In Russia’s Museums

The Hermitage Museum, Leningrad

by Pierre Descargues
Abrams, 320, 327 illus., 127 color plates pp., $7.50

Great Paintings from the Pushkin Museum, Moscow

by K.M. Malitskava
Abrams, 212, 100 color plates pp., $25.00

Medieval Georgian Enamels of Russia

by Shalva Amiranahvili
Abrams, 132, 76 color plates pp., $30.00

The Art and Artists of Russia

by Richard Hare
Methuen & Co. (London), 288, 32 color plates pp., £5.10

Rembrandt’s David and Jonathan was purchased by Peter the Great in 1716, the first, and one of the most poetical, of the dazzling series of masterpieces by that artist to make the long journey to the North. The new capital had been founded only thirteen years earlier, a stockaded enclave still, surrounded by marshy wasteland: the picture was hung, presumably, in Peter’s charming little palace, which so self-consciously recalls the architecture of Holland where he had spent some vitally formative months. Its immediate setting was thus familiar enough, but in every other way its arrival must have seemed fantastically incongruous: local artists were still producing variants of the traditional icons, and even in the West appreciation of Rembrandt as one of the world’s great masters was only in its early stages. Other pictures followed, other palaces were built (“la fureur de bâtir chez nous est plus forte que lamais,” wrote Catherine the Great), and in 1764 the Empress installed the prizes of her collection in the sober Hermitage which she had specially made to adjoin the extravagantly baroque Winter Palace ordered by her predecessor Elizabeth. Throughout much of the history of the gallery, which celebrated its second centenary last year, there has been a strange and fruitful dichotomy between the prevailing taste of the times and the pictures that have enriched it. Shortly before the First World War French critics were congratulating themselves that fortunately only Russians and Americans were mad enough to treat seriously an artist such as Matisse—with results that can still be seen to staggering effect in both these misguided countries.

The pictures have now spread far beyond the limits of the original museum or the additions to it that were made in in the nineteenth century by Klenze and others, and have taken over the Winter Palace itself. They are hung in rooms of every shape, size, and style: sometimes, as with the fine group of Italian Baroque paintings, one above the other, up to the ceiling; elsewhere, as with the Leonardos and the Raphaels, only two or three to a room, from which one can look out at the gleaming reflection in the Neva of the golden spire of the Peter-Paul Cathedral. And upstairs, well spaced in bare, admirably lit galleries are the incomparable French paintings of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In fact the present museum is far wider in scope than a picture gallery, and a high proportion of its space is occupied by an enormous collection of arts and crafts, which range from sculpture to textiles, from porcelain and silver to coins and medals. But, unlike the Russian Museum, housed in a fine neoclassical mansion not far away, the emphasis of the Hermitage is on foreign cultures and those aspects of Russian civilization which have been most affected by contact with them. The range is astonishing, and one can move from a golden comb, adorned with fighting warriors, which was made by fifth-century Scythians in the Ukraine and …

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Letters

Georgian Enamels September 16, 1965