The great legacy

In­side the Her­mitage: Rus­sia’s most per­sonal art col­lec­tion comes to Mel­bourne

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‘She would have seen this very same view when she was stand­ing here.” Un­der the blind gaze of a trio of alabaster stat­ues guard­ing the Jor­dan stair­case in the State Her­mitage Mu­seum in St Peters­burg, Mikhail Dedinkin points across a sea of heads to the broad, sil­very Neva River framed like an ex­quis­ite still-life by a nearby win­dow. It flows serenely past the golden domes and spires of the Peter and Paul Fortress on the op­po­site bank.

The or­nate gilt and mar­ble foyer in which we are stand­ing is op­pres­sive with tourists and flash­ing cam­eras, but for a mo­ment we’re trans­ported back to the 1760s, when Cather­ine the Great — em­press dur­ing Rus­sia’s Golden Age, cul­tural pa­tron ex­traor­di­naire, charmer of kings, artists and philoso­phers, and vi­sion­ary founder of the great art col­lec­tion this mu­seum holds — stood at this very spot, gaz­ing out at her world, the beau­ti­ful north­ern cap­i­tal of Rus­sia founded by Peter the Great in 1703.

It is a fine early sum­mer’s day in St Peters­burg, and Dedinkin, deputy head of the Her­mitage’s western Euro­pean fine art depart­ment, is tak­ing Re­view on a tour of one of the world’s largest, and ar­guably great­est, art mu­se­ums.

A po­tent sym­bol of Rus­sian im­pe­rial splen­dour and power, the three-mil­lion-strong art col­lec­tion con­tained in six his­toric build­ings an­chored by the be­jew­elled pis­ta­chio and gold wed­ding cake that is the 1000-room Win­ter Palace, was founded by Cather­ine af­ter she pur­chased a small col­lec­tion from a Ber­lin dealer in 1764. As­ton­ish­ingly, her vast col­lec­tion was built, Dedinkin says, in just three decades.

It’s early in the day but we can hardly move for the crowds. School­child­ren take happy snaps in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s serene

tourists pose in front of the fa­mous gi­ant green jasper Koly­van Vase; lo­cals, from ker­chief-wear­ing babushkas to young fam­i­lies, move in slow rev­er­en­tial cir­cles around James Cox’s daz­zling 18th-cen­tury golden Pea­cock Clock. The pre­vi­ous day, queues to en­ter this cul­tural be­he­moth stretched across Palace Square. The Rus­sian econ­omy might be stag­ger­ing un­der Western trade sanc­tions and fall­ing oil prices, but at the Her­mitage, the coun­try’s largest art mu­seum, Rus­sia’s ex­trav­a­gant im­pe­rial past seems vividly alive to the nos­tal­gic throngs.

Since it was opened to the public in 1852, Cather­ine’s col­lec­tion has at­tracted au­di­ences from across the world, with more than three mil­lion visi­tors a year mak­ing the pil­grim­age to see her trea­sures in Peter the Great’s beau­ti­ful “Venice of the North”. A fur­ther two mil­lion, Dedinkin says, are ex­pected fol­low­ing the mu­seum’s ex­pan­sion into the 800-room eastern wing of the Gen­eral Staff build­ing across Palace Square last year.

They come to pay homage to a col­lec­tion stag­ger­ing in its scale and di­ver­sity — as Dedinkin notes, “those who en­ter its doors can find, be­neath one roof, ob­jects that re­flect all ages, from the Stone Age to the era of Pi­casso, Matisse and Male­vich”. The Her­mitage, which cel­e­brated its 250th an­niver­sary last year, has guarded its trea­sures well, sur­viv­ing war, fire, rev­o­lu­tions, siege, the selling off of price­less works by Stalin, var­i­ous eco­nomic crises and Rus­sia’s volatile tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism and democ­racy. Headed by the in­de­fati­ga­ble Mikhail Piotro­vsky since 1992, it has en­vi­able po­lit­i­cal clout (Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin is a key sup­porter) and op­er­ates like a pow­er­ful small state with its own visa depart­ment and res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion that in­cludes a 200-strong army of cu­ra­tors and loyal an­cient min­ders (“there have been en­tire dy­nas­ties work­ing here, en­tire gen­er­a­tions”, Putin noted last year).

