Monday, April 19, 2010

Museums in St. Petersburg, Russia

Yet another of my beautiful, partial, plot-damaged novel fragments is set in a futuristic St. Petersburg, an ill-conceived work inspired by cold and euphoria while wandering alone for a day in the city center, approached only by scammers and charltans, drunk on cold silver vistas and wet leaves and ghosts. It was a mood, more than a novel, but I remember that day every time I think about St. Petersburg, city of the aristocrats and the damned, such a mad, gray, sinister, ornate, spectral, rotted, impossible place. I hope this isn't making it sound bad. To me, it's one of the most different, exotic, particular destinations there is, the place you go if you want your mind blown, or if you want to go back in time or into an alternate reality. The failed novel fragment was science-fiction, only appropriate for St. Petersburg, though it's actually a pretty low-tech place.

This post, however, is about the art. But before I start talking about it, I will make one more note of a practical nature: Check the forecast before you go. Bring warmer clothes than you think you're going to need. Plan seriously on footwear that will keep you dry.

Regarding the art, visiting St. Petersburg is like going to Florence or Venice in terms of density of museums and landmarks, but, in my opinion, the rightful fame and importance of the Hermitage obscures the position of the equally worthy Russian Museum. Here's the thing: The Hermitage is an impressive, massive European-style palace, former home to the tsars, turned into a rambling and quirkily organized museum full of treasures of international art. There's a Leonardo Da Vinci, a haunting Rembrandt room, a sweeping collection of Matisses and French Impressionists, and my favorite Titian—of Zeus impregnating Danae disguised as a cloud of golden coins. This is all wonderful stuff, but it's not necessarily Russian, and it doesn't occupy that sweet spot of early 20th Century Russian art when the Maleviches and Mashkovs and Filonovs were redefining painting. This is the era of painting that the Russian Museum specializes in—big, powerful, vibrant, beautiful canvases that are possible to "like" and even understand without knowing anything about art history. I don't say they're as crowd-pleasing as the Monets, but they might be close, and you will never see art by any of these painters outside of Russia.

Perhaps I am more naieve than most, but I can't tell you how many times I've gone to the Tretyakov gallery in Moscow, sort of hoping to see some Kandinskys (the Tretyakov collection ends at Kandinsky; for the modernists, you need the New Tretyakov). I spent three days in the Hermitage in 2007 with an art-loving friend who has since become an art historian, and we felt we'd done St. Petersburg justice. We didn't even know about the Russian Museum. Well, now I do. And since there seem to be very limited options about it in English online, next post will be some notes on the floorplan.

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