NGV’s Hermitage exhibition displays Catherine the Great’s treasures

‘She would have seen this very same view when she was standing here.” Under the blind gaze of a trio of alabaster statues guarding the Jordan staircase in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Mikhail Dedinkin points across a sea of heads to the broad, silvery Neva River framed like an exquisite still-life by a nearby window. It flows serenely past the golden domes and spires of the Peter and Paul Fortress on the opposite bank.

The ornate gilt and marble foyer in which we are standing is oppressive with tourists and flashing cameras, but for a moment we’re transported back to the 1760s, when Catherine the Great — empress during Russia’s Golden Age, cultural patron extraordinaire, charmer of kings, artists and philosophers, and visionary founder of the great art collection this museum holds — stood at this very spot, gazing out at her world, the beautiful northern capital of Russia founded by Peter the Great in 1703.

It is a fine early summer’s day in St Petersburg, and Dedinkin, deputy head of the Hermitage’s western European fine art department, is taking Review on a tour of one of the world’s largest, and arguably greatest, art museums.

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A potent symbol of Russian imperial splendour and power, the three-million-strong art collection contained in six historic buildings anchored by the bejewelled pistachio and gold wedding cake that is the 1000-room Winter Palace, was founded by Catherine after she purchased a small collection from a Berlin dealer in 1764. Astonishingly, her vast collection was built, Dedinkin says, in just three decades.

It’s early in the day but we can hardly move for the crowds. Schoolchildren take happy snaps in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s serene Madonna Litta ; tourists pose in front of the famous giant green jasper Kolyvan Vase; locals, from kerchief-wearing babushkas to young families, move in slow reverential circles around James Cox’s dazzling 18th-century golden Peacock Clock. The previous day, queues to enter this cultural behemoth stretched across Palace Square. The Russian economy might be staggering under Western trade sanctions and falling oil prices, but at the Hermitage, the country’s largest art museum, Russia’s extravagant imperial past seems vividly alive to the nostalgic throngs.

Since it was opened to the public in 1852, Catherine’s collection has attracted audiences from across the world, with more than three million visitors a year making the pilgrimage to see her treasures in Peter the Great’s beautiful “Venice of the North”. A further two million, Dedinkin says, are expected following the ­museum’s expansion into the 800-room eastern wing of the General Staff building across Palace Square last year.

They come to pay homage to a collection staggering in its scale and diversity — as Dedinkin notes, “those who enter its doors can find, beneath one roof, objects that reflect all ages, from the Stone Age to the era of Picasso, Matisse and Malevich”. The Hermitage, which celebrated its 250th anniversary last year, has guarded its treasures well, surviving war, fire, revolutions, siege, the selling off of priceless works by Stalin, various economic crises and Russia’s volatile transition to capitalism and democracy. Headed by the indefatigable Mikhail Piotrovsky since 1992, it has enviable political clout (President Vladimir Putin is a key supporter) and operates like a powerful small state with its own visa department and resident population that includes a 200-strong army of curators and loyal ancient minders (“there have been entire dynasties working here, entire generations”, Putin noted last year).

This tight-knit army closely guards 17,000 paintings, almost 13,000 sculptures, 750,000 archeological artefacts and almost 14,000 items of arms and armour spread across 233,345sq m. Piotrovsky once said: “The Hermitage exists — and we are little insects. It exists without us just as Russia and St Petersburg exist without us.”

Dedinkin was present when Putin, a native son of St Petersburg, presented the museum with two lavish birthday gifts in December: a 19th-century Faberge clock made for the 25th anniversary of emperor Alexander III and empress Maria Feodorovna’s wedding, and a Rothschild Faberge clock egg. Review is shown both pieces, ornate marvels, on display behind glass in the high-security Treasure Gallery’s Gold and Diamond rooms: “He congratulated us, all the staff, on the important work we do at the Hermitage,” Dedinkin says.

In his speech, Putin also paid tribute to the Hermitage’s “incredible treasure, which is a source of pride not just for our nation and our culture but for global culture”.

The museum’s international significance is something Dedinkin hopes to convey through his curatorial efforts on Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great, which will open at the National Gallery of Victoria as the latest instalment in the NGV’s Winter Masterpieces series at the end of next month. The exhibition, featuring 538 items, comes to Australia after lengthy negotiations with the Hermitage brokered by Art Exhibitions Australia; NGV director Tony Ellwood credits the federal government’s passing of legislation related to the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan Scheme, which provides legal protection for cultural objects on loan from overseas lenders for temporary public exhibition in Australia, as a crucial factor in helping secure the show (the Hermitage has not loaned any work to the US since 2011 after a legal dispute over a collection of Jewish books; Dedinkin says that Piotrovsky will meet American museum authorities in September to hopefully resolve this “impossible situation”).

