Hermitage Musings...

August 13 2021

Image of Hermitage Musings...

Picture: AB

Posted by Adam Busiakiewicz:

I had the joy of spending a good few hours admiring the French pictures of the State Hermitage Museum this afternoon. Their collection features some rather stunning pictures by the likes of Claude, Poussin, Boucher, Lancret and Lemoyne to name but a few.

Speaking as someone who delights at visiting English Country Houses, whose collections often remain intact over the centuries, I often enjoy investigating whether equivalencies exist abroad. The rich, fascinating and often turbulent history of Russia has affected its collections of art in varying ways. In comparison to the French Revolution, the Russian revolution’s effect on the art world is yet to receive as much attention as it probably deserves.

The French works I encountered in the Hermitage returned my thoughts to another fine building I had visited earlier this week. The Yusopov Palace on the Moika River was formerly the home of one of the greatest private collections in Russia. The impressive State Apartments, decorated in the most exuberant eclectic manner of styles, were captured in a set of watercolours by Andrey Redkovsky during the 1860s. Curators of the Palace have reproductions of these watercolours displayed on big boards in each room. It is hard not to compare these fine illustrations with the rooms as they stand today. They are still grand and impressive, yet, comparatively empty.

The Yusopov Palace used to contain the city’s most enviable collection of French eighteenth century art. Prince Felix Yusopov (1887-1967), who had a hand in the assassination of Rasputin, managed to escape the country with his two Rembrandts to help secure himself financially in exile. Like the Romanov Tsars, the aristocracy and those able to own vast art collections were squeezed for their assets. They were often referred to as Бывшие (former people) whose property was nearly entirely confiscated. Most of the Yusopov French masterpieces were eventually nationalised and spread across the museums of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. This was the fate of many collections which survived the mass looting of 1917, with many being persuaded to deposit their treasures with institutions such as the Russian Museum for ‘safety’.

The fate of these centralised collections was mixed. It was during the late 1920s and early 30s that the value of the Soviet National Art Collections was re-appraised. Great deals of cash was needed for Stalin’s first mass industrial and agricultural Five Year Plan. Reluctant curators of the Hermitage, then called ‘The Palace of Art’, were ordered to reorganise the collection for purposes unknown. Curator Tatiana Chernavina later explained in her 1934 memoir that they were instructed to reorganise the whole collection:

“on the principle of sociological formations…under the guidance of semiliterate, half-baked ‘Marxists’ who could not tell faience from porcelain or Dutch masters from the French or Spanish.”

Celebrated artworks by the likes of Watteau, Lancret and Houdon (alongside works by many top-tier Old Masters such as Raphael and Rembrandt) were secretly sold off to capitalist buyers. This included the likes of petroleum magnate Calouste Gulbenkian and the American businessman and banker Andrew Mellon through dealers such as M. Knoedler & Co.  These sales amounted to 1,681 tons of art objects leaving the country, equating to millions of dollars and countless paintings, drawings and objet d’art.

Visiting these stunning places and buildings today evokes all sorts of thoughts concerning our complex relationship with history. The never-ending restoration and protection of the Palaces of Saint Petersburg is impressive. This is especially considering the harsh climate and the damage inherited from catastrophes such as the Siege of Leningrad and post-war period. Modern Russia seems to be very adept in reintegrating both their complicated Imperial and Soviet histories into their national consciousness.

The popularity of these art galleries and buildings with rightfully proud Russian visitors is very evident. Their enthusiasm and willingness to share their treasures with international visitors is equally evident too.

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