I knew right away when I learned I was traveling to Moscow that I’d want to visit as many museums as possible. I decided to start with one of the biggest, a museum that has displayed collections of European art since the start of the twentieth century. Incidentally, the museum has absolutely nothing to do with Alexander Pushkin or his writing.
The first image I got of the museum was the immense line from the entrance all the way to the edge of the courtyard. It was a popular time to visit – the museum had recently acquired a collection of works on loan, 17th century Dutch paintings by Rembrandt and his contemporaries, including one by Johannes Vermeer.
The exhibit was advertised as a chance that shouldn’t be passed up, as the private collection contains several rare pieces. For example, Vermeer’s Young Woman Seated at a Virginal is one of less than forty known works by the artist. However, the huge crowd meant a forty minute wait before being able to buy a ticket in.
The collection was displayed in its own section of the museum. Most of the works were painted by contemporaries of Rembrandt, which meant there were only a few by the masters themselves. There was Minerva, taking center stage at the head of the room – the largest of the collection by far. The majority were smaller studies, lining the walls in glass cases. It was almost impossible to weave through the crowd of people, milling slowly around the edges of the room from painting to painting, and get close enough to examine one carefully.
The paintings themselves were dwarfed by the scale of the room they were in. Classical style columns lined the room, supporting a high ceiling that was intricately decorated. The building itself was designed by Roman Klein, an architect from Moscow who won the right to design the museum in a competition in 1896. The external facade is meant to emulate balanced, classical architecture, while the inside is designed section by section according to the time period of the works displayed there. That’s why the columns outside are Ionic and the ones above are Corinthian, and the interiors of the rest of the galleries vary wildly.
As it turns out, exploring the permanent exhibits of the museum was much more rewarding. The path through the museum is pretty much linear, designed so that visitors go from room to room around the circumference of the museum. Works are divided into different sections according to the time and place they were created. The walls of each section are painted a different color – deep red for Italian paintings, for example, and a pale blue for French. As opposed to the temporary exhibit, which was arranged so that viewers walked around the room in a large oval, the first anteroom I walked into in the main section of the museum was a jumble of statues and suits of armor.
The first thing to jump out at me there was the bronze statue of David, sculpted by Donatello at the peak of the Renaissance. There were a few seconds of confusion – thought that one was in Italy – and I turned and saw the other, more famous David, towering over the rest of the statues. Then I realized that most of the pieces in the room were copies, made from plaster casts of famous statues.
This wasn’t true for all of the sections of the museum, but it was for a surprisingly large portion of the exhibits. This was a foreign concept to me as someone who has only frequented American museums, where the thought of displaying a room full of copies of famous works would be almost unthinkable. If, for example, the Museum of Fine Arts wanted to display a particular piece, the status quo would be to attempt to get it sent out on loan for a time, not to make a cast or display a copy.
And yet, the part of the museum that made the strongest impression on me was the collection of plaster cast reproductions. While the other sections are primarily composed of two dimensional works, for me this was the section with the most depth – both in terms of variety of works, and in a literal sense. Every didactic I looked at designated each statue as a copy, a plaster cast in place of the marble original. This raises an inevitable question: Do copies make a difference? How will a visit to a museum be changed if you’re viewing a copy as opposed to the real thing?
A group of students was circling slowly through the museum while I was there, practicing their observational drawing skills. On one hand, for an artist looking to practice sketching classical sculpture, this was undoubtedly a great place to do it. I had never seen so many reproductions of well-known Greek and Roman sculptures in one place. But I couldn’t help wondering if it made a difference that they were sketching from a plaster cast of the winged goddess of victory. Would the sketch look the same if they had been drawing from the original, or would that fact change it in some way?
Which has more value for visitors – seeing an original, or seeing a multitude of faithfully reproduced copies that are beautiful, but are only made of plaster? How much does it matter?
Does it make a difference if Michelangelo’s David has hooks protruding from the side half-concealed by the stairs behind him? Is seeing a likeness enough?
Of course, it must be a different experience for a person who has seen Michelangelo’s David in person, and then being confronted by David in plaster, crowded in between a row of busts and a flight of stairs. But for the average visitor who will likely never have the resources to travel around Europe viewing Venus de Milo and the Parthenon, I would argue that displaying copies has more value than most museums in the states would give it credit for.