This tight-knit army closely guards 17,000 paint­ings, al­most 13,000 sculp­tures, 750,000 arche­o­log­i­cal arte­facts and al­most 14,000 items of arms and ar­mour spread across 233,345sq m. Piotro­vsky once said: “The Her­mitage ex­ists — and we are lit­tle in­sects. It ex­ists with­out us just as Rus­sia and St Peters­burg ex­ist with­out us.”

Dedinkin was present when Putin, a na­tive son of St Peters­burg, pre­sented the mu­seum with two lav­ish birth­day gifts in De­cem­ber: a 19th-cen­tury Faberge clock made for the 25th an­niver­sary of em­peror Alexan­der III and em­press Maria Feodorovna’s wed­ding, and a Roth­schild Faberge clock egg. Re­view is shown both pieces, or­nate mar­vels, on dis­play be­hind glass in the high-se­cu­rity Trea­sure Gallery’s Gold and Diamond rooms: “He con­grat­u­lated us, all the staff, on the im­por­tant work we do at the Her­mitage,” Dedinkin says.

In his speech, Putin also paid trib­ute to the Her­mitage’s “in­cred­i­ble trea­sure, which is a source of pride not just for our na­tion and our cul­ture but for global cul­ture”.

The mu­seum’s in­ter­na­tional sig­nif­i­cance

RUS­SIA’S IM­PE­RIAL PAST SEEMS VIVIDLY ALIVE

some­thing Dedinkin hopes to con­vey through his cu­ra­to­rial ef­forts on Mas­ter­pieces from the Her­mitage: The Legacy of Cather­ine the Great, which will open at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria as the latest in­stal­ment in the NGV’s Win­ter Mas­ter­pieces se­ries at the end of next month. The ex­hi­bi­tion, fea­tur­ing 538 items, comes to Aus­tralia af­ter lengthy ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Her­mitage bro­kered by Art Ex­hi­bi­tions Aus­tralia; NGV di­rec­tor Tony Ellwood cred­its the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s pass­ing of leg­is­la­tion re­lated to the Pro­tec­tion of Cul­tural Ob­jects on Loan Scheme, which pro­vides le­gal pro­tec­tion for cul­tural ob­jects on loan from over­seas lenders for tem­po­rary public ex­hi­bi­tion in Aus­tralia, as a cru­cial fac­tor in help­ing se­cure the show (the Her­mitage has not loaned any work to the US since 2011 af­ter a le­gal dis­pute over a col­lec­tion of Jewish books; Dedinkin says that Piotro­vsky will meet Amer­i­can mu­seum author­i­ties in Septem­ber to hope­fully re­solve this “im­pos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion”).

For Ellwood, the show is a mile­stone cul­tural event: “This would def­i­nitely be one of the most im­por­tant and ex­tra­or­di­nary tour­ing shows to have ever come to Aus­tralia.” Dedinkin says it will fea­ture “some very nice Van Dy­cks, some lovely Rem­brandts, Ti­tians and Rubens”, French clas­sics by Poussin, Lor­rain and Wat­teau, some of the finest Dutch and Flem­ish art to come to Aus­tralia cour­tesy of Hals, Te­niers and Sny­ders, more than 80 draw­ings by Clouet, Greuze, the Her­mitage’s first ar­chi­tects Ge­org Vel­ten and Gi­a­como Quarenghi and oth­ers, an ex­quis­ite Chi­nese gold and sil­ver col­lec­tion “to show how Cather­ine opened Rus­sia up to the East as well as West, on the ad­vice of Diderot”, and a sub­stan­tial dec­o­ra­tive arts sec­tion in­clud- ing 60 pieces from the fa­mous blue and gold 797-piece Sevres Cameo Ser­vice com­mis­sioned in 1777 for Cather­ine’s lover and “first fin­ger nib­bler of the uni­verse”, Prince Grig­ory Potemkin. On the day Re­view ar­rives, many of the NGVbound paint­ings — more than 90 will make the long jour­ney — have al­ready been re­moved for a close au­dit by mu­seum staff be­fore care­ful pack­ing be­gins. Dedinkin says mildly it’s been a “very big job” to get ner­vous heads of gal­leries to agree to loans due to Aus­tralia’s dis­tance (he says he lost the bat­tle over a mag­nif­i­cent mar­ble bust of Cather­ine by Jean-Pierre Tas­sart (1727-88), Cather­ine II as Min­erva, af­ter the Ro­man god­dess of wis­dom and the arts: re­gard­ing it sadly, he shrugs, all Rus­sian fa­tal­ism, but then adds sotto voce, “But I feel in my­self that this is a lit­tle bit un­fair”). How­ever, there have been tri­umphs aplenty too, with a good bal­ance, he feels, of key paint­ing schools and gen­res, in­clud­ing land­scapes, re­li­gious works, por­traits and still-lifes: “We have tried to se­lect works and ob­jects that we think will ap­peal to the Aus­tralian public.”

