September 2015

Arts & Letters

Russia’s longest charm offensive

By Julie Ewington
Catherine the Great still reigns in the NGV’s ‘Masterpieces from the Hermitage’

Remarkably, 250 years after it was established as the world’s first art museum, the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg still seems to be following the edicts of its founder, Catherine the Great. One of the largest museums – only the Louvre in Paris exceeds its gargantuan sprawl across seven buildings, including the Winter Palace – the Hermitage energetically promotes its priceless collections not only to Russian visitors but also, increasingly, to international audiences.

This was always, in part, an international mission, as Catherine determined in the early 1760s. For the brilliant, ruthless, generous and visionary empress, art and culture were tools both to charm Europe, with the scope and ambition of Russian learning and wealth, and to westernise Russia. How better to achieve these ends than by setting up a splendid collection of art and objets de vertu, effectively a nascent national museum? In only 32 years, until her death in 1796, Catherine, acting, in effect, as the museum’s director, formed one of the greatest collections of her time. This is the basis of today’s magnificent museum, with its approximately 3 million items.

The Hermitage is determinedly expansionary. Despite its long traditions and impressive bureaucracy, business is both brisk and innovative. In recent years, under director Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Hermitage has set up regional branches in Vyborg, western Russia, and Kazan, central Russia, and in July announced a planned contemporary branch for Moscow. International outposts in London (2000–07), Las Vegas (2001–08, in collaboration with the Guggenheim) and Amsterdam (opened 2009) carried the message further afield. The Hermitage has sent exhibitions to cities such as Montreal and Tokyo. And now to Melbourne, with Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV, until 8 November).

All the fairytale opulence of the St Petersburg palace is conjured at St Kilda Road. Near the entrance, visitors are seduced by a trompe l’oeil video – you can almost walk right in – of the Hermitage’s famous Raphael Loggias gallery. Catherine commissioned this exact copy of Renaissance master Raphael’s decoration for the Vatican palace in the late 1780s. The NGV’s director, Tony Ellwood, promises “a rare opportunity to be immersed in the world of Catherine the Great and her magnificent collection of art”, and the extravagant decor of the Hermitage has been painstakingly re-created: exact copies of furnishings, even the sheer ruched Russian curtains; the Winter Palace’s parquet flooring mimicked in printed MDF. These simulacra might have delighted the Empress, but I found the insistent colour and punctilious frou-frou oppressive. Perhaps this style works only in high-ceilinged rooms the size of basketball courts?

At the media preview, the exhibition’s curator, Mikhail Dedinkin, from the Hermitage, claimed this “the greatest exhibition the Hermitage has made abroad”, and fine it is, in some ways unexpectedly so. For while the leading message of the exhibition is one of glamorous treasure, another runs in parallel: this is a project to upgrade the museum’s international status. This message is derived from Catherine the Great’s conception of her role as ruler, and her presence frames this perfectly paced exhibition.

It opens with Catherine as empress of all we survey: in Alexander Roslin’s enormous portrait, she wears a benign expression and an unconscionable quantity of diamonds as she gestures to a bust of Peter the Great, who founded St Petersburg. We see paintings of the city and architectural drawings for imperial projects that promise ambition, wealth and energy. In the lavish Sèvres dinner service commissioned for Prince Grigory Potemkin, her former lover and close friend, we see a concentrated dose of the cultural value Catherine secured for her capital, and the cameos that adorn the service signal her passion for engraved gems and jewellery. (More are shown nearby in their original cabinets.)

The exhibition’s final room is surprisingly intimate, devoted to Catherine’s feminine accoutrements, including her fabulous toilet set, and exquisite Chinese jewellery and silverware – things the Empress touched and loved. But between these personal elements runs an imposing suite of rooms that encapsulate Catherine’s grand public ambitions. They are devoted, in the traditional European manner, to national “schools”: the Italian, which the catalogue anachronistically describes as laying “the foundations for all European art”, and the French, Flemish, Dutch and British in turn. This is, as claimed, probably the finest collection of Flemish and Dutch paintings ever to come to this country. Rubens’ extraordinary range of abilities is displayed, not only in great set pieces but also in a penetrating portrait of a Franciscan monk and in a luminous landscape; Dutch painting is shown in all its brilliant genres, with works by Rembrandt, and an energetic portrait by Frans Hals that was one of Catherine’s earliest acquisitions.

