Lavish show has brought doomed tsar in from exile History: 'Nicholas & Alexandra' offers rare and beautiful objects, but it is the tale of love and murder that permeates the scene.

August 05, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Some people bloom in the public eye, and some don't. Nicholas II, the last Czar of Russia, and his wife, Alexandra, did not.

Their virtues were all private. They adored each other. They doted on their five children, who in turn loved them, and all led an exemplary family life.

Unfortunately, their very closeness was a part of their problem. Nicholas ruled alone and aloof, disliked the ceremonies of office and wanted only to escape to the solace of his loved ones. Alexandra hated court life, went all red and blotchy in public and showed her discomfort so plainly that people thought her disagreeable. Their growing distance only helped doom them in the end to abdication, exile and assassination.

So argues "Nicholas & Alexandra: The Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia," the huge, splendor-filled, flawed but fascinating exhibit that opened in Wilmington, Del., on Saturday. Comprising nearly 700 items, from court costumes to love letters to a teddy bear, its objects come primarily from Russia's State Hermitage Museum and State Archive.

They include the 18th-century carriage that carried Alexandra to the coronation and the jeweled Imperial Easter Egg containing a miniature replica of the carriage; uniforms; a gold and silver embroidered gown with an extravagant train worn by Alexandra during the 1896 coronation festivities; a miniature set of imperial crown jewels made with more than 3,000 diamonds; and a 190-foot-long painting depicting Moscow at the time of the coronation (shown in its entirety for the first time in this century).

The installation at Wilmington's new First USA Riverfront Arts Center is spacious and sumptuous. The 14 galleries flow into one another well; objects are placed for maximum effect and enhanced with architectural details. In the gallery called "The Treasury," which contains precious objects, 20 gold-colored columns march around the walls. The emperor's throne and footstool sit under a half dome set off by more columns.

But the show isn't simply an assemblage of crowd-pleasing objects. More important, it tells the story of Nicholas and Alexandra.

Nicholas, born in 1868, watched his grandfather Alexander II die from an assassin's bomb in 1881 (a photo pictures him in his coffin). Nicholas' father, Alexander III, failed to train him properly for his future role. When he was 24, his father referred to him as "still just a boy," and when Alexander died unexpectedly two years later, Nicholas declared: "I am not prepared to be tsar. I never wanted to be one. I know nothing of the business of ruling."

By then he was at the point of wedding his beloved Alexandra, daughter of Grand Duke Ludwig IV of Hesse and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. When she at first turned him down, not wanting to change her Lutheran religion for Russian Orthodoxy, he wrote, in a letter included in the show: "Oh! do not say 'no' directly my dearest Alix, do not ruin my life already!"

They were married in 1894 and crowned in 1896, both events recorded in paintings. It was not until 1904 and after the birth of four daughters that the male heir Alexei was born and was soon discovered to have hemophilia. Concern for her son caused Alexandra to retire even more from public life and brought her under the spell of the monk Rasputin.

After the outbreak of World War I, Nicholas removed the commander of the armed forces -- Nikolai Nikolaevich, impressive looking in an equestrian portrait -- and assumed command himself. He thus became distanced from the running of the government and bore ultimate responsibility for the military's many reverses. The situation deteriorated until his subordinates, in a document included here, urged his abdication in early 1917. Soon after, he was arrested and forced into exile with his family. In the summer of 1918, all seven were murdered. The show contains photographs of the house and the murder room.

The show will not leave viewers unmoved by this tragic story. But visitors should be aware that this is a history show, not an art show.

There are some formidable decorative arts, but the paintings are official and historical rather than significant art. And some of the most interesting items are documents, including the telegram sent from Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to Nicholas on the day Germany declared war on Russia in 1914, Nicholas' abdication decree, and telegrams relating to the murders.

This is also not a museum show. It was organized by Broughton International, an independent exhibition group headed by James E. Broughton, who has been masterminding blockbuster shows for a decade for civic organizations in Memphis, Tenn., and St. Petersburg, Fla. "Nicholas & Alexandra" inaugurates the First USA Riverfront Arts Center, an exhibition hall created as part of the state of Delaware's development of Wilmington's waterfront.

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