Hermitage shows art treasures amid swirling change Russian REVELATION

March 29, 1995|By Will Englund and John Dorsey | Will Englund and John Dorsey,Sun Staff Writers

St. Petersburg, Russia -- At noon, the cannon at the Peter and Paul Fortress lets off an oversized bang, a blank whose retort smacks across the Neva River, making the unwary jump in the imperial hallways of the State Hermitage Museum.

Three million works of art, many arrayed in more than 1,000 rooms, quiver in their frames and on their pedestals. Curators such as Albert Kostenevich, a 35-year veteran of the museum, don't even notice. He and his colleagues have deeper tremors to think about these days.

The Hermitage is opening a special exhibit of French Impressionist and post-Impressionist art tomorrow, a show that is earth-shaking in its own right for two reasons.

The exhibit, titled "Hidden Treasures Revealed," will put dozens of masterpieces by some of the art world's biggest names on public display for the first time. The entire collection has been hidden away for 50 years.

The show also brings to the fore tangled questions about what the changes that are sweeping Russia will mean for the Hermitage, whose vast collection ranks with those of the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan in New York.

All but one of the 74 paintings in the exhibit were seized as "trophy art" from the ruins of Nazi Germany by the Soviet army. The Germans have made a fuss because they want the art back. The Hermitage prefers to stay out of the legal arguments, but its director is delighted to put the work on display and bask in the world's attention.

"It was absolutely normal to take the things out of Germany," after the damage that the Nazis inflicted on the Soviet Union, said Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Hermitage's director. "It was normal to think of them as compensation. To hide them is to say you don't think it's normal. So let's put them on display."

Included in the exhibit will be four paintings by Gauguin never publicly exhibited in this century, three of which were unknown even to scholars.

In addition to the Gauguins, there will be 15 Renoirs, seven Cezannes, six Monets and four van Goghs on display.

Perhaps the most famous -- and most important -- work in the show is Edgar Degas' "Place de la Concorde" (1875), a street scene that is also a group portrait of the artist's friend and fellow artist Ludovic-Napoleon Lepic and his two daughters.

The work is so essential to a study of both Degas and the period, it has been studied and discussed in no fewer than 26 publications since 1945.

"It's the single most astonishing effort to merge portrait painting and genre painting, which was one of the most widely held and obsessive concerns of the impressionist artists," said Charles Stuckey, curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and an authority on modern art.

Overall, the principal revelation of "Hidden Treasures Revealed" is the sheer number of important works, by some of the world's most famous artists, coming to light at once.

Not only have the works been kept hidden since 1945; many have not been seen in public since at least the 19th century because they were in the hands of private collectors.

Mr. Kostenevich pointed out that on the world art market, there might typically appear one painting a year that had been considered lost. Tomorrow, the Hermitage will present 74.

Two-thirds of the works in the exhibit are "really significant" to the annals of art history, said Paul Gottlieb, president of Abrams books (which is publishing the show's catalog) and a member of the board of New York's Museum of Modern Art. "I'm not going to pretend that they'll revolutionize our thinking, but they'll really add understanding and information."

Mr. Stuckey agrees. "It seems to me that the enormous volume of studies on impressionism in the last 30 years lulled all of us into thinking we know everything there is to be known about French art in the latter part of the 19th century, and that's not really the case."

'Brilliant years'

The exhibit "represents 100 years -- brilliant years -- of French painting," said the frenetic chief curator, Vladimir Matveyev. The works in the exhibit stretch from 1828 to 1927.

Mr. Gottlieb said it's "amazing" how many of the works in the exhibit "contribute a sort of grace note" to well-known artists. In particular, he cited:

* Courbet's "Reclining Woman" (about 1865-1866). "A magnificent Courbet nude never displayed because Courbet was thought too erotic in this particular painting."

* Renoir's "In the Garden" (1885). "One of the larger paintings of Renoir, of a couple in a garden, has never been shown anywhere."

* Pissarro's "Town Park in Pontoise" (1873). ". . . Was in the first impressionist show of 1874."

* Van Gogh's "Landscape with House and Ploughman" (1889) and "The White House at Night" (1890). "The van Goghs are very important. ['Landscape'] is a fantastic van Gogh of a field near St. Remy . . . and ['White House'] is the house of his father and a very important symbol in his life."

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