Magazine article The Spectator

Imperialist Ambitions

Magazine article The Spectator

Imperialist Ambitions

Article excerpt

State Hermitage

St Petersburg

In 1997, the Russian Academy of Sciences gave the names Hermitage 4758 and Piotrovsky 4869 to two small planets discovered 500 million kilometres from earth. The signal honour paid to the State Hermitage Museum and Boris and Mikhail Piotrovsky- its dynastic succession of directors - heralded a new era of post-Soviet expansionism for the former Imperial museum: from now on, the sky would be the limit.

Since then, the Hermitage has opened branches in London, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, Kazan, Ferrara and Vyborg. More than a goodwill gesture, the St Petersburg museum's overseas expansion has been a way of getting its collections seen. At home in Palace Square there's room to display only 5 per cent of the three million objects amassed since Catherine the Great started collecting in 1764 - this despite the imperial collections' subsequent overflow from the Small Hermitage into the Great Hermitage, then the New Hermitage and, after the revolution, the Winter Palace.

Now the collection is on the move again.

Since 1999 the museum has been gradually annexing the Eastern Wing of the neoclassical General Staff Building facing the Winter Palace across Palace Square. By 2014, the 250th anniversary of the Hermitage's foundation, the 800 rooms will provide a new home for the museum's collections of 19th-, 20th- and 21st-century art.

It's a bold move, in more ways than one.

A glorified office block, Carlo Rossi's elegant 1830s building is not obviously suited to showing modern art. Frank Gehry, when consulted, declared it a non-starter - the rooms were too small - but Rem Koolhaas came up with the clever solution of roofing over five internal courtyards to create large galleries. Two of the new courtyard spaces are already open. Less is more.

But the building's architecture is not the only obstacle to modernisation. A more obvious problem is that, apart from the trove of modernist works by Matisse and Picasso acquired in 1948, the Hermitage owns almost no modern art. Malevich's 'Black Square' may have made its debut appearance in St Petersburg in 1913 as the backdrop to the avant-garde opera Victory over the Sun, but it wasn't until 2002 that the Hermitage got its hands on a 'Black Square' of its own. Under Soviet rule the museum was restricted to buying works by Socialist Realist artists, with exceptions made only for the Communist Picasso and the Russian-Jewish Chagall. (To see the art of Malevich, Tatlin and Larionov in St Petersburg you must visit the Benois Wing of the Russian Museum; to see post-Soviet era art, for now, the Ludwig Museum in the Marble Palace. ) The Hermitage doesn't have deep wells of funding for acquisitions, but neither is it in an unseemly rush to stock up on all the leading western art brands. 'When you start buying, the museum becomes a player in the art market, ' says Dimitri Ozerkov, the 36-year-old head of the newly created Contemporary Art Department. 'Money's not the biggest problem. The problem is having a long line of dealers waiting in Palace Square.' The collecting policy on Planet Piotrovsky is specifically and patriotically focused on artists whose work reflects the influence of the Russian avant-garde. Rather than genuflecting to the big names in western art, the Hermitage expects western art to pay its respects to Russia. …

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