Dedinkin points out Aus­tralia-bound pieces as we walk briskly through glit­ter­ing state­rooms, ball­rooms, Cather­ine’s re­cently re­stored golden church and her pri­vate rooms, be­fore ven­tur­ing across Palace Square to the new wing crammed full of Renoirs, Matisses, Gau­guins and Pi­cas­sos from the Her­mitage’s spec­tac­u­lar 19th to 21st-cen­tury col­lec­tion. In the Dutch and Flem­ish gal­leries, out leaps Frans Sny­ders’s vividly beau­ti­ful Con­cert of Birds, based on one of Ae­sop’s fables; un­der­neath is another Sny­ders (with Jan Boeck­horst) clas­sic, Cook at a kitchen

ta­ble with dead game. Dedinkin points to Van

Dyck’s serene Por­trait of El­iz­a­beth and Philadel

phia Whar­ton — “This one is go­ing too, it is beau­ti­ful” — and his Por­trait of Queen Hen­ri­etta

Marie, to be ac­com­pa­nied by an ex­quis­ite Rubens, Ro­man Char­ity. Along­side is the artist’s im­pos­ing The Ado­ra­tion of the Magi: “This, I think, is the big­gest piece go­ing,” he says, along with an el­e­gant 1773 mar­ble bust, Cather­ine II, by Jean-An­toine Houdon, distin­guished by its coy but serene smile. “Lovely,” Dedinkin notes.

In the Ital­ian gal­leries, he points out more Aus­tralia-bound works: a beau­ti­ful 1512 Domenico Capri­olo work, Por­trait of a Man, a sen­sual Ti­tian, Por­trait of a Young Woman, and Paris Bor­done’s lux­u­ri­ous for­mal Re­nais­sance piece, Por­trait of a Lady with a Boy. In the French gal­leries, he stops in front of Wat­teau’s 1715 work Savo­yard with a Mar­mot. “This is very charm­ing,” he mur­murs. “It is one of the works from the Crozat col­lec­tion, which was one of the great­est pri­vate col­lec­tions of paint­ings in France and she bought it all. Crozat was close friends with Wat­teau, who lived in his house in Paris, and they be­came good friends.”

For Dedinkin, the real story of this show lies not in the items that will make their long way to Aus­tralia, but what they rep­re­sent — a global art col­lec­tion that tells the ex­tra­or­di­nary story of the Ger­man child bride who re­formed Rus­sia. Cather­ine’s pres­ence is all around us, in rosy­cheeked for­mal state por­traits, mar­ble busts, in­ti­mate items from her boudoir — jew­elled snuff boxes, combs, brooches — and gifts from her lovers, in­clud­ing a por­trait pre­sented to her by Potemkin, the re­cip­i­ent of the glo­ri­ous Sevres Cameo Ser­vice she com­mis­sioned from the Sevres Porce­lain Man­u­fac­tory in Paris (show­ing me some fine teacups and plates, he says: “In Mel­bourne, we will have a ta­ble for six per­sons laid out.”) Even back then, he re­marks dryly, “Cather­ine liked cul­tural ex­change. It’s in­ter­est­ing how she con­tin­ued good re­la­tions with all her lovers.”

He pays trib­ute to her “ex­tra­or­di­nary” eye for art, po­lit­i­cal smarts, con­sid­er­able in­tel­lect, and iron will: “All this” — he waves a hand around us, tak­ing in not just the Her­mitage but the grand city with its palaces and canals out­side — “is be­cause of her. She was a vi­sion­ary woman.”

Born Sophia Au­gusta Fred­er­icka on April 21, 1729 in Ger­many to a mi­nor noble fam­ily, Cather­ine was brought to Rus­sia at 14 to marry the sickly, weak-willed young Peter Ul­rich of Hol­stein, grand­son of Peter the Great and the heir cho­sen by em­press El­iz­a­beth, his spin­ster daugh­ter. Over years of a love­less mar­riage (she would later de­scribe Peter in her mem­oirs as an “idiot and drunk­ard”), she taught her­self Rus­sian along with sev­eral other lan­guages, steeped her­self in the po­lit­i­cal writ­ings of Mon­tesquieu and Voltaire and clas­si­cal literature by Tac­i­tus and oth­ers, grad­u­ally build­ing a power base in the Rus­sian court be­fore suc­ceed­ing to the throne in 1762 fol­low­ing Peter’s over­throw.

