23 May 2003 - Patio Pizza
The Hermitage in St Petersburg

Strolling through St Petersburg in May is nice, when the weather is threatening to burst in to Summer. Even though the sun was out, we spent most of our time today indoors at the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world.

The building itself is stupendous, never mind the collection in it. Behind is a large plaza that's set to be a centerpiece for the upcoming 300th birthday celebrations of the city. Strangely enough, it's awfully difficult to find any information about this, but I'm sure any one of the hotels will have a crib sheet.

The hermitage was the brainchild of ... and it's built like a palace. Some of the rooms leave you wondering whether you should be looking at the exhibits or the interior decor itself.

The collection is vast, spanning thousands of years from ancient Egypt all the the way to post-modern European art. It's meant to be bigger than either the Louvre or the British Museum, according to the press in one of the tourist magazines.

The museum is far too large to cover it in half a day, which is what we tried to do, but I think one day of Hermitaging will be more than most people can manage anyway. The key with muuseums of this size is to select which exhibits you plan to see and focus on them, while giving others a cursory glance (in the hope that you'll stumble across something interesting by accident).

Today we focused on a lot of the special exhibitions (Mama's idea), mainly on glasswork, jewellry and, believe it or not, modern art.

It is beyond my comprehension how people can enjoy viewing seemingly random strokes that have as much pattern as spilt paint (certainly less so than the complexity that is formed by clouds or flowing water). The viewer is encouraged to interpret what is before him.

Fine. I can do that with woodgrain and I don't have to pay a fortune to enjoy that.

Somehow, when the pendulum swung back through impressionism, it had to carry on and it swung far too far for my liking.

There is also a 'secret' impressionism gallery that is not marked on the maps. The guides refer to it as a "permanent temporary exhibit". They consist a collection of impressionistic pieces including works of Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh. These works were obtained from Germany (presumably during the war, or the former East Germany), and it's not really clear who they belong to. As a result, the museum has never officially recognised their existance (even though they are very obviously put on display), and visitors are told not, repeat NOT, to take pictures of those paintings (as with any of the temporary exhibits). It was entertaining to watch a tourist getting harangued for taking snaps of what was probably Nazi war treasure looted by the Soviet Union.

They include some interesting early Monet pieces ('interesting' here means 'not as good, I think, as his later work') and some good Van Gogh.

All this is hidden away in a corner far, far away from where the other impressionisms are on display.

It's a very politically charged issue and they say they are trying to resolve it, although it's typically Russian thing to, on one hand, not want to make clear ownership of these paintings to settle the issue once and for all, and on the other hand, to proudly present them as being part of the Hermitage's collection, even if it's in a "permanent temporary exhibition".

It was at this point that my mother encouraged me to test international law and the local police. She pointed out that since the paintings belonged to 'nobody' then it should be all right for me to pick one of them off the wall and walk away with it. After all, I can't steal something that doesn't belong to anyone.

After resisting the temptation to follow my mother's encouragement and walk away with half a million dollar's worth of art we looked around the rest of the museum. We actually missed the Italian Masters, I think, because we were interrupted by a phone call on Mama's phone (which one of the museum attendants used as an opportunity to pointedly inform us of museum do's and dont's - although the amount of noise that the average American tourist group makes is many times louder and more disrupting than a tinny handphone).

I really enjoyed the impressionism collection on the third floor that included, as a bonus, stunning views of the square outside. The one thing that marred the otherwise enthralling experience was that some of the paintings (actually, the more valuable ones) were covered with glass and the poor lighting hindered viewing for the larger pieces.

There is a whole article I want to write about the impressionistic period, but I need to learn more about it I guess. All I know and appreciate about it is that you're meant to 'paint the light' and not of the subject itself. Go figure.


posted on Friday, May 30, 2003 - permalink
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