For Ellwood, the show is a milestone cultural event: “This would definitely be one of the most important and extraordinary touring shows to have ever come to Australia.” Dedinkin says it will feature “some very nice Van Dycks, some lovely Rembrandts, Titians and Rubens”, French classics by Poussin, Lorrain and Watteau, some of the finest Dutch and Flemish art to come to Australia courtesy of Hals, Teniers and Snyders, more than 80 drawings by Clouet, Greuze, the Hermitage’s first architects Georg Velten and Giacomo Quarenghi and others, an exquisite Chinese gold and silver collection “to show how Catherine opened Russia up to the East as well as West, on the advice of Diderot”, and a substantial decorative arts section including 60 pieces from the famous blue and gold 797-piece Sevres Cameo Service commissioned in 1777 for Catherine’s lover and “first finger nibbler of the universe”, Prince Grigory Potemkin.

On the day Review arrives, many of the NGV-bound paintings — more than 90 will make the long journey — have already been removed for a close audit by museum staff before careful packing begins. Dedinkin says mildly it’s been a “very big job” to get nervous heads of galleries to agree to loans due to Australia’s distance (he says he lost the battle over a magnificent marble bust of Catherine by Jean-Pierre Tassart (1727-88), Catherine II as Minerva, after the Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts: regarding it sadly, he shrugs, all Russian fatalism, but then adds sotto voce, “But I feel in myself that this is a little bit unfair”). However, there have been triumphs aplenty too, with a good balance, he feels, of key painting schools and genres, including landscapes, religious works, portraits and still-lifes: “We have tried to select works and objects that we think will appeal to the Australian public.”

Dedinkin points out Australia-bound pieces as we walk briskly through glittering staterooms, ballrooms, Catherine’s recently restored golden church and her private rooms, before venturing across Palace Square to the new wing crammed full of Renoirs, Matisses, Gauguins and Picassos from the Hermitage’s spectacular 19th to 21st-century collection. In the Dutch and Flemish galleries, out leaps Frans Snyders’s vividly beautiful Concert of Birds, based on one of Aesop’s fables; underneath is another Snyders (with Jan Boeckhorst) classic, Cook at a kitchen table with dead game. Dedinkin points to Van Dyck’s serene Portrait of Elizabeth and Philadelphia Wharton — “This one is going too, it is beautiful” — and his Portrait of Queen Henrietta Marie, to be accompanied by an exquisite Rubens, Roman Charity. Alongside is the artist’s imposing The Adoration of the Magi: “This, I think, is the biggest piece going,” he says, along with an elegant 1773 marble bust, Catherine II, by Jean-Antoine Houdon, distinguished by its coy but serene smile. “Lovely,” Dedinkin notes.

In the Italian galleries, he points out more Australia-bound works: a beautiful 1512 Domenico Capriolo work, Portrait of a Man, a sensual Titian, Portrait of a Young Woman, and Paris Bordone’s luxurious formal Renaissance piece, Portrait of a Lady with a Boy. In the French galleries, he stops in front of Watteau’s 1715 work Savoyard with a Marmot. “This is very charming,” he murmurs. “It is one of the works from the Crozat collection, which was one of the greatest private collections of paintings in France and she bought it all. Crozat was close friends with Watteau, who lived in his house in Paris, and they became good friends.”

For Dedinkin, the real story of this show lies not in the items that will make their long way to Australia, but what they represent — a global art collection that tells the extraordinary story of the German child bride who reformed Russia. Catherine’s presence is all around us, in rosy-cheeked formal state portraits, marble busts, intimate items from her boudoir — jewelled snuff boxes, combs, brooches — and gifts from her lovers, including a portrait presented to her by Potemkin, the recipient of the glorious Sevres Cameo Service she commissioned from the Sevres Porcelain Manufactory in Paris (showing me some fine teacups and plates, he says: “In Melbourne, we will have a table for six persons laid out.”) Even back then, he remarks dryly, “Catherine liked cultural exchange. It’s interesting how she continued good relations with all her lovers.”

He pays tribute to her “extraordinary” eye for art, political smarts, considerable intellect, and iron will: “All this” — he waves a hand around us, taking in not just the Hermitage but the grand city with its palaces and canals outside — “is because of her. She was a visionary woman.”

