine Winter 2007
Issue Number: 97
Inside the great Russian museums
Russia’s quartet of major national museums – the Hermitage, State Russian, Pushkin and Tretyakov – have come together in an unprecedented collaboration to lend their masterpieces to the RA’s ‘From Russia’ exhibition. Sarah Greenberg travelled to Russia to explore these legendary palaces of art and see how they are evolving in the 21st century
Named for the St Petersburg retreat built to house the collections of Catherine the Great, the Hermitage remains Russia’s premier palace of art. Its galleries drip with the decoration, some might say decadence, of their imperial past.
While Catherine’s collections form its core, the art amassed by generations of monarchs, merchants and aristocrats, including that of Morosov and Shchukin (whose Cézanne is below) nationalised after 1917, have made it one of the world’s largest museums. Its charismatic director, Mikhail Pietrovsky, praises From Russia: ‘It represents Russia well to the outside world. The Hermitage is now at capacity for visitors, so it is important to bring our art to more people rather than bring more people here.’ To this end, he has opened branches in Amsterdam, London and Las Vegas.
Paul Cézanne, Woman in Blue, c. 1900. Oil on canvas, 90 x 73.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo @ The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
Recently, he has also launched the ‘20/21’ wing of the Hermitage to show private collections of contemporary art. The RA’s USA Today show from the Saatchi collection inaugurated this space in October (until 13 Jan 2008).
State Russian Museum
Housed in an imperial palace on Arts Square, across from the St Petersburg Philharmonic and the legendary Grand Hotel Europa, the State Russian Museum appears, from the outside, to be untouched by the twentieth century. Inside, however, avant-garde canvases leap off the wall at the viewer, from famous names like Goncharova, Larionov and Popova, to artists rarely seen outside Russia, such as Petrov-Vodkin and Natan Altman, whose painting adorns the cover of this magazine.
Czar Alexander III was so impressed by a visit to the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow in 1893, that he bought this palace in order to turn it into a national museum of Russian art, in what was then the capital. Opened in 1898, it is now the world’s largest collection of Russian art, ranging from icons, crafts and decorative arts to contemporary art. Grigory Goldovsky, a senior curator there, says ‘The RA show presents a wonderful panorama of Russian art. Everybody has heard of the avant garde, but now they will discover our nineteenth century artists, like the Wanderers.’
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, In the Garden (Under the Arbour of the Moulin de la Galette), 1876. The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Photo @ The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
The Pushkin opened in 1912 as an academic museum of plaster casts attached to Moscow University. But after the Russian capital was moved to Moscow in 1918, it was turned into a museum of fine arts, with works transferred from the Hermitage and later from the nationalised collections of Shchukin and Morosov (as well as other collectors), including greatest hits of French modern painting by artists such as Renoir (right) Monet, Manet, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso to name but a few. Its collection also includes work donated by artists such as Léger and Rivera who were sympathetic to the Russian Revolution. Since 2005 these paintings have been displayed in a restored town house next door, creating an intimate setting.
Run since 1961 by Irina Antonova, the museum has also become famous for its display of Schliemann’s gold, taken by the Red Army from the Pergamon museum in Berlin in 1945 and hidden until 1991.
The wealthy Moscow merchant Pavel Tretyakov turned his mansion, near the Kremlin, into a
treasury of Russian art. In 1856, he began collecting work by Russian artists of his time, such as the realist painters known as the Wanderers, including Repin and Shishkin (the star of a show there until 20 Jan 2008), ultimately giving his house-museum to the city of Moscow in 1892.
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Bathing the Red Horse, 1912. Oil on canvas, 160 x 186 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. Photo © State Tretyakov
Expanded in the neo-Slavic style, the museum was nationalised in 1918 and includes Russian art from icons, to the World of Art group and has a modern branch displaying Russian art of the twentieth century. Its deputy director Lydia Iovleva, who has collaborated on From Russia, says ‘The quality of this show is very high because it is made entirely of masterpieces from all the state Russian museums, including the Tretyakov’s Compositon No. 7 by Kandinsky’.
The author travelled to Russia courtesy of Cox and Kings
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