This beautiful and educational exhibition is unique in a most interesting way: it is filled with treasures that have never before left Russian soil. However, its uniqueness does not lie in the fact that we have never had access to these exact artworks before, but because of the inspired mix of the unusual, the everyday and the precious.
For this, we must acknowledge the creative spirit of Madame Yevgenia Petrova, deputy director of the State Russian Museum. Her curatorial knowledge and talent shines in the exhibition’s excellent catalog as well as in the exhibition itself.
Madame Petrova is the catalyst for many fine Russian exhibitions focusing both on fine art and the decorative arts. Some travel throughout Europe, others have been in venues here in the United States. But in creating something out of the ordinary for FIM, she wanted to emphasize not only our museum’s unique location and facility, but also its enthusiastic audience, avid to learn about the heroic Russian past ... and perhaps to compare and contrast it with the forward-looking heart of America. Also, whereas most major international exhibitions touch down in important northern and western art centers: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco, international exhibitions of note most often slide past the west coast of Florida. However our Russian blockbuster, “Treasures of the Czars” showed our patrons as well as Madame Petrova and her colleagues that the audience and interest in Russia was alive and well here in St. Petersburg.
Further, knowing that we had all seen and exclaimed in wonder at the Kremlin treasures, she felt it important to show many, rather than one (however glorious) aspect of Russian creativity, thus promoting further good will and understanding between our two great countries.
Our exhibition opens with an in-depth look at icons and religious objects. Mostly made from limewood for its durability, each icon is painted with passion and care. Madame Petrova explained in her survey of the collection (of the State Russian Museum) that those from the Novgorod area are rich with a glorious red and gold; red representing good over evil; gold symbolizing greatness. Inspired by the 15th - 17th century examples, with their stylistic iconography, the art of icon painting was revived in the 19th century. Those early icons from Moscow are particularly delicate in paint application and detail while those with protective embossed and engraved covers show us, along with the early niello and other metalwork, the delicate genius of early Russian craftsmen.
In contrast, one can examine the simplistic brass samovars in the Folk Life section of the exhibition. Made to be used rather than displayed, these examples of applied art have wit and style though they cannot compare to the delicious complex elegance of the earlier pieces. The painted distaff sections and peasant sled illustrate yet another style: exuberant and freely painted, incorporating the traditional beloved red (which in Russia represents “beautiful”). These are not made of precious woods, but they too express the everyday world of the peasantry and, like the samovars, would have been used until worn and then, perhaps discarded, whereas the icons have been treasured not only for their religious associations but also for their rare beauty, from very early times.
The porcelain in the exhibition shows us the best of the best: great quality and design, in particular, the gilded centerpieces and urn-shaped vases which are superb. In contrast, and interestingly from the same Imperial Porcelain Factory, only dating from a much later time, is the set of porcelain figures from the Peoples of Russia series. Although vibrantly alive, they are sturdy and less exotic in concept and craftsmanship. The various tea sets, even the green porcelain dressing set, are not equal to the exquisite sheer quality of the gilded porcelain urns, but rely on color and vivid form to catch the eye and reflect the common man’s love of beauty.
Furniture too, swings from the gilded opulence of the Mikhailovsky Palace and the lovely marquetry on Catherine the Great’s game table, to richly veneered but stylistically simple bookcases, tables and chairs, then on to late 19th century chairs with ball-turned legs and backrest siderails.
The quality gilt bronze Niké candelabras in the same Palace display are very close to designs by the celebrated artist, Thomire, who worked in Paris in the early 19th century for the French Court, together with the huge candelabras and table for visiting (calling) cards placed in front of the full length portrait of Tsar Nicholas II. The silver gilt tea-and-coffee service with its witty and marvelously crafted swan and classical female head decorative elements placed nearby, and the sheer elegance of the Fabergé crystal jug, its lid set with amethysts and sapphires, all contrast mightily with the simple oval brass cooler and the almost crudely metal-banded but useful coffers and chests.
Finally, whereas the shawls, folk costumes and folk bridal crowns are quite lovely, exquisitely colored and richly patterned, the furniture upholstery, even on the gilded Palace furniture, is extremely plain. Reputedly copied from the original, perhaps the craftsmen desired to focus attention on carving and gilt rather than fabric.
A wealth of diversity is illustrated in the paintings on display and most are of excellent quality. Included are deservedly famous artists such as Ilya Repin, renowned for painting marvelous characters who seem to be wearing fancy costumes rather than their own outfits; Smirnovsky, whose early 19th century portraiture is deservedly acclaimed; Feklistov and von Wenig who, along with several lesser known painters in the show - Bogdanov-Belsky and Gorecki - specialized in the idealization of 19th century peasant life as imagined by the peasants themselves, and Ivan Shishkin, the landscape painter, whose Pine Forest, Sunny Day is a masterful example of those artists who preferred to paint nature over people. Savrasov’s, Early Spring and Yendogurov’s Start of Spring give us vistas of Russia that are soft and sensuous at the same time. All of the above named painters can be found in Russian art textbooks, particularly Repin, Shishkin and Feklistov. Von Wenig’s Russian Girl enjoyed huge success when shown in the Imperial Academy of Arts. In contrast, some of the small interior scenes in the nobleman’s section, although charming, do not arouse the spirit in the same way as the above named artists do.
Thus, in retrospect, one can swing from the heights to the “average Joe” all in an hour or so. But what an hour! Rich in artistic talent, deeply evocative, creative, colorful, dramatic, in short, this exhibition gives us Russia in a way an exhibition focusing only on treasures cannot. It gives us Russia in all its glory and passion, but peopled with ordinary mortals from all aspects of life.