It was the start of a golden cul­tural age for Rus­sia, Dedinkin says. Dur­ing her re­formist, dy­namic reign (1762-96), Cather­ine would open Rus­sia to the West and the val­ues of the En­light­en­ment, spark an ar­chi­tec­tural re­nais­sance and in­sti­tute sweep­ing po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural, ed­u­ca­tional and eco­nomic re­forms. “I am build­ing, I will build, and will en­cour­age oth­ers to build”, she said. The French en­voy at the Rus­sian

court, Louis Philippe, comte de Se­gur, said: “Her court was a meet­ing place for the lead­ers of all the na­tions and the lu­mi­nar­ies of her age. Be­fore her, St Peters­burg, which had been built in the re­gions of ice and snow, went prac­ti­cally un­no­ticed, as if it were in Asia. Dur­ing her reign, Rus­sia be­came a Euro­pean power. St Peters­burg oc­cu­pied a prom­i­nent po­si­tion among the cap­i­tals of the civilised world and the im­pe­rial throne ranked among the most pow­er­ful and im­por­tant.”

Cather­ine’s ge­nius is per­haps best pre­served in her artis­tic legacy. Dedinkin says the scale and rate of her ac­qui­si­tions (cour­tesy of her con­sid­er­able fi­nan­cial re­sources and an army of spot­ters and deal­ers in­clud­ing Voltaire and Diderot) was as­ton­ish­ing. She be­gan in 1764 with 317 old mas­ters as­sem­bled for Fred­er­ick II of Prus­sia by the Ber­lin in­dus­tri­al­ist and fi­nancier Jo­hann Ernst Gotzkowsky.

“It was strange, no­body knew what to do with these 300 paint­ings from Ber­lin,” Dedinkin says. “At that time, there was no space for these paint­ings, it was for­got­ten for a cou­ple of years, but in the mid­dle of the 1760s she started to think again and she got sev­eral more im­por­tant col­lec­tions, one af­ter the other.”

These in­cluded, in 1769, the Hein­rich von Bruhl col­lec­tion, fol­lowed by the Crozat col­lec­tion in 1772. In 1779, she swooped on the col­lec­tion of Robert Walpole, Bri­tain’s first prime min­is­ter, to the out­rage of many, in­clud­ing the de­scen­dants of the Walpole es­tate who felt it be­longed in their coun­try. In her bid to cre­ate “a unique, great, sys­tem­atic uni­ver­sal col­lec­tion of art”, she had to over­come in­ex­pe­ri­ence, and dis­tance from the world’s art mar­kets, Dedinkin says. “But step by step, she de­vel­oped her eye.”

He re­counts Cather­ine’s work in set­ting up or­phan­ages, schools, the­atres and science and art academies — she her­self wrote plays and Rus­sia’s first chil­dren’s nov­els — as well as her bib­lio­phile pas­sions (she bought the li­braries of close friends and ad­vis­ers Voltaire and Diderot) and her pi­o­neer­ing ef­forts to prop­erly cat­a­logue her art col­lec­tion and pub­lish de­tailed in­ven­to­ries for the public. Her other col­lect­ing pas­sions in­cluded draw­ings and ar­chi­tec­tural de­signs (St Peters­burg’s ar­chi­tec­tural re­nais­sance came about through her col­lab­o­ra­tions with Quarenghi, Charles Cameron, Ivan Starov and oth­ers) as well as Chi­nese dec­o­ra­tive arts.

Ellwood says the fine ex­am­ples the public will see in Mel­bourne re­sulted from an ac­ci­den­tal meet­ing with the head of Asian art when Ellwood was at the Her­mitage. “We hap­pened to end up in a stor­age room where we saw the beau­ti­ful Chi­nese fil­i­gree sil­ver and we started talk­ing about it and re­alised it had a Qian­long Em­peror prove­nance, whose col­lec­tion from the Palace Mu­seum, Bei­jing, is cur­rently on dis­play [at the NGV].”

