February 05: Russian Ark

2016/02/05 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1852 the Hermitage Museum opened to the public.

The website of the Hermitage reports–with a hilarious understatement–that in 1764 Catherine the Great purchased “a considerable collection of Western European paintings” that formed the core of the mammoth museum.  “Considerable” is one way to describe it: purchased in one fell swoop from the King of Prussia, the 225 paintings (mostly Italian, Dutch, and Flemish) included thirteen by Rembrandt, eleven by Rubens, five by van Dyck, five by Veronese, three by Frans Hals, two by Raphael, two by Holbein, and one by Titian.  It was the first of Catherine’s massive acquisitions, made with the desire of raising the cultural status of her empire, the throne of which she took 1762 at age 33.  In subsequent years, scores of artworks made their way from points across Europe to St. Petersburg, with a few more spectacular binges.  In 1769 the empress acquired a batch of over 600 paintings representing the Dutch, Flemish, French, Italian and German schools, adding more works by Rembrandt and welcoming such names as Rubens, Poussin, Watteau, Ruysdael, Bellotto, and Tiepolo to the capital.  In 1772 she added works by Raphael, Titian, Veronese, a few more Rembrandts, two canvases by Rubens, six van Dyck portraits and a slew of modern French and Netherlandish painters.  She emptied Houghton Hall of 198 collected first by Robert Walpole in 1779 and two years later made her final whole-collection purchase of 199 works, including nine Rembrandts.  All together, Catherine’s acquisitions included 4,000 old master paintings, an even greater number of prints and drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, a number of classical sculptures, 10,000 engraved gems, and the libraries of philosophers Voltarie and Diderot within a library numbering 38,000 books.

All the while, the building complex grew to accommodate the blossoming art collection.  Starting in 1764 with the Small Hermitage, a two-story Neo-Classical building next to the Winter Palace, additions were made in the late 1760s, leading to the development in 1771  on the Great Hermitage, a huge three-story addition by architect Yuri Velten.  1792 saw the construction of an extension called the Raphael Loggia, specially constructed to house copies of the famous sixteenth-century frescoes in the Vatican.  A great theatre was added in 1783.  In 1795 Giacomo Quarenghi designed and built the 8611 SF Large Throne Hall, adorned with pink marble Corinthian columns and other sumptuous materials, frescoes, and a great gilded perch for the empress.  The palace was furnished with porcelain, silver and furniture from the best known artisans across Europe.

Catherine established the foundation and set the tradition of building and collecting that was continued after her death.  It was left to her heirs to open the collection to a wider audience.  In 1852 Nicholas I, an energetic builder and all-around aesthete, opened the museum, featuring a new wing designed by Leo von Klenze, with a celebration that included a special performance in the Hermitage Theatre and feted 600 people at a special dinner in the Skylight Hall which is, you know, not a bad place to eat (or look at paintings).  The building itself continues in the Classical vein established in the previous century, but with Klenze’s more severe approach, and in grey marble around a series of courtyards.  Although at first the opening of this first public art museum in Russia sounds surprisingly democratic, keep in mind that admission was made to only a portion of the imperial collection (the Winter Palace remained off-limits to commoners) and only to those who wore evening dress and avoided particular cuts of millinery that the emperor deemed “Jewish.”  Those who were admitted were treated to a grand collection that was nearly unequalled–maybe outdone only by the Louvre, which opened in 1793 (with 537 paintings and 184 objets) and had grown steadily (especially assisted by the great Plunderer in Chief, Napoleon, and his nephew); closer (but still 980 miles away) the Kunsthistorisches Museum made the Habsburg collection available to the Viennese almost four decades later, in 1891.  The Hermitage suffered after the Revolution of 1917, when an estimated 2,000 pieces were sold off, including the twenty-one old masters that Andrew Mellon purchased in 1931 to kick-start the National Gallery in Washington.

In its scale and scope, the Hermitage stands among, if not above, the other great world museums in Paris, Vienna, Madrid, Washington, and New York.  But it is perhaps distinct in being not just a great museum in a former Imperial capital, but for the sweep of glory, treachery, triumph and misery for which it has also been the setting.  It is this character that is so well memorialized in Russian Ark, which is more of a cinematic poem than a mere movie.  Setting aside the technical accomplishment for which the movie is famous, the film is maybe the best museum experience a person can have–it does not show the art to great advantage, but rather stands in for the art itself, taking us through centuries of Russian culture and history in a manner that is in turns joyful, unnerving, murky, glorious.  Like the biblical ark, it is a vessel of preservation for precious cargo, in the midst of a wreck brought on by the actions of misguided humanity.  At turns gloomy and exultant, ultimately it is an elegiac hymn to a noble ideal.

image: still from Russian Ark (dir. Alexander Nikolayevich Sokurov, 2002)

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