Magazine article The Spectator

A Realist in Russia

Magazine article The Spectator

A Realist in Russia

Article excerpt

Martin Gayford talks to the director of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

Maybe one day we'll be rich enough to buy them back, and they'll be poor enough to sell them. But that's unrealistic.' Professor Mikhail B. Piotrovski, director of the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, is talking about the 30 or so supreme masterpieces from his gallery sold by the Soviet government in the 1930s. And it certainly is excessively optimistic to hope for their return. Some 21- by artists such as van Dyck, Titian and Raphael - were presented by the millionaire Andrew Mellon to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where they are among the jewels of the collection.

But Professor Piotrovski, a drily ironic man, is not really serious. Indeed, he insists that the sad experiences of the Hermitage have made him and his staff utterly opposed to the idea of any museum disposing of its collection (or 'deacquisitioning', as the jargon has it). By the same token, he is in no hurry to hand back the works of art - Degas's splendid `Place de la Concorde', for example - removed to Russia from Germany after the war.

At the Hermitage they have long memories. They remember the immense destruction wrought by the Nazis in Russia on the grounds that the Slavs, as an inferior race, did not deserve to have a culture (there was a German plan to destroy St Petersburg completely). And they continue to mourn not only the masterpieces sold abroad by Stalin in a fit of politically correct disdain for bourgeois aesthetics, but also other items discarded by Tsar Nicholas I in the 19th century.

As Piotrovski points out, 'A museum is not just storage space, it's a kind of organism where everything fits into a certain place. You mustn't destroy it.' The museumological organism he has inherited is more or less the largest in the world - the Grand Louvre recently overtook it in square metres, but if the Hermitage's expansion plans come to fruition it will soon be number one again. The Hermitage is as unique as it is massive, a monumental complex along the bank of the Neva, taking in the Winter Palace, and displaying archaeological artefacts and decorative arts as well as pictures: The British Museum, V&A, National Gallery and Buckingham Palace all in one.

`We have the ghosts walking around,' as Piotrovski puts it. `One moment you are looking at Rubens or Matisse, the next you are in the room where Alexander II lay dying from the effects of a terrorist bomb.' The Hermitage is the last great 19th-century museum in the world - the Louvre, the closest equivalent, is much altered. Those Stalinist sales apart, the Hermitage was preserved remarkably in the Soviet deepfreeze - sans blockbusters, modernist hangs and over-cleaning. Piotrovski aims to retain that gracious, palatial air as he eases the museum towards the 21st century.

There will be no over-cleaning, for example. Those who are appalled by the stripped, bare look of many great paintings in British and American galleries will be delighted to learn that Hermitage restorers are under strict instructions to stop short at the final layer of varnish (which is the nub of the cleaning debate). `I'm afraid that in many places in the West they have just cleaned everything away down to the paint, taking out a lot of nuances in the process. Sometimes people who don't understand about art complain, "Oh, your pictures are so dark. …

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