Born Sophia Augusta Fredericka on April 21, 1729 in Germany to a minor noble family, Catherine was brought to Russia at 14 to marry the sickly, weak-willed young Peter Ulrich of Holstein, grandson of Peter the Great and the heir chosen by empress Elizabeth, his spinster daughter. Over years of a loveless marriage (she would later describe Peter in her memoirs as an “idiot and drunkard”), she taught herself Russian along with several other languages, steeped herself in the political writings of Montesquieu and Voltaire and classical literature by Tacitus and others, gradually building a power base in the Russian court before succeeding to the throne in 1762 following Peter’s overthrow.

It was the start of a golden cultural age for Russia, Dedinkin says. During her reformist, dynamic reign (1762-96), Catherine would open Russia to the West and the values of the Enlightenment, spark an architectural renaissance and institute sweeping political, cultural, educational and economic reforms. “I am building, I will build, and will encourage others to build”, she said. The French envoy at the Russian court, Louis Philippe, comte de Segur, said: “Her court was a meeting place for the leaders of all the nations and the luminaries of her age. Before her, St Petersburg, which had been built in the regions of ice and snow, went practically unnoticed, as if it were in Asia. During her reign, Russia became a European power. St Petersburg occupied a prominent position among the capitals of the civilised world and the imperial throne ranked among the most powerful and important.”

Catherine’s genius is perhaps best preserved in her artistic legacy. Dedinkin says the scale and rate of her acquisitions (courtesy of her considerable financial resources and an army of spotters and dealers including Voltaire and Diderot) was astonishing. She began in 1764 with 317 old masters assembled for Frederick II of Prussia by the Berlin industrialist and financier Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky.

“It was strange, nobody knew what to do with these 300 paintings from Berlin,” Dedinkin says. “At that time, there was no space for these paintings, it was forgotten for a couple of years, but in the middle of the 1760s she started to think again and she got several more important collections, one after the other.”

These included, in 1769, the Heinrich von Bruhl collection, followed by the Crozat collection in 1772. In 1779, she swooped on the collection of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, to the outrage of many, including the descendants of the Walpole estate who felt it belonged in their country. In her bid to create “a unique, great, systematic universal collection of art”, she had to overcome inexperience, and distance from the world’s art markets, Dedinkin says. “But step by step, she developed her eye.”

He recounts Catherine’s work in setting up orphanages, schools, theatres and science and art academies — she herself wrote plays and Russia’s first children’s novels — as well as her bibliophile passions (she bought the libraries of close friends and advisers Voltaire and Diderot) and her pioneering efforts to properly catalogue her art collection and publish detailed inventories for the public. Her other collecting passions included drawings and architectural designs (St Petersburg’s architectural renaissance came about through her collaborations with Quarenghi, Charles Cameron, Ivan Starov and others) as well as Chinese decorative arts.

Ellwood says the fine examples the public will see in Melbourne resulted from an accidental meeting with the head of Asian art when Ellwood was at the Hermitage. “We happened to end up in a storage room where we saw the beautiful Chinese filigree silver and we started talking about it and realised it had a Qianlong Emperor provenance, whose collection from the Palace Museum, Beijing, is currently on display [at the NGV].”

Dedinkin shows me fine examples of Catherine’s 10,000-strong cameo collection; exhibits at the NGV will be displayed in two of her specially made cabinets from the leading cabinet-maker of the period, German David Roentgen. Catherine described her passion for these carved pieces as “cameo fever”, initially sparked by her love of Greek and Roman mythology and later fed by the discoveries of Herculaneum and Pompeii during her lifetime. He shows me nearby rooms for the engraver Karl Leberecht, who carved the stones, and the “chemist” Georg Heinrich Konig, who made the paste used to create copies.

For Catherine, art was a powerful agent to encourage social and cultural reform; Ted Gott, senior curator of international art at the NGV, says there was “an instructional and uplifting level to her acquisitions”. A skilled political strategist, Catherine also saw the value of art as a public relations tool, fostering her image as an “enlightened monarch”, according to Russian critic GN Komelova, as well as its role as “a symbol of Russia’s strength and power”, according to Piotrovsky. “She understood that the concept of ‘great’ encompassed not only economy and army but also art collections.”

As we walk through the vast Hermitage complex, Dedinkin shows how Catherine’s art collecting passions shaped the growth of the museum, how it sprouted, almost organically, painting galleries, wings and loggias, pavilions and hanging gardens as her collection grew. When she inherited the Winter Palace in 1762, the magnificent edifice, designed by Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli and built for empress Elizabeth between 1754 and 1762, had 1000 rooms but no dedicated picture galleries. As more paintings arrived, Catherine built additions including the Small Hermitage, the Great Hermitage and the grand Hermitage Theatre.

