A glimpse of the big picture

The Hermitage

January 23, 1998

The State Hermitage in St Petersburg indisputably possesses one of the greatest collections of world material culture. Often it is said that it is one amongst a select band of four pre-eminent museums, the others being the Louvre in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum. It therefore comes as a surprise to be told on the book's cover that this is the first full history of the Hermitage to be written in any language.

The Hermitage museum derives from the private collections of the tsars. It was Peter the Great who conceived the idea of a new great city that would face the nations of Western Europe. His decision, which could be put into effect after his victory over the Swedes in 1703, provided him with a site on the Gulf of Finland. Peter's collecting activities, so necessary for a cultured ruler, were initially in the cabinet of curiosities-style. He had a pavilion built in the grounds of his modest summer palace on the banks of the Neva to house his collection. Classical sculptures and Dutch paintings were added, as were excavated Scythian gold buckles. Thus several of the major strands of European collecting were in place from an early date.

At this stage the museum was private. A hermitage - a building for informal entertaining - had been part of Peter's building scheme. It was Catherine the Great who developed the concept further when she added an extension to her winter palace to display the paintings which she was acquiring in some bulk. Today's State Hermitage considers the date of its foundation to be 1764, when Catherine purchased 225 old masters from the Berlin dealer Johann Gotzkowski, though the buildings to house them were not ready until 1776. These had to be enlarged in 1787. By 1790 Catherine estimated that she possessed 4,000 paintings, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, four rooms of books and prints and two rooms of natural history. Her 1779 purchase of Sir Robert Walpole's collection (20 Van Dycks, 19 Rubens, eight Titians) thwarted John Wilkes's proposal that it should form the basis of a national gallery to be built in the grounds of the British Museum.

The moment when a private collection became a museum is often difficult to gauge. There was no right of access to the former, and yet visitors of the right status were admitted; a collection that was totally unknown to the public would not be fulfilling one of the reasons for its accumulation. The Hermitage took on the aspect of a museum at the beginning of the 19th century when Tsar Alexander I's administrator recommended a pattern of access "at a fixed season of the year, on condition that certain inviolable rules be observed under the supervision of specially appointed staff". Alexander was persuaded by his administrator, Franz Labensky, to collect Russian paintings, and thus the national basis of the Hermitage came about. Another new departure came from the pursuit of scientific archaeology in which objects were carefully excavated, recorded and preserved. This occurred during the reign of Nicholas I and was strongly promoted by the opening of a Scythian burial mound at Kul Obe, near Kerch. The Kerch Room at the Hermitage was opened to the public in 1852 and immediately became popular.

From the middle of the 19th century the relationship between the imperial royal family, the museum and its public changed. This was a period of social unrest in Russia and even ownership of the collection was challenged. Though the clear reply came that it was the property of the reigning emperor, the question had been put. Great strife lay ahead. During the 1917 revolution, the Hermitage was on the front line. In March, rooms in the Old Hermitage were requisitioned by the Extraordinary Investigating Commission on the Former Imperial Ministers and Employees. Many of the art treasures were evacuated by their keepers to Moscow. This was a far-sighted move: on November 7 1917 the Bolsheviks demanded unconditional surrender of the palace. This not being offered, firing on the Hermitage started. Staff had other problems: "workers' control" was required. The scholarly keepers came mainly from bourgeois backgrounds and implementation of a "correct" balance of power would pose a threat to the wellbeing of the institution. Fortunately it was agreed that museums were a special case.

