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Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Hermitage

The Hermitage Art Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia, (as seen from the Neva River) is sometimes referred to as the Winter Palace, though that is only one of six structural
portions of the massive architectural landmark.
I have a dream. It's not as noble as that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and no more likely to be fulfilled in my lifetime than was his. I have a dream of visiting every major art museum in the world. In mid-May my wife and I returned from a transatlantic cruise, coupled with a nine-day cruise of the Baltic Sea and all the major capitals of Northern Europe. The highlight of that far off adventure was two days spent in St. Petersburg, Russia. I'll be writing about various sites and cities during the coming week but let me start today with the the highlight of the highlight, the Heritage Art Museum.

Dance, 1909, Henri Matisse
I have a confession to make. We spent 21 days on the seas and a total of five weeks away from home to allow me a meager two hours to peruse the holding of one of the largest art museums in the world. Worse, part of that time I was lost, searching for the main entrance so that I might rejoin our tour group and not spend the rest of my life in Russia. But that's par for the course.  I seldom go to art museums and not get lost. It goes without saying that the Hermitage (pronounced er-mit-TAJ) is huge, on a par with the Louvre in Paris an the Met in New York. Moreover, it has not been "twenty-first-centuryized" as have the most other world-class museums. For instance, only one floor, the former servants quarters of the palace, containing the museum's modern art, has been air-conditioned (not that it mattered since we were there in May when the whole city of St. Petersburg is air conditioned). Here was to be found Matisse's famous Dance(above), as well as works by Picasso, Braque, Kandinsky, Vlaminck, Derain, Malevich, van Gogh, and just about every other name one might recognize from modern art (plus a few I didn't recognize).

The Russians learned art and architecture from the French and Italians,
but never quite mastered the art of subtlety.
Like the Louvre, the Hermitage is a hand-me-down, a onetime palace dating from 1764 before the Tsars moved to the suburbs to spend most of the year away from the big city. Besides the Summer Palace there's also the "Small Heritage" (which isn't), the "Old Hermitage," and the "New Hermitage" stretching out in an extended linear progression to rival Versailles--which undoubtedly was the tsars' intentions. Like the Louvre, the Hermitage is not an ideal structure to house a billion-ruble (or billion-dollar) art collection. In the 1989, the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei tamed the Louvre. I wish he would do the same for the Hermitage. The main thing the Hermitage has going for it is sheer scale. And if crowds were evenly dispersed among its hundreds of rooms and galleries, this scale would somewhat mitigate its organization shortcomings. Unfortunately, that's not the case. The main galleries are often shoulder to shoulder while the remote venues seem downright lonely.

Crouching Youth, 1530-34,
Now, having complained about the museum's many faults, let me dwell on its strengths. If you like the Baroque, you'll  love the Hermitage. Management sometimes refers to it a Russian Baroque, and indeed, there is a distinct difference. Russian Baroque is more baroque than its southern European kin. Though I'm a painter and I love looking at paintings in museums, in that regard, the Hermitage is simply too much of a good thing. Leonardo is represented by his Madonna Lita (1490-91), Titian by his St. Sebastian (1570s), Raphael by a couple of his many Madonnas, Giorgione by his Judith (1504). The Hermitage collection also includes works by Tiepolo, Carracci, Caravaggio, Velasquez, El Greco, Rubens, van Dyck, and over 20 works by Rembrandt.

Sculpture, on the other hand, was, for me, the most memorable of all the museum's offerings. There was literally tons of it, the best of the best the Baroque world had to offer by virtually every sculptor working at the time. There's even a minor Renaissance piece by Michelangelo, Crouching Youth (left, 1530-34). Names such as Canova, Rossellino, Bernini, Giuseppe Mazzuoli, the Venetian Antonio Lombardo, Riemenschneider, Houdon, Eugene Falconet, Rodin, and Versailles own A.Coysevox dot the landscape. There was much more as well. The Hermitage, being an old Russian palace, has its share of ornate domestic furnishings from gold leaf thrones (the Russians love their gold leaf) to porcelain sculptural pieces that would look good on my coffee table. There were carriages (more gold leaf), clothes, china, crystal, silver, and tapestries representing two centuries of Russian tsarist extravagance and impoverished suffering by the peasant masses. If you've ever pondered the cause of the 1917 Russian Revolution, you need look no further than the Hermitage or any number of similarly ostentatious palaces decorating this former Russian capital.
No palace would be complete without a throne room, here the impressive Hermitage Romanov version.


  1. Two hours in the Hermitage is maybe not as good as three hours in the Hermitage, but surely it was two hours well spent! It sounds like an amazing experience.

  2. There was barely time to read the titles and shoot some pictures. This was the same day in the afternoon as my visit to Catherine's Palace in Pushkin, which was much more enjoyable. Two DAYS in the Hermitage wouldn't make much of a dent in seeing the collection. I was originally scheduled for a longer "conoisseur's" tour but it was canceled due to the Russian Victory Day on May 9th so the Herimtage had to be coupled with an excursion including Catherine's palace and way too much of St.Petersburg via bus.