Thursday, December 24, 2015

Russian Museum (permanent exhibition)

Ivan Shishkin: Корабельная роща / Mast-Tree Grove. 1898. 165 x 252. Oil on canvas. © Russian Museum. Please click to enlarge the images!

Russian Museum / Русский музей, Mikhailovsky Palace, Benois Wing, 2 Griboyedov Canal. Mon: 10-20. Wed, Fri, Sat, Sun: 10-18. Thu: 13-21. Closed on Tuesday.

The Catalogue:
Russian Museum from the Icon to Modernism. Director of the Russian Museum: Vladimir Gusev. Editor-in-chief: Evgenia Petrova. Artistic design: Joseph Kiblitzky. Articles: Vladimir Gusev and Evgenia Petrova. Texts and biographies: 34 experts. Translated by Kenneth MacInnes. Large format, hard cover, richly illustrated. Printed in Italy by GRAFICART snc, Formia (LT). 392 p. 3rd revised edition. St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, 2013.
    Available in Russian and English.

The official website: "The Russian Museum today is a unique depository of artistic treasures, a leading restoration center, an authoritative institute of academic research, a major educational center and the nucleus of a network of national museums of art. The Russian Museum collection contains more than 400.000 exhibits. The main complex of museum buildings - the Mikhailovsky Palace and Benois Wing - houses the permanent exhibition of the Russian Museum, tracing the entire history of Russian art from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. The museum collection embraces all forms, genres, schools and movements of art. Over the past twenty years, the museum complex has grown to include the Stroganov Palace, St Michael's (Engineers) Castle and the Marble Palace. The complex also includes the Mikhailovsky Gardens, Engineering Gardens, Summer Garden (including the Summer Palace) and the House of Peter the Great."

Wikipedia: "The State Russian Museum (formerly the Russian Museum of His Imperial Majesty Alexander III) is the largest depository of Russian fine art in Saint Petersburg. The museum was established on April 13, 1895, upon enthronement of Nicholas II to commemorate his father, Alexander III. Its original collection was composed of artworks taken from the Hermitage Museum, Alexander Palace, and the Imperial Academy of Arts. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, many private collections were nationalized and relocated to the Russian Museum. These included Kazimir Malevich's Black Square. The main building of the museum is the Mikhailovsky Palace, a splendid Neoclassical residence of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich, erected in 1819-25 to a design by Carlo Rossi on Square of Arts in St Petersburg. Upon the death of the Grand Duke the residence was named after his wife as the Palace of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, and became famous for its many theatrical presentations and balls."

AA: I visited for the first time the Russian Museum which some of my friends even prefer to the Hermitage. In one day you can get a magnificent overview of Russian art, history and culture.

It is Christmas Eve, but Russians celebrate Christmas two weeks later because of the Julian tradition. Thus, here everything is open, and life seems normal. There is, however, already a Christmas atmosphere on the Nevsky Prospect, a couple of blocks from here. You can easily find restaurants and cafés in the neighbourhood, and the museum café itself is good, too.

We came in the morning on the Allegro bullet train. It takes only 3½ hours from the center of Helsinki to the center of St. Petersburg. The border control, customs, and currency exchange procedures are taken care of during the train ride. The currency rate is especially favourable for a foreign tourist.

I said life seems normal, but the Ukraine crisis affects us all. I condemn Putin's actions in Ukraine and support the sanctions but that is no reason to boycott Russian culture. I believe like Tolstoy that true art is inherently against bigotry and nationalism. True patriotism is not nationalism. There is dignity in acknowledging one's roots while respecting those of others. The greatest values are universal, common to all.

To see the entire permanent collection of the Russian Museum is a walk of many kilometers. Wear light clothes and change into moccasins or other good indoors walking shoes. Don't carry anything. You need to take breaks, and that means you get to walk the distance back and forth many times. There is only one café and wc conveniently accessible.

Beyond the jump break is my annotated room visit plan. We did not see the rooms in that order, however. We started at Krebsgang (backwards) at the Benois Wing (the 20th century), continued at the ground floor of the main Mikhailovsky Palace (late 19th century) and finished at its first floor (Old Russian Art, 18th century, early 19th century).

Watching the beloved masters Shishkin, Levitan, and Repin I am reminded of the deep affinity in the Finnish and Russian art of seeing the landscape. Finnish masters of the Golden Age such as Halonen, Järnefelt, and Edelfelt have a lot in common with them, although Finnish artists usually received their influences in Paris.

