Mikhailovsky Palace Russian Museum
While the Russian Museum consists of three large buildings (each a former palace), we visited two, including the Mikhailovsky Palace, the largest and the primary segment of the collection of Russian art from ancient times to the mid-20th century. It begins with a brief overview of pre-18th century art (especially religious paintings) before proceeding through a number of ornately painted (although with few plaster carved) ceiling rooms that house 18th- and 19th-century portraits and, as the years progress, landscapes, ceremonial scenes and many battle scenes, before moving through the mid-19th century.
While many of the paintings lack the detail, delicacy, and subtlety of their European counterparts of the same era, they seem to try to make up for this with their massive size. Many of the canvases were of huge size, sometimes covering entire gallery walls. Most, at least up to the end of their 19th century, were also incredibly dark: Their palettes consisted largely of dark colors (such as blacks, browns, and dark grays), their subjects were often dark (wars, suffering, and death) and the faces of the subjects (even at celebrations) were often either somber, grim, stern or judgmental. Even sculptures, such as “Cossack After Battle”, with weary body slumped over, head hanging down. Even his horse was dejected. So much for an uplifting day at the museum.
The palettes and the subject matter seemed to brighten somewhat toward the end of the 19th and very early 20th centuries and brush strokes became looser and less tightly controlled. (Good thing they didn’t know what was in store for them over the next few decades.) Impressionist and Fauvist influences began to seep into an even pervade the work of painters such as Valentin Serov. Others, like Aristark Lentulov, exhibited pre-Expressionist tendencies and some, like Natalia Goncharova, developed styles that were totally their own.
Works from the late 1910s through the 30s highlighted Russian development of “Supremism” (what is described as new realism in a futurist mode), Cubism, Minimalism, Constructivism and an entire gallery devoted to what is referred to as the pioneering work of Pavlov Filmov in portraying something referred to as the “unseen processes of images”. By the 1930s, a number of the works portrayed the stoicism and heroism of the nation’s workers and in the 1940s, the heroism of its soldiers.
The mid-20th century demonstrated much more variety in the work: from realism to abstractionism, in the use of light and dark palettes, and in the use of a wide range of media. And the emergence of “Unofficial Art” which criticized or at least expressed disapproval of the system.
The museum also had modest-sized but interesting collections of furniture and decorative arts such as ceramics and glass, including some interesting modernist pieces.
Marble Palace Russian Museum
The Marble Palace houses the contemporary arm of the Russian Museum’s collection. The permanent collection is of modest size but has a strong representation of representative work of leading American, French, German, and Russian artists. The entry to the exhibit has a couple of interesting pieces such as Alexander Brodsky’s Grey Matter (a large number of very diverse items cast in grey clay) and a very realistic folded paper representation of coasts hanging in a cloakroom.
The main collection begins with individual works of modern art icons such as Picasso, Jasper Johns, Claus Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenburg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Anselm Kiefer.
Other especially interesting works include Tom Wesselman’s Matisse-like steel sculpture and a number of works by Russian artists, including a Hopper-like painting of a man in a diner, an artist’s homage to his father through a three-image portrayal of a boring, daily subway commute, and a wall of miniatures titled “Life Above All” that parodies daily life in Russia. “Good Morning” is a very Modigliani-ish portrayal of a man taking his first, very, long step of the day.
There is also a special exhibit of the work of Reza Derakhani, a contemporary Iranian artist whose exhibit contains a wide range of styles, ranging from realist black and white paintings to highly abstracted canvases that are awash in bright colors to relatively literal figurative representations in an abstract context.
A number of rooms contain no modern art at all. They are, instead, celebrations of the majesty of the palace itself, with its ornate carvings, murals, and period furnishings. A number of these rooms, not do speak of the grand staircase, are worth the price of admission in and of themselves.
Peter and Paul Fortress Museum
The primary museum in the Peter and Paul fortress was in the Commandant’s House and profiled the city’s history. It describes the building of the fortress and the previously discussed Peter and Paul Cathedral and Grand Ducal Burial Chapel, and traces the growth of the city, with its canals, its bridges, and the importance of railroads and the automobile to the city. It examined the explosive growth–a doubling of its population–the city experienced during the late 19th and early 20th century and how developers accommodated this growth by building massive, high-density apartment complexes that provided large, lavish apartments for the aristocracy and wealthy merchants and the front of the building; three-to-five room flats for mid-income families in the middle; followed by long “well-shaft” courtyards filled with small, inexpensive rooms at the back.
