To mark the 250th anniversary of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, and the completion of a new building designed by Studio 44 (captured in our handsome publication), a fascinating film takes viewers deep into the museum’s remarkable collections. Thames & Hudson’s Jo Walton saw the film on its release and shares her review below.
The State Hermitage Museum, in St Petersburg, is one of those vast cultural landmarks that I have yet to get to grips with properly. Two very brief visits, while on whirlwind tours of the Baltic, have offered only tantalising glimpses of this extraordinary collection – while proving by their exhausting speed that the museum buildings are truly enormous and jam-packed with treasures.
2014 sees the 250th anniversary of the founding of the Museum by the Empress Catherine the Great, herself a hyperbolic figure with a lust for collecting paintings, gemstones, furnishings, porcelain, palaces and lovers. She collected artworks not just because they were beautiful and fashionable – she was determined to modernise her nation and bring Western education and culture to her realm. Starting in 1764 she gathered up collections of paintings, prints and drawings that became available across Europe, managing to create the core of the Hermitage collection in just under thirty years. She extended the network of buildings alongside the Winter Palace, on the banks of the River Neva, to house her treasures, including building a scale replica of Raphael’s great Loggia from the Vatican in Rome. As well as being a repository for her collection the Palace complex was also the home of the Imperial family, and her heirs would continue to collect, enlarge and develop the Museum across the next century and a half.
The opulence and staggering Imperial grandeur of the Hermitage is splendidly conveyed in a new film by Margy Kinmonth – Hermitage Revealed – which offers both a tour of the museum complex, and a potted history of the collections themselves. Across an hour and twenty minutes the film explores some of the highlights of the collections. It lingers lovingly over details from the paintings, relishes the extravagant glories of the Palace architecture, investigates behind the scenes, and even meets the colony of ferocious looking cats that inhabit the basements.
The key figure in the film, and in the life of the Museum, is the Director – Mikhail Piotrovsky, who has the unusual distinction of having taken over the job from his father. Boris Piotrovsky was Director from 1964 until 1990, and Mikhail claims to have had the Hermitage as his childhood playground. To emphasis this, the image of a small boy, gazing through the snow-covered gates of the Palace, then skipping and trotting through the corridors and State Rooms, weaves through the film.
The adult Piotrovsky admits that his rule of the Museum is, “very totalitarian” as he genially introduces us to the different departments and their curators. Hidden from public view, even the endless corridors contain treasures. The porcelain store is in a lavish former Imperial Bathroom, while a staggering collection of engraved gems repose in beautifully made cabinets in a narrow passageway. Drawer after drawer is opened to reveal hundreds of precious gems, each with a tiny handwritten luggage label of identification. Even the Director’s Office is remarkable, filled by a large desk which had belonged to Tzar Alexander, and is heaped, three foot deep, with papers, pamphlets, manuscripts and books. Russian bureaucracy, it seems, demands everything in more than triplicate.
The modern history of the Museum has been tumultuous, with revolution, war and Stalinist Purges taking their toll. In 1941 curators worked night and day, through the ‘White Nights’ of the summer, to pack and evacuate two train loads of objects before the appalling Siege of Leningrad tightened its grip on the city. (“Cats are sooo deliiiicious” claimed one retired curator, who had survived the three-year Siege as a small child, fed on anything that might be available).
Now, of course, the Hermitage has joined other great cultural centres across the world as a hub for tourists and the film repeatedly showed time-lapse sequences of crowds skittering across the screen at top speed. To cater for the millions of visitors new spaces, displays and technology are needed. Over the past couple of years the complex network of buildings has been enlarged still further, with over 800 rooms and five courtyards in the General Staff Building, just across Palace Square, being adapted to create a new space to show 19th and 20th century artworks and for exhibitions of contemporary work – something that has been lacking in the city up to now.
The film shows some of this work, by the St Petersburg architectural practice, Studio 44, including a vast glass covered courtyard which doubles as an amphitheatre. The scale is majestic, the finish clean and bright. These new rooms have just opened with Manifesta 10 – The European Biennale of Contemporary Art, on show until October.
Margy Kinmonth’s film is gentle and affectionate, with a sense of wide-eyed wonder at the scope and size of this museum behemoth. It certainly makes you want to visit – but perhaps to undertake a strenuous fitness regime first, in preparation for the miles you’ll have to walk and the millions of objects you’ll be able to see.
Hermitage Revealed can be watched on BBC iPlayer (from within the UK) until the 6 February – click here to visit BBC iPlayer
For the 250th anniversary of the founding of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, a decision to convert the eastern wing’s General Staff Building into a museum of 19th- and 20th-century art led to an international architectural competition. The scale and dramatic outcome of the new building – the most important new cultural museum in Russia for a generation – is captured in this handsome publication and will inspire architects, museum visitors, curators and anyone interested in the next chapter of Russia’s rich cultural heritage. Available for £34.95 from the Thames & Hudson website.