Today, one of the most deeply impressive artworks was Ivan Shishkin's Mast-Tree Grove. In Finland and Russia a forest like that has a profound atavistic impact for the visitor. It is a space of pantheistic meditation. There is a sense of the sacred in a visit to such a forest and such a landscape. Even half an hour in such a space can make the difference. Shishkin's painting conveys that sense of a soulscape.

Today I was reflecting a lot on the undiminished impact of figurative art. In the 19th century photography put a lot of artists out of business. New trends of great art since the 19th century have been as a rule non-figurative or at least not aiming at faithful representation. Photography has taken care of that.

Today I was thinking that this need not be. No photograph can surpass a good realistic portrait painting. No photograph can convey the spiritual sense of a landscape like in Mast-Tree Grove. NB: a photograph of the painting Mast-Tree Grove can be mistaken for an actual photograph of a landscape. But seeing the painting itself you at first sight may find it startlingly photorealistic while it actually is not. It is an adventure in light and nature impressions conveyed with paint. There are secrets and mysteries in the landscape. The invisible conveyed via the visible.

Nikolai Ge: Portrait of Leo Tolstoy, 1884. Oil on canvas, 96 x 71. © Russian Museum.
Art makes us see. I am thinking of the chapter on Anna Karenina's portrait. Vronsky, a good Sunday painter, makes with great effort a fine representational portrait of his wife. Along comes a true artist who swiftly paints a portrait, too, and catches there the characteristic look in Anna's eyes. Vronsky for the first time recognizes that look via that painting, and after that always sees Anna in a different light.

Vasily Vereshchagin: At the Door of a Mosque, 1873. Oil on canvas. © Russian Museum.

There can be something uncanny in representational art. Vasily Vereshchagin's graphic realism is startling in its trompe l’œil impact. Yet when you approach the painting you see the stylized way in the brush strokes of the two desolate beggars at the sumptuous door of the mosque. Again we cannot help thinking about those floods of refugees of today.

Andrei Rublyov: St. Paul. From Deisus Tier. Moscow. Ca 1408. Tempera on wood. 311 x 104 x 4. © Russian Museum. Google Art Project.

Andrei Rublyov's icons still seem modern in their stark stylization.

Miracle of St. George and the Dragon, with Scenes from His Life. Novgorod. First half of the 14th century. © Russian Museum. Google Art Project.

Other icons contains multiple small images, entire series that belong to the pre-history of the bande dessinée and the cinema.

Nikofor Krylov: Winter Landscape (Russian Winter), 1827. Oil on canvas. 54 x 63,5. © Russian Museum.

In Nikifor Krylov's paintings we are at the roots of Russian winter landscape painting.

Ivan Aivazovsky: The Wave, 1889. © Russian Museum

Size matters. The sublime of the nature is conveyed via the grandeur of Aivazovsky's seascapes. The large format is essential for the full impact. Turner, a soulmate, had made his seascapes in the early 19th century and proceeded radically towards impressionism. Aivazovsky had no trouble continuing with his personal synthesis of romanticism and graphic realism.

Ilya Repin: Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation. 1903. Oil on canvas. 400 x 877. © Russian Museum. Google Art Project.

The trompe l’œil impact of graphic realism in large format is playfully displayed by the museum in the hanging of Ilya Repin's magnificent panorama. If you look at it via doorways, you may be fooled to believe that an actual meeting is taking place right now. Film folks recognize the size and the format of the painting as that of CinemaScope.

Boris Grigoriev: Portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold, 1916. Oil on canvas. 247 x 168. © Russian Museum.

Beyond realism we find new approaches of stylization. Boris Grigoriev's portrait of Meyerhold catches the eccentricism of the great man of the theatre. Marc Chagall was not on display today.

Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin: Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1922. © Russian Museum.

The Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin room is one of the most gratifying in the museum. His way with the red colour in Mother (1915), The Mother of God of Tenderness Towards Evil Hearts (1915), Thirsting Warrior (1915), and Morning (1917) is thrilling. He was deeply influenced by the icon art of the Old Believers. His passion for the red colour comes from icon art and folk art. There is majesty in his approach to the nude figure and the human face.

Lyubov Popova: Man + Air + Space, 1913. Oil on canvas. 125 x 107. © Russian Museum.