The majority of the museum focuses on portraying life among different classes of citizens throughout the city’s short, but very eventful history. It portrays their clothes and their fashions and especially the types of rooms in which they lived and the furniture, appliances, and types of personal items that occupied these rooms. Overall, it is a nice introduction to the city.
The Faberge museum has the largest single egg collection in the world. It now includes Malcolm Forbes’ incredible collection of 13 of Faberge’s 50 Surprise Eggs. We had seen the Forbes collection many years ago in New York before the Faberge Museum acquired it.
The foundation’s entire collection of Faberge art is incredible, as is the beautiful building in which it is housed.
Gustav Faberge founded the Faberge Company in 1842. The company achieved its greatest fame and acceptance (as the Romanov Court Jeweler and the international Jeweler of Kings) in 1872 under his son Carl. Our tour took us around to each of the 13 eggs, and provided us with an explanation of each egg’s history, for whom it was intended and for what occasion, the way in each enameled egg opened and the surprise that was in (or in one case, on the surface of) each. Among our favorites were the:
- Golden egg, with a surprise of a gold yolk which, when that was opened, contained a small gold chicken with a ruby crown;
- Rose egg, rose-colored enamel, studded with diamonds that contained a yellow rose whose petals, when opened, contained a jewel;
- Coronation Rose, clear enamel over gold whose surprise was an exact scale copy of the queen’s coronation carriage with wheels that turned and doors that opened to reveal a diamond necklace;
- Rooster Egg, a dark blue enameled egg whose surprise popped out of the top on the hour—a rooster that crowed, spread its wings and opened and closed its beak;
- The 50th Anniversary Egg, whose surprise was on the outside—delicate, hand-painted images of the major events in the couple’s life and reign and portraits of themselves and each of their children.
Although these eggs are currently virtually priceless (although the Forbes family apparently had its price), they were also pretty expensive in their own day. They cost roughly 30,000 rubles apiece, at a time when the highly skilled jeweler who was in charge of actually making the eggs that Carl Faberge designed, earned 150 rubles per month.
The Collection, however, contains much more than the 13 eggs. Each of the palace’s rooms has a different focus. These include:
- Royal gift items, such as tobacco and snuff boxes (that were signs of nobility and wealth, and sometimes contained their own surprises), gold and enamel picture frames, teacups and spoons, and so forth;
- Fantasy Objects, or Objects d’Arts, which had no real function, but were intended to be admired for heir beauty. These included images of people, animals, and two of our favorites, a red and green chair, and a carriage;
- Mass-produced enamels were intended as luxury items for well-to-do aristocrats, merchants, and so forth. These included cuff links, clocks, picture frames, belt buckles, lipstick cases, and jewelry.
- Moscow enamels, which were made by Moscow artisans, were often much larger, darker, and with much denser design patterns than the subtle and delicate patterns favored by Faberge.
- Religious icons, such as enamels, folding religious triptychs such as those taken on trips and gold frames for religious paintings;
- Elaborate and often large silver items, such as elaborate, gold-plated tea sets, punch bowls, and commemorative cups that were often given as diplomatic or military gifts.
- Russian paintings, especially those of Russian Impressionists.
Overall, it is a wonderful gallery that can be explored on your own, explored with a tour or our preference, a combination of both.
A Night at the Opera at the Mariinsky Theater
Mariinsky Theater is a beautiful venue for opera and ballet. It also provided a perfect opportunity for visiting one of the most Russian of Theaters to see one of the most Russian of operas.
The theater, whose lobby and hallway are small, bland, and undecorated, open onto a large, tastefully, if not lavishly decorated auditorium with a large central seating area surrounded by multiple, gold-lined levels of seats. It is topped by a mural and looks forward over the orchestra pit to a lovely, but subdued, multi-colored curtain.
We attended the Eugene Onegin opera: a Peter Tchaikovsky-scored opera, based on a classic novel by Alexander Pushkin, set in St. Petersburg and its countryside. It was about the Russian aristocracy and dealt with classic Russian themes of cultured, intelligent women dealing with a shallow, narcissistic man who makes a tragic error from which he unsuccessfully tries to redeem himself. I wish we could have enjoyed the opera as much as the building. Unfortunately, we are not opera fans.