Perhaps the most famous attraction in St. Petersburg is the Hermitage, a sprawling complex of art museums centered around the Winter Palace, the former residence of Russian tsars. Built by the Italian architect Rastrelli for Empress Elizabeth in the first half of the 18th century, the palace is a dizzyingly ornate Rococo confection of marble, gilt, and fresco. Although the museum is packed with works by renowned western European artists from Da Vinci and Raphael to El Greco and Goya, the architecture is just as staggering. As confirmed by our tour guide, many of the rooms are modeled off of western European predeccesors, from rooms clearly influenced by Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors to direct copies of hallways in the Vatican.
Nearly everything about the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, in fact, is western. The most prominent Russian element of the decor are the beautiful vases and bowls made from malachite. But the vast majority of the architecture, and all of the art, is either from the west or copying the west. Everything is imitation Italian, French, or German. The former palace and its awe-inspiring collection of paintings really shows St. Petersburg’s role in Russia’s history—Peter the Great’s “window on Europe”.
I was also reminded of reading Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace for class last spring, and of Tolstoy’s acerbic references to a Russian aristocracy so thoroughly Europeanized that many of its members spoke their native language with a French accent. Russian nobles, as well as the few but wealthy members of the Russian bourgeoisie, often spoke French at home, vacationed in Paris, ate French foods, watched French-inspired ballets at the Imperial Theater (now the Mariinsky), and hung French or French-inspired art on the walls of their Europeanized St. Petersburg palaces and country estates. Even aside from their elite economic status, Russia’s 19th century upper classes lived in a completely distinct cultural world from the peasants and urban laborers who made up the vast majority of the country’s population.
The eventual fallout of this split world can be clearly seen in the plaques, scattered throughout the Hermitage, informing visitors that this is the staircase where the Bolsheviks stormed the palace in October 1917, that this room is where the Provisional Government was overthrown in favor of Soviet power. For me, wandering through the Winter Palace’s blindingly elaborate hallways and seeing the massive display of wealth, culture, and power, it’s quite easy to see where the Bolsheviks were coming from, and to feel the anger of Russian political radicals. There’s almost a kind of poetic justice in the modern role of the Hermitage—a nationalized treasure trove, where gawking tourists from around the world can wander around, appreciating the aesthetic of all this art, which now belongs to all of us.
Back in Moscow, I had a very different cultural experience viewing the collections at the Tretyakovskaya Galleria, which showcases exclusively Russian artists. The gallery was originally founded by businessman, art collector, and philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov. Tretyakov began collecting contemporary and antique Russian art in 1856, and donated his collection to the city of Moscow in 1892. After the revolution, the Soviet government used the Tretyakovskaya Galleria as a repository for other Russian artworks that had been nationalized, while western art was funneled towards other museums like the Hermitage, and the museum’s collection became more and more impressive. While some of the Tretyakovskaya’s works are clearly influenced by contemporary western paintings, such as Valentin Serov’s portrait work, the museum also has a wide variety of medieval icons, and later art clearly influenced by Eastern European artistic and cultural traditions. There are paintings of Russian peasants, of Orthodox priests, and of many historical events and figures in Russia’s history. The artistic contributions of ethnic minorities in Russia are also present—the Tretyakovskaya has paintings by Russian Jewish artists like Lev Bakst, while the Novaya Tretyakovskaya—the museum’s other wing focused on its 20th century collection—had a temporary exhibition of works by Armenian-Russian artist Nikolai Nikogosyan, and a series of beautiful murals painted in the 1920s by Marc Chagall for the Soviet Union’s new State Yiddish Theater.
In the 19th century, Russian artists often divided themselves and their art into two camps—Slavophiles, who focused on the unique culture of Russia and other Slavic peoples, often idealized the Orthodox Church, and believed that Russia should not emulate the west, and Westernizers, who felt that European culture was superior to Russia’s traditions and should be emulated as much as possible. In my opinion, there are flaws to both views. While the western art and western-inspired architecture I saw in St Petersburg is certainly beautiful, there’s a sort of emptiness about borrowing exclusively from neighboring countries while ignoring the fascinating, complex history of your own region. On the other hand, the Slavophile movement often found itself mired in nationalism, and left no room for artists like Nikogosyan and Chagall, who had their own contributions to offer.
Thinking about this apparent dichotomy, I’m inclined to quote Sergei Diaghilev, one of the founders of the turn-of-the-century magazine Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), and later impresario of the Ballets Russes, which brought revolutionary new ballets inspired in many ways by Russian folk culture to audiences from Paris to Indianapolis. Diaghilev felt “as if Russian Artists are ashamed to submit themselves to the judgement of Europe and only want to show that they too can paint like Western Europeans. And it never occurred to them to wonder if we are capable of teaching the Europeans what they do not yet know. Can we add a new facet to European art?”