Dedinkin shows me fine ex­am­ples of Cather­ine’s 10,000-strong cameo col­lec­tion; ex­hibits at the NGV will be dis­played in two of her spe­cially made cab­i­nets from the lead­ing cab­i­net­maker of the pe­riod, Ger­man David Roent­gen. Cather­ine de­scribed her pas­sion for these carved pieces as “cameo fever”, ini­tially sparked by her love of Greek and Ro­man mythol­ogy and later fed by the dis­cov­er­ies of Her­cu­la­neum and Pom­peii dur­ing her life­time. He shows me nearby rooms for the en­graver Karl Le­berecht, who carved the stones, and the “chemist” Ge­org Hein­rich Konig, who made the paste used to cre­ate copies.

For Cather­ine, art was a pow­er­ful agent to en­cour­age so­cial and cul­tural re­form; Ted Gott, se­nior cu­ra­tor of in­ter­na­tional art at the NGV, says there was “an in­struc­tional and up­lift­ing level to her ac­qui­si­tions”. A skilled po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, Cather­ine also saw the value of art as a public re­la­tions tool, fos­ter­ing her im­age as an “en­light­ened monarch”, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sian critic GN Komelova, as well as its role as “a sym­bol of Rus­sia’s strength and power”, ac­cord­ing to Piotro­vsky. “She un­der­stood that the con­cept of ‘great’ en­com­passed not only econ­omy and army but also art col­lec­tions.”

As we walk through the vast Her­mitage com­plex, Dedinkin shows how Cather­ine’s art col­lect­ing pas­sions shaped the growth of the mu­seum, how it sprouted, al­most or­gan­i­cally, paint­ing gal­leries, wings and log­gias, pavil­ions and hang­ing gar­dens as her col­lec­tion grew. When she in­her­ited the Win­ter Palace in 1762, the mag­nif­i­cent ed­i­fice, de­signed by Bar­tolomeo Francesco Ras­trelli and built for em­press El­iz­a­beth be­tween 1754 and 1762, had 1000 rooms but no ded­i­cated pic­ture gal­leries. As more paint­ings ar­rived, Cather­ine built ad­di­tions in­clud­ing the Small Her­mitage, the Great Her­mitage and the grand Her­mitage Theatre.

At the North Pav­il­ion, or “Or­angery block”, Dedinkin de­scribes how Cather­ine hosted ex­clu­sive din­ner par­ties for close friends and how two of Cather­ine’s in­fa­mous me­chan­i­cal “fly­ing ta­bles” were con­structed for the Or­angery. These were ta­bles that rose up through the floor af­ter food had been laid on by ser­vants be­low, which en­sured the pri­vacy of guests (Re­view is able to view one at work, laden with can­died fruits, at Cather­ine’s sum­mer palace in Tsarskoe Selo). He says: “She could then talk with her guests with­out the ser­vants lis­ten­ing, dis­cuss pri­vate sub­jects.” Gar­den pavil­ions or palace apart­ments with such ta­bles were called “her­mitages” af­ter the French word, which was used both for the cells of her­mits and for iso­lated gar­den struc­tures. The gath­er­ings at the North Pav­il­ion came to be known as “her­mitages”, Dedinkin says, and the name was soon ap­plied to the whole com­plex of build­ings next to the Win­ter Palace.

We stroll through the Raphael Log­gias, built by her favourite Ital­ian ar­chi­tect, Quarenghi, along­side the Win­ter Canal be­tween 1783 and 1792. Sun­light floods the glo­ri­ously or­nate space, bounc­ing off the beau­ti­ful fres­coes by Aus­trian artist Christoph Un­ter­berger and his as­sis­tants, which they copied from those at the Log­gia in the Vat­i­can Palace. For Ellwood, Kon­stantin Ukhtom­sky’s ex­quis­ite draw­ing The

Raphael Log­gia (1860), which will be on dis­play at the NGV, is a per­sonal favourite: “Peo­ple think is a pho­to­graph, but it’s not — it’s one of the most stun­ning, de­tailed art­works you can imag­ine, it’s beauty is dif­fi­cult to even con­vey.”

Ellwood says the ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign in Mel­bourne will evoke a glam­orously op­u­lent feel to mir­ror the rich­ness of the Her­mitage. Visi­tors will first see the mag­nif­i­cent life-size por­trait of Cather­ine by Alexan­der Roslin be­fore mov­ing into rooms ded­i­cated to her ar­chi­tec­tural draw­ings, her cameo col­lec­tion, the Cameo Ser­vice, dif­fer­ent schools of paint­ings, as well as a room de­voted solely to pieces from the Walpole col­lec­tion, be­fore mov­ing into a fi­nal room filled with her chi­nois­erie col­lec­tion.

