From the Tsars to the Cellars in Manifesta
Dir. Margy Kinmonth, UK/Russia, 2014, 89 minutes (Alternative Content)
In its 250th year, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg remains the best museum that most of the world has never visited. The former palace of the Tsars holds one of the world’s greatest art collections. And, given its central place in Russian history for more than two centuries, the grand structure on the Neva contains just as many stories.
You can now visit the Hermitage without the burden of the airfare and the cold.
Margy Kinmonth captures much of that drama in Hermitage Revealed, her new documentary that takes us from the acquisitions of Catherine the Great to the grand ambitions of her descendants, to the Bolshevik Revolution that toppled the Romanovs, and to Josef Stalin, who sold masterpieces from the museum to raise cash after he came to power. You can see some of those pictures displayed proudly in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C.
Back in the Soviet Union, we see archival footage of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, which starved many in that city to death. We also get a glimpse into the preservation of the collection that risked disappearing with the rest of the population in the 900 days that Leningrad held out. The director of the museum at the time was Boris Piotrovsky, father of the current director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, who makes the argument that the cultural devastation of the Nazi invasion demands compensation before the return of any of the art now in Hermitage that was taken from Germany at the war’s end.
Kinmonth’s camera hovers over Place de la Concorde by Edgar Degas (above), a scene of then-modern Parisians in a vast public space that was unseen until the Soviet Union fell. Works by Paul Gauguin and Pierre Auguste Renoir that were brought back to Russia by Soviet trophy brigades are also part of her tour.
The film also surveys Old Master paintings, jewelry and decorative arts in galleries that can be redeployed for the exhibition of contemporary art. A Dutch artist devoted a recent installation in Manifesta, the contemporary biennial, to the basements of the Hermitage, home to hundreds of cats (which are fed by museum employees.)
Kinmonth is not the first to tour the Hermitage with a camera. In Russian Ark of 2002, Alexander Sokurov went through the galleries and their history in a single feature-length take – a logistical tour de force.
Sokurov’s dazzling film was inside the galleries, yet Hermitage Revealed takes us beyond the museum, into the grand architectural space outside the palace, and into the crescent-shaped General Staff building that was renovated under Piotrovsky’s direction. The ensemble is soon to be joined by a new structure designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
On the screen, where the scale of the image does justice to museum’s architecture and its collection, Hermitage Revealed is part of Alternative Content and Arts Alliance, a series of films bringing art and culture to theaters throughout the US. Next comes Christopher Wheeldon’s ballet, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which plays in US theaters on December 16.
Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on BlouinArtinfo.com but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of BlouinArtinfo.com.