All this, of course, is just the tip of the Hermitage iceberg. Catherine swept through European auctions and hoovered up entire collections. She deployed advisers such as Denis Diderot, the leading Parisian art critic of the day. In England, Catherine caused a furore, culminating in a parliamentary debate, when she scooped up the superb collection of Sir Robert Walpole. (Look for lovely portraits by Anthony van Dyck, including one of the melancholy Charles I, and the smiling female nude once attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.)

The Legacy of Catherine the Great is a thoughtful exhibition with so many treasures that one becomes almost inured to them in the overall spectacular effect. (Don’t overlook the superlative drawings.) Yet behind the gloss, grandeur and tradition are narratives about the vicissitudes of political and social life in Europe. There are marvellous modest paintings of daily life, by the French painters Louis Le Nain, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and the moralising Jean-Baptiste Greuze, as well as the peerless Antoine Watteau’s enchanting picture of a Savoyard street musician with a performing marmot; there is, too, the dramatic scene of a smithy’s forge by Joseph Wright of Derby, testifying to Catherine’s admiration of British industry. It would be tempting to attribute these social sensitivities to Catherine’s enlightenment, as did Voltaire and others. Yet it would also be ironic, given Catherine’s expansion of serfdom, and the brutal autocracy that secured her rule. The Hermitage began life as an imperial project, built on the backs of millions, and these works reveal the power of dissenting art rather than the Empress’s true interests.

Open to the public since 1852, the Hermitage seems to have survived fundamentally unaltered through the seven Soviet decades. Its classical collections escaped the Soviet hostility towards avant-garde art. At the media preview in Melbourne, Mikhail Dedinkin spoke about the 250-year continuity that has persisted despite many political and social changes, suggesting that the Hermitage helps people “find their own history”. Yet the storming of the Winter Palace during the revolution in October 1917 saw considerable destruction, and during the economic upheavals of the late 1920s, when the industrialising Soviets were struggling with collectivisation, around 250 valuable works were sold off to earn foreign currency. Andrew Mellon’s acquisition of 21 major paintings in 1931 became the foundation of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the NGV’s gorgeous Tiepolo oil painting, The Banquet of Cleopatra (1743–44), was purchased in 1933 with Felton Bequest funds. (The visiting Hermitage curators duly trooped upstairs to visit it.)

A key figure in the Hermitage’s contemporary success is Mikhail Piotrovsky. His father, Boris, was the director from 1964 until his death in 1990, and Piotrovsky took over the role in 1992, an almost unbroken succession chain of just over 50 years so far, and a demonstration of survival skills that bodes well for the museum. (The title of his forthcoming book, My Hermitage: How the Hermitage survived tsars, wars, and revolutions to become the greatest museum in the world, says it all.) Under Piotrovsky, the museum has focused on Catherine and her foundational mythology in marketing the Hermitage. The matchless propaganda of Alexander Sokurov’s one-take film Russian Ark (2002) was also produced on his watch. In this profoundly nostalgic tribute, a clarion sounding the glory days, the Hermitage becomes a repository of Russian history and cherished dreams of Russian greatness.

Today it seems the Hermitage is still Russia’s cultural ark, floating on the troubled seas of contemporary politics. The country’s recent anti-gay legislation and its expansionist campaign in Ukraine have resulted in international condemnation. A proposed boycott threatened the Hermitage’s presentation of the European contemporary art biennial Manifesta in 2014, and members of Australia’s Ukrainian community have been vocal in criticising the timing of the NGV exhibition.

Catherine the Great’s foundation of the Hermitage Museum foreshadowed modern cultural patronage, tourism and diplomacy. If Melbourne is distant from the great centres of Europe, so too is the Hermitage from international audiences. (This alone makes the two fine sister cities, as they have been since 1989.) St Petersburg is yet to become one of the world’s tourism capitals, but tourism is rapidly developing there, and the Hermitage plays a central role in this. Meanwhile, the museum is operating, in one sense at least, as it did originally: what seemed like exemplary generosity was, and still is, quiet persuasion. Today, blockbuster exhibitions are Trojan horses for their cities, cultures and countries, marketing home museums abroad. They are also enormous business. The singular peculiarity of the Hermitage’s cultural message, in its consistent use of Catherine the Great and her elaborate imagery, is that it is still uncontroversially imperial, and fenced off from the social and artistic challenges of the Russian Revolution. It’s as if the Winter Palace hadn’t been stormed in 1917.

Julie Ewington

Julie Ewington is an independent writer, curator and broadcaster, now living in Sydney.

Detail of Alexander Roslin, Portrait of Catherine II, 1776–77, oil on canvas, 271 × 189.5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg (Inv. no. ГЭ-1316). Acquired from the artist, 1777.

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