There is great an­tic­i­pa­tion in Aus­tralia around the show — it’s been many years since a sub­stan­tial ex­hi­bi­tion from the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion reached these shores — but also a de­gree of con­tro­versy; when the Her­mitage show was an­nounced late last year, the Aus­tralian Ukrainian com­mu­nity launched an­gry protests, say­ing art was be­ing used by Rus­sia as a kind of cul­tural white­wash to dis­tract from its pariah sta­tus in light of global con­dem­na­tion of its an­nex­a­tion of Crimea and its ter­ri­to­rial ag­gres­sion in eastern Ukraine. Ellwood says while he is deeply sym­pa­thetic to these con­cerns, “this is a gen­uine cul­tural ex­change be­tween our coun­tries”; fur­ther­more, he says, this is not a Rus­sian col­lec­tion but a global trea­sure house of cul­tural arte­facts. Dedinkin echoes this view, telling Re­view that “art is above pol­i­tics”.

It’s a noble view but not al­ways re­flec­tive of re­al­ity, as the Her­mitage it­self has found in sit­u­a­tions rang­ing from its dis­play last year of a 2500-year-old head­less statue from the Bri­tish Mu­seum’s much dis­puted Parthenon arte­facts, to its host­ing of the Man­i­festa 10 con­tem­po­rary art bi­en­nial, to a Chap­man Broth­ers show that at­tracted the ire of hard-right el­e­ments in Rus­sia. But Dedinkin says the Her­mitage takes its ul­ti­mate cue from the phi­los­o­phy of its founder. From the out­set, Cather­ine saw the im­por­tance of art’s global and diplo­matic func­tion, us­ing it to open doors and build bridges. This is the role the Her­mitage wants to con­tinue as part of her legacy, he says.

He points to the ef­forts of Piotro­vsky, a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate of cul­tural ex­change who has pushed for ex­port­ing the Her­mitage brand glob­ally via so-called Her­mitage Sput­niks, which al­ready are in place in Vy­borg and Kazan in Rus­sia, as well as in Am­s­ter­dam and Venice (an out­post is planned for Barcelona next year). He adds that it is more im­por­tant than ever that global repos­i­to­ries of art such as the Her­mitage are sup­ported by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in the light of the whole­sale de­struc­tion of an­tiq­ui­ties by Is­lamic State, for ex­am­ple. “Mu­se­ums are needed to save cul­ture,” Dedinkin says, echo­ing Bri­tish Mu­seum di­rec­tor Neil MacGre­gor’s view of mu­se­ums as “cul­tural arks”.

Piotro­vsky has big plans for the Her­mitage, in­clud­ing build­ing a sig­nif­i­cant Amer­i­can con­tem­po­rary art col­lec­tion. There’s plenty in the cof­fers to fund these ex­pan­sion­ary dreams: the Her­mitage en­dow­ment has been swelled by huge do­na­tions from pow­er­ful sup­port­ers such as oli­garch Vladimir Potanin. Dedinkin points to the wealth of riches around us — Euro­pean master­works, Scythian an­tiq­ui­ties, pre­his­toric Cau­casian arte­facts, Byzan­tine icons, Is­lamic art trea­sures — and says they be­long to the world. Cather­ine, “like a gar­dener, has planted a gar­den which was des­tined to have a long life and which con­tin­ues into present times, hav­ing an im­pact on cul­tural life in Rus­sia and be­yond its borders”.

The Ger­man child bride turned em­press, one feels, would be might­ily pleased.

Mas­ter­pieces from the Her­mitage: The Legacy of Cather­ine the Great runs at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria from July 31 to Novem­ber 8. Sharon Verghis trav­elled to Rus­sia with the as­sis­tance of Arts Ex­hi­bi­tions Aus­tralia.

Por­trait of Cather­ine II (1776–77) by Alexan­der Roslin, top; Rem­brandt’s Young woman try­ing on

ear­rings (1657), left

The Ado­ra­tion of the Magi (c. 1620) by Rubens, left; The

laun­dress (1730s) by JeanBap­tiste Simeon Chardin, above; Her­mitage di­rec­tor Mikhail Piotro­vsky with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, above right; Mikhail Dedinkin, right

Cook at a kitchen ta­ble with dead

game (c. 1636–37) by Frans Sny­ders and Jan Boeck­horst, left; Chi­nese toi­let ser­vice (early 18th cen­tury), above; porce­lain and gilt Sevres Cameo Ser­vice (1778–79), be­low left

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