Among the early masters of abstract art, cubism and futurism are, besides Malevich, Tatlin, Kandinsky, and Rodchenko, also equally talented women such as Natalia Goncharova, Lyobov Popova, and Olga Rozanova.

Alexander Deineka: Collective Farm Girl on a Bicycle, 1935. Oil on canvas, 120 x 220 cm. © Russian Museum.

The story of the Soviet art from experimentation to Socialist realism (which can also be total idealization) ends in the 1980s. On display is also the freedom of glasnost before the fall of the Soviet Union and the early period of the post-Soviet Russia until the 1990s. Among the masters of the Soviet period was Alexander Deineka, a graphic artist among other things. He has an exciting sense of style and form.

Mark Antokolsky: Nestor the Chronicler, 1890. © Russian Museum.

There is a continuum of great sculpture exhibited along the entire stretch of the rooms. One space is devoted to the master Mark Antokolsky. There are, also dispersed in other rooms, his sculptures of Spinoza, Ivan the Terrible, Nathan the Wise, and Nestor the Chronicler, a founding father of Russian literature and history.

Zinaida Serebryakova: Banya / Sauna, 1913. Oil on canvas. 135 x 174. © Russian Museum.

The range is from the spiritual to the sensual. There is also an aspect of art on display here that Brecht called culinaristic. But I prefer to speak with Rodin and see that in art everything is spiritual. The delight in the natural female form is a continuous inspiration in art, not least in Russia. Zinaida Serebryakova's sauna painting was not on display today, but I cannot resist mentioning it here, since a reproduction of it is a delightful memory from my boyhood when I was studying a new edition of H. J. Viherjuuri's amply illustrated sauna book.

The hanging and the selection are excellent. The rooms are huge, and there is plenty of space also for giant panoramas. Almost all art is on display without a glass shield, but many of the early icons are in glass cages. The lighting is pleasant to the eye. Some works are shadowed without spotlights, probably for protection.

The weighty official museum catalogue is highly readable offering intelligent and relevant commentary, context, and background. It cannot help being highly selective, but the selections are excellent. Study the catalogue under a good light to appreciate the full impact of the beautiful illustrations.


1  Icons, religious art [often in glass cages in rooms 1-3]
2  Icons, religious art
3  Andrei Rublyov and religious art
4  Religious art, serial images
5  Nikitin, Argunov
6  Antropov
7  tapestries
8  court art, Shchedrin
9  Losenko
10  Levitsky
11  the White Room
12  Borovikovoy, Martov, Matveyev
13  Venetsianov, Soroka
14  Aivazovsky, Bryullov
15  Ivanov, Bruni
16  Shchedrin
17  Kiprensky

18  Chistyakov
19  Kramskoy
20  Vasilyev
21  Semiradzky
22  Solomatkin
23  Perov
24  Savrasov
25  Vereshchagin
26  Ge
27  Shishkin *
28  Makovsky
29  Ivanov
30  Makovsky
31  Savitsky
32  Polenin, Antokolsky
33  Repin: The Barge Haulers at the Volga
34  Repin
35  Kuindzhi
36  Surikov
37  Surikov
38  Vasnetsov
39  Kustodiev, Malyavin
40  Levitan *
41  Roerich
42  Isaac Brodsky
43  Benois, Bakst
44  Bakst
45  Somov, Bakst, Golubkina
46  Ryabushkin, Borisov-Musatov
47  Larionov
48 Antokolsky
[49-53 not in the exhibition]
54  official court paintings, Repin, the Ceremonial Sitting panorama 1901

[55-65 not in the exhibition]

66  Vrubel
67  Blue Rose, Golubkina
68  Nesterov, landscapes, Konenkov
69  Arkhipov, Malyavin, Trubetsky
70  Golovin
71  Kustodiev, the Shalyapin portrait *
72  Grigoryev, Altman *
73  The Knave of Diamonds [ruutujätkä]
74  Larionov, Goncharov
75  futurism
76  Malevich
77  constructivism
78  Filonov
79  Petrov-Vodkin *
80  1920s and 1930s
81  1930s, Deineka *
82  post-war
83  thaw, Moiseyenko
84  late 1960s-1970s
85  late and post-USSR
[87-94 decorative and applied art, 101-109 temporary exhibitions]
89-90 stairway: Roerich

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