Picturing Russia

Russia's state museum houses works that chronicle a nation's history and character.

Baltimore Vivat!

March 02, 2003|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Foreign Staff

ST. PETERSBURG -- There may be no better place to ponder the riddle of Russia than here, in the Mikhailovsky Palace.

This vast chrome-yellow mansion, standing in the center of Russia's cultural capital, is home to the State Russian Museum, which holds the world's largest collection of Russian art.

More than most nations, perhaps, Russia is defined by its artists, their lives and their works. In the museum's scores of galleries, visitors can follow much of the drama of Russia's anguished history -- with its spasms of violence and repression -- as well as the bursts of creativity that her tribulations unleashed.

On one wall is a luminous 12th-century icon of St. Gabriel, his eyes brimming with sorrow. There is a toy horse shaped from the wood of forests that have provided warmth and shelter to Russians for centuries -- and haunt the nation's imagination. Here is Sophia Zaklikovskaya's Courtyard, which shows a mother leading her child through a bleak box canyon of apartments.

Russia's fine art traditions, like those of the United States, were borrowed from Europe around the late 17th- and early 18th-century. But Dr. Yevgenia Petrova, deputy director of the State Russian Museum, explained that their paths quickly diverged.

"I think it's different emotions," she said in her book-cluttered office, which overlooks the evergreens and ice-entombed gardens of the museum's courtyard. "American art, in my opinion, is usually lighter. More joyful. In Russian art, things are more sad, more philosophical."

As part of Baltimore's "Vivat! St. Petersburg," an arts festival that celebrates St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary, the Russian institution has lent the Walters Art Museum 140 works that trace the descent of one of Russia's most celebrated art movements.

The Origins of the Russian Avant Garde (though the festival ends today, the show remains on display through May 25) features the works of abstract painter Vasily Kandinsky, the Suprematist Kasimir Malevich and the primitivist Natalya Goncharova. It chronicles the flowering of Russian modern art at the start of the 20th century, up to its suppression by the Soviets in the mid-1920s.

The avant-garde exhibit offers a mere taste of the Russian institution's staggering collection of almost 390,000 artworks and artifacts spanning 15 centuries. Of this total, less than 3 percent is currently on display in some of the museum's 13 buildings and 168 exhibition rooms.

The collection includes Old Russian icons and early 18th-century portraits of nobles. There are huge canvases depicting the lives of 19th-century peasants, and Soviet posters exhorting the masses. ("Those Who Don't Work, Don't Eat!" one declares.) There are pieces of furniture and fashion, porcelain and tombstones, toys and lace.

And all but a relatively small number of the museum's masterpieces are unknown to the western public.

A cultural island

The relative obscurity of these works relates to Russia's centuries-old cultural and political isolation from the West. That solitude was only aggravated, of course, by the Soviets.

"Until the 1980s, Russia was closed," Petrova points out. Tourism was restricted, academic contacts limited, the purchase and export of art forbidden.

Even today, the State Russian Museum attracts only 756,000 visitors a year. By contrast, the Hermitage State Museum, about half a mile away, draws an average of 2 million annually to visit its celebrated collection of European masters. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has 5.4 million visitors annually, and the Louvre in Paris has 6.2 million.)

"The Hermitage is very famous for foreigners," says Petrova, who has a doctoral degree in the history of 19th-century Russian drawing. "But it is a museum of Western art -- of Cezanne and Rembrandt. The objects in the Russian Museum, you can't see in other museums."

During the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia's wealth flooded into its expanding capital. Ever grander palaces demanded ever more works of art.

The home of the State Russian Museum -- the neoclassical Mikhailovsky Palace, designed by the Italian architect Carlo Rossi -- was built for the son of Czar Paul I between 1819 and 1825. Generations later, Czar Nicholas II converted its grand, light-filled chambers into a public museum, which opened March 7, 1898.

From the beginning, it was intended as a showcase for the work of artists trained at St. Petersburg's Russian Academy of Arts. The collection started small: only about 1,500 Russian-made pieces -- many of them hand-me-downs from the academy's museum and the Hermitage. But within the first decade the collection doubled, as noble families donated works by Russian artists.

After the Bolshevik revolution, Russia's nobility was decimated. But the museum founded to house art from their collections flourished.

Brave curators, janitors

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