An Affair of State


an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City, September 16, 2005–January 11, 2006

Russia! Catalogue of the Exhibition

Guggenheim Museum, 80 pp., $24.95 (paper)

The list of sponsors and their remarks in the longer of the two catalogs indicates that the Russian organizers, as well as the increasingly multinational Guggenheim Foundation empire, view this show as an affair of state.1 Vladimir Potanin, the exhibition’s biggest sponsor, is director of the huge holding company Interros,2 a major philanthropist, and probably the richest man in Russia.3 He has been on the board of trustees of the Guggenheim Foundation since 2002, is chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and is involved in the joint ventures of the Guggenheim and the Hermitage, the largest of which will be the recently announced St. Petersburg Guggenheim, to be located in space given to the Hermitage in the adjacent Staff Headquarters building on Palace Square. It will be supplied at least in part with works of art from the Guggenheim’s holdings.

In his remarks, Potanin writes that “Russia!” was timed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations, so that “a broad public… [may]…discover a new Russia and through our cultural heritage see and appreciate our country in a new light.” Mikhail Shwydkoi, a former minister of culture under Putin, writes that “for almost the entire twentieth century, the work of many of Russia’s most talented artists was sealed off from the rest of the world. ‘Russia!’ offers fresh perspective and new insight on our culture.” That the Hermitage has provided works of Western European art collected by Russians serves, as Shwydkoi expresses it, to underscore “the perspicacity of Russians as art collectors and as caretakers of some of the most remarkable expressions of world culture through periods of war and peace.”4

The “innovative” and indeed unusual aspect of the exhibition’s sweeping survey of Russian art is the inclusion of Western European art, largely from the imperial collections of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and of the post-Impressionist paintings acquired by the Moscow merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, which were nationalized after the Revolution. These works give the viewer a vivid sense of the influences at work in Russian art at different times. The Hermitage section contains only a small sampling of the museum’s holdings—but the paintings by Van Dyck, Murillo, Watteau, Lorrain, and Rubens alone are well worth a visit.

Viewers will also be grateful for the icons that begin the show on the ground floor. Two of them are by Russia’s most revered icon painters: Ascension (1408) by Andrei Rublev and Daniil Chernyi, and Crucifixion (1500) by Dionysii. Another, The Virgin of Vladimir (1514), continues to have spiritual meaning for millions of people today. Apart from their sheer beauty, these icons help the viewer to understand much of what follows in the exhibition.

Until the late seventeenth century, Russia’s art was entirely dominated by the Orthodox Church. Then came the reforms of Peter the Great, who, in the words of Pushkin, “hacked a window through to Europe.” Russia’s shift to European-style painting,…

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