T hough the collection came under threat, with some important items sold and other parts dispersed, most was preserved. In some way the Hermitage was felt to embody the spirit of the nation. (An interesting comparison would be with Chinese attitudes towards the treasures of the Forbidden City, many of which were transported to Taiwan by the Nationalists in 1949.) That is not to say that all was well. Lenin saw the collection's potential to raise foreign exchange and initially Maxim Gorky was put in charge of a commission to choose objects for this purpose. From 1925 the key figure behind museum sales was Anastas Mikoyan. Not surprisingly, this was a depressing period for the curators who fought the authorities hard and at considerable personal danger. The beneficiaries were the foreign dealers and collectors who bought in bulk, often at ridiculously low prices. (No doubt rubbing his hands, the dealer Joseph Duveen said: "The Hermitage I has gone to pieces. I do not know how a nation could sell their great pictures of that kind.") The opportunism displayed then by Andrew Mellon and Calouste Gulbenkian greatly enhanced their later creations: the National Gallery in Washington and the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Though the paintings collection suffered in Petrograd (later Leningrad), some aspects of curatorial activity flourished. The Oriental collections were consolidated and enhanced through the efforts of the overpowering Iosif Orbeli, while Russian archaeology was strongly supported by the Soviet authorities, who had expectations that its interpretation would prove the inevitability of the evolution of Marx's dialectical materialism and the superiority of the Slavic races in antiquity.

Curators were on a knife-edge during the difficult years of Stalin's regime. They were prime targets of the terror, not only being members of the intelligentsia but often having foreign contacts. More than 50 were arrested and then exiled, imprisoned or sent to labour camps; 12 were executed as spies. In a quite remarkable section appended to the book, the case histories of 44 staff who suffered in these ways are set out. Some showed quite remarkable courage. Having served their sentences, some survivors returned to work in the Hermitage, while those who died were rehabilitated after the death of Stalin. During the terrible 900-day siege of Leningrad from 1941 to 1944, the staff showed more concern for the buildings and objects that remained than for themselves. Things could only get better.

The directors of the Hermitage have at least been a succession of worthy scholars and they have showed shrewdness in promoting the interests of their institution, considering that the personnel or foreign relations department down the corridor was headed by a KGB man. There were new and considerable problems thrust upon them, for example having to deal with art objects removed from Germany that had been deemed war reparation, and keeping on the right side of the authorities when it came to displaying 20th-century paintings (in a 1956 exhibition of French paintings, Matisse's Music and Dance were shown on a staircase where it was hoped they would not be noticed). The recent fall of communism has brought new problems. Becoming capitalist too quickly has resulted in the failure of an ill-conceived joint venture enterprise which cost a director his job in 1992.

Geraldine Norman's book is not an institutional history, neither is it the "biography" she claims. Rather, she paints the big picture and describes the Hermitage in the life of the nation. This has meant that much of what she describes in her book is important to the development of the Hermitage but is not about the Hermitage. An example of this is the remarkable story of the acquisition of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings by the merchant families of Shchukin and Morozov in the early years of the 20th century. Though they eventually entered the collections of the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, this was not until 1948.

A theme which shows clearly through in the book is the significance of the Hermitage to the Russian nation. Senior staff are formally integrated into academic and public life. Decisions (though not always beneficial) are taken at the very highest level by ministers who feel an involvement with and regard for the institution to a much higher degree than is the case in Britain - though possibly the French situation is similar to that of Russia. Connections with politicians are strong. Though not typical, it seems unsurprising that the current Russian foreign minister, Evgeny Primakov, at one stage compiled an Islamic dictionary with the present director, Mikhail Piotrovsky.

The Hermitage has entered a new phase. In November 1997 I received its first annual report. It was in English - possibly the first foreign language edition of any such museum publication. The reason is likely to be connected with the main problem, the financial situation. The energetic and admirable Piotrovsky spends much of his time travelling the world raising support and he has had some significant successes. In a way, Norman's book is part of the international opening-up of the State Hermitage. There are, of course, dangers in eroding the essential Russianness of this remarkable place, but these are likely to have been weighed up.

The book is a considerable achievement and needs to be studied not only by the art world but more widely. Any serious visitor to St Petersburg would gain by having read it. The style is not particularly scholarly (I frequently yearned for proper footnotes) and becomes journalistic in places. This is not a criticism: if it stimulates the production of other kinds of histories then its significance will be that much the greater.

R. G. W. Anderson is director, British Museum.

The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum

Author - Geraldine Norman
ISBN - 0 224 04312 9
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £20.00
Pages - 386

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