At the North Pavilion, or “Orangery block”, Dedinkin describes how Catherine hosted exclusive dinner parties for close friends and how two of Catherine’s infamous mechanical “flying tables” were constructed for the Orangery. These were tables that rose up through the floor after food had been laid on by servants below, which ensured the privacy of guests (Review is able to view one at work, laden with candied fruits, at Catherine’s summer palace in Tsarskoe Selo). He says: “She could then talk with her guests without the servants listening, discuss private subjects.” Garden pavilions or palace apartments with such tables were called “hermitages” after the French word, which was used both for the cells of hermits and for isolated garden structures. The gatherings at the North Pavilion came to be known as “hermitages”, Dedinkin says, and the name was soon applied to the whole complex of buildings next to the Winter Palace.

We stroll through the Raphael Loggias, built by her favourite Italian architect, Quarenghi, alongside the Winter Canal between 1783 and 1792. Sunlight floods the gloriously ornate space, bouncing off the beautiful frescoes by Austrian artist Christoph Unterberger and his assistants, which they copied from those at the Loggia in the Vatican Palace. For Ellwood, Konstantin Ukhtomsky’s exquisite drawing The Raphael Loggia (1860), which will be on display at the NGV, is a personal favourite: “People think is a photograph, but it’s not — it’s one of the most stunning, detailed artworks you can imagine, it’s beauty is difficult to even convey.”

Ellwood says the exhibition design in Melbourne will evoke a glamorously opulent feel to mirror the richness of the Hermitage. Visitors will first see the magnificent life-size portrait of Catherine by Alexander Roslin before moving into rooms dedicated to her architectural drawings, her cameo collection, the Cameo Service, different schools of paintings, as well as a room devoted solely to pieces from the Walpole collection, before moving into a final room filled with her chinoiserie collection.

There is great anticipation in Australia around the show — it’s been many years since a substantial exhibition from the Russian Federation reached these shores — but also a degree of controversy; when the Hermitage show was announced late last year, the Australian Ukrainian community launched angry protests, saying art was being used by Russia as a kind of cultural whitewash to distract from its pariah status in light of global condemnation of its annexation of Crimea and its territorial aggression in eastern Ukraine. Ellwood says while he is deeply sympathetic to these concerns, “this is a genuine cultural exchange between our countries”; furthermore, he says, this is not a Russian collection but a global treasure house of cultural artefacts. Dedinkin echoes this view, telling Review that “art is above politics”.

It’s a noble view but not always reflective of reality, as the Hermitage itself has found in situations ranging from its display last year of a 2500-year-old headless statue from the British Museum’s much disputed Parthenon artefacts, to its hosting of the Manifesta 10 contemporary art biennial, to a Chapman Brothers show that attracted the ire of hard-right elements in Russia. But Dedinkin says the Hermitage takes its ultimate cue from the philosophy of its founder. From the outset, Catherine saw the importance of art’s global and diplomatic function, using it to open doors and build bridges. This is the role the Hermitage wants to continue as part of her legacy, he says.

He points to the efforts of Piotrovsky, a passionate advocate of cultural exchange who has pushed for exporting the Hermitage brand globally via so-called Hermitage Sputniks, which already are in place in Vyborg and Kazan in Russia, as well as in Amsterdam and Venice (an outpost is planned for Barcelona next year). He adds that it is more important than ever that global repositories of art such as the Hermitage are supported by the international community in the light of the wholesale destruction of antiquities by Islamic State, for example. “Museums are needed to save culture,” Dedinkin says, echoing British Museum director Neil MacGregor’s view of museums as “cultural arks”.

Piotrovsky has big plans for the Hermitage, including building a significant American contemporary art collection. There’s plenty in the coffers to fund these expansionary dreams: the Hermitage endowment has been swelled by huge donations from powerful supporters such as oligarch Vladimir Potanin. Dedinkin points to the wealth of riches around us — European masterworks, Scythian antiquities, prehistoric Caucasian artefacts, Byzantine icons, Islamic art treasures — and says they belong to the world. Catherine, “like a gardener, has planted a garden which was destined to have a long life and which continues into present times, having an impact on cultural life in Russia and beyond its borders”.

The German child bride turned empress, one feels, would be mightily pleased.

Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great runs at the National Gallery of Victoria from July 31 to November 8.
Sharon Verghis travelled to Russia with the assistance of Arts Exhibitions Australia.

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