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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Pavel Tretyakov, the wealthy textile manufacturer who love art more than rubles.
For several months now, as I've written about the rich tradition of Russian art and artists. Again and again I've come upon references to the Tretyakov Gallery of Art in Moscow. At first I tended to look upon it as a curiosity, largely ignoring its importance in the Russian art world of the late 19th-century (not to mention today). But as time went on, it began to dawn upon me that I'd been underestimating the role of its founder, Pavel Tretyakov, as perhaps the most important private collector of art of his time. Although not an artist himself, Tretyakov was arguably the most important historic force in the shaping of present-day Russian art. Pavel, and to a lesser extent, his brother, Sergey, had money. More importantly, they also had refined tastes, which, taken together, along with highly regarded imperial art academies in St. Petersburg and Moscow, constituted the all-important impetus for a vibrant creative environments that has, for too long, been underestimated by writers, critics, and art historians in the West (myself included).
The Tretyakov Gallery is home to portraits of a broad range of Russian cultural figures, including the big three literary masters of their time, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy.
Perhaps the most surprising element in the story of the brothers Tretyakov is that they were not nobility. During the latter part of the 19th-century, there was developing a new layer of society. In various countries they went by various names. In the U.S. they were sometimes called the "robber barons." In Europe they were referred to as the bourgeoisie, which is usually translated as "middle class." Today, that brings to mind...well, most of us--struggling sometimes, but far from starving. Those of the Russian Bourgeoisie were, in fact, often quite wealthy, as opposed to the lower middle-class "commoners" (just a few notches above peasants). This level of affluence was usually associated with merchants and skilled tradesmen (sometimes including artists). As the industrial revolution spread across Europe from England, so too did entrepreneurship. The Tretyakov brothers inherited a company which designed, manufactured, and most of all, sold textiles (a business model we'd term as vertical integration today). Besides art, the brothers invested in real estate and various financial ventures. Their art collecting seldom earned them any profit but their other enterprises were such that they could afford to indulge in what was, even then, a very expensive hobby.
The Tretyakov today...with another addition well along in the planning stages.
Pavel Tretyakov was born in 1832. He and his younger brother, Sergey, along with three sisters, grew up in Moscow, the two brothers serving as errand boys in their father's textile family. When their father died in around 1850, the home schooled "errand boys" inherited the business and set about "growing" it to the point that at one time, they employed over five-thousand workers. When not on the factory floor, Pavel Tretyakov befriended artist, supporting some of them, as he began to acquire "important" pieces of Russian art (some relatively quite large). Beginning in 1850 when Pavel Tretyakov acquired his first two canvases, the collection grew to the point he had to add a large room to their family mansion on Lavrushinskiy Lane in Moscow just to accommodate their acquisitions. That was the first of as many as a dozen later additions.
The Tretyakov today occupies a block long complex just across the
Moscow River (and an island) from the Kremlin.
The Tretyakovs opened their museum to the public in 1867 as the "Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov," which eventually became the Tretyakov Gallery in 1896. By that time, the Gallery’s collection consisted of 1,276 paintings, 471 sculptures and 10 drawings of Russian artists, as well as 84 paintings by foreign masters. During the following years, additions to the mansion were made in 1873, 1882, 1885, 1892 and finally in 1902-1904, when the distinctive facade, designed by architect V. Bashkirov was constructed. By that time, the Tretyakovs had given it all away to the City of Moscow. When the Communists took over, in 1918, the gallery was declared to be owned by the Russian Federated Soviet Republic and renamed the State Tretyakov Gallery.

Tretyakov treasures of every era from ancient icons to Malevich's Black Square (not shown).
The 1920s and especially the 1930s, art galleries and museums all over the world suffered financially. This was especially true in the case of the cash-poor Soviet Union. Rooms were closed off to save money, maintenance suffered, new acquisitions were practically nil, even if the artistic and political powers could have agreed on whether to welcome the work of modern Russian artists such as Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Pavlovsky and others along side, works by the Social Realists favored by Communist party propagandists. (The Tretyakov today has both). Still, growth both in size and attendance, continued, with renovations in 1928, electricity in 1929, the conversion of a nearby church to a storage facility in 1932. Additional construction ensued in 1936 and 1940, all of his came to a screeching halt as Moscow was threatened by the Germans during WW II, and the entire collection (a small sampling of which can be seen above) was rolled up in tissue paper and carted off (literally in seventeen horse-drawn wagons) to Novosibirsk. Though the Germans never quite captured Moscow, the gallery did not reopen until 1945.

Art (galleries) now and then.
Today the Tretyakov is rated the third most important art collection in Russia (after the Hermitage and the Moscow Museum of Art). Pavel Tretyakov died in 1898 at the age of sixty-six. Were he still alive today he probably would recognize very little of what he'd find at 10 Lavrushinsky Lane, or indeed, the rest of the old neighborhood, which has largely been taken over by the museum, including a separate, but nearby museum (below) featuring 20th-century works created before, during, and after the Soviet experiment.

Tretyakov Gallery at Krymsky Val features 20th century art.

Caged Collection of Colored Cylinders, 2014,
conceptual art at the Tretyakov.


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