An Englishwoman Abroad: Moscow through British Eyes by Cassia Price

With the Sochi Olympics underway, Meet the Russians hitting our screens, Londongrad on shelves, and borscht becoming a staple in trendy restaurants, Russia is making its cultural mark on London. In -10 degrees and a coat not at all thick enough, I found myself in Moscow, eager to see whether our capital had rubbed off on theirs in turn.

This colossal country straddles continents and its politics have been at the centre of worldwide controversy for centuries.

Nevertheless, having visited St Petersburg, I anticipated that Moscow would be as Westernised as other cities on the edge of Europe. I was surprised then to find that it revealed itself indifferent and even hostile to Western culture, even on first impression. So I found that although in both cities most people live in apartments, the large, monotonous Soviet blocks I saw around me in Moscow were a far cry from the cool, classical, shimmering palaces of St Petersburg.

Determined to see Moscow through the medium of its art, I was taken on the Metro to the Tretyakov Gallery.  Everyone talks about the Metro – it is the pride of the city. Chandeliers hang from the painted ceilings and marble lines the walls.  These walls are in turn edged with metal friezes of cannon and scythes and as I walked through the impressive underground halls I found myself thinking that modernity in Moscow was overshadowed by brutality. Remembering again the European glitz of St Petersburg, Muscovite beauty is a different breed.

 

Believe it or not, a normal Moscow Metro station
Believe it or not, a normal Moscow Metro station

When we reached the gallery I couldn’t help feeling the same slight unease. The rooms here are neither well cared for, nor made beautiful for the sake of the art on the walls. The Tretyakov houses a significant collection of Orthodox icons, whose medieval aura pervades many of the churches around the city. However, it was through the secular paintings of the early twentieth century that I began to see a European Russia.Western motifs pervaded the paintings on every wall, and once again I found myself comparing Moscow to St Petersburg, built in many ways as a celebration of the European aesthetic.

 

St George, 12th Century painting in the Tretyakov Gallery Collection
St George, 12th Century painting in the Tretyakov Gallery Collection

 

The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, home of the State Hermitage Museum, built from 1732-1837
The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, home of the State Hermitage Museum, built from 1732-1837

Between the two cities the nature of being Russian and the shadow that political turmoil casts upon each is distinct. The pastel surface in St Petersburg cannot cover what Moscow’s architecture reveals: its mathematical brutality would create a cold impression even if one were wrapped in mink.

 

The Moskva Hotel - asymmetrical due to Stalin signing off on the build without noticing the different design options on each side of the plan
The Moskva Hotel - asymmetrical due to Stalin signing off on the build without noticing the different design options on each side of the plan

I found it hard to understand my host’s explanation of Russian hostility towards LBGTQ+ rights: “Western” values are not Russian values. According to him it is a case of integrity, not a lack of progressiveness. One only has to watch Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad to understand how proudly, icily separate Russia is from Western Europe, and, indeed, from the sugary shine of St Petersburg. There is a depth to Moscow underneath the gilt glamour of oligarchy that will take more than a long weekend to uncover.

Photographs thanks to: http://www.museum.ru/m106 http://reiflarsen.tumblr.com/post/11431499982/the-ersatz-city-while-trying-to-remain-hopeful http://www.ecuad.ca/~vsager/FNDT%20150%20Spring%2012/icons.htmlhttp://www.railnews.co.in/the-moscow-metro-system-is-just-incredible/

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg: Too big for it’s own good?

The museum as seen from the Neva river.

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel St. Petersburg, Russia for a long weekend. Whilst there I took a trip, two trips in fact, to The Hermitage Museum, and it was quite frankly the most astonishing art gallery and museum experience I’ve ever had. This revelation comes as a result of numerous factors, however the most obvious of these is the sheer size of the place, and the volume of art contained within it. A quick search on the ever reliable Google tells me that the Hermitage is the 4th largest museum in the world in terms of area. I’ve never been to the Smithsonian, the Acropolis Museum, or the Louvre, so I can safely say it is the biggest museum I’ve ever visited. Honestly, it makes gargantuan sites like the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi, the British Museum and others feel very small indeed. As well as the size of the museum, what is equally as astonishing is the sheer variety of art and artefacts on display. Objects range from paintings by Rembrandt and Leonardo, to Japanese Samurai armour and Egyptian sarcophagi, right back to classical sculpture from Ancient Rome and Greece.

'The Sacrifice of Isaac' by Rembrandt (1635)

One issue I have with the museum is that it doesn’t seem, to my admittedly amateurish eyes, to be particularly well curated. Granted artworks are grouped by nation and period, but beyond that, it seems that they’ve all just been hung with little regard for creating a real flow within the gallery. I think this may be something to do with the vast size of the collection held within the Hermitage. To give an example, part of my second afternoon in the museum was spent in the ‘French Painting of the 20th century” section, which is unfortunately tucked away in a stuffy corner, in what is essentially the attic of the Winter Palace. Housed within this are innumerate works by the likes of Cezanne, Matisse and Derain, which are hung with what appears to be little concern towards style, period etc.

Henri Matisse's 'The Dance'. One of numerous works of his held in the museum.

My family and I spent nearly two days in the Hermitage complex and I think we saw most of what was on offer, but I’m certain that I missed a lot, and I feel that I was only really able to see most of the art superficially as there is just so much to look at, and to be to totally honest, one needs to sift through a lot of very average paintings before finding the good stuff.

Canova's 'Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss'

To sum up, I must say that the Hermitage Museum complex holds one of, if not the most impressive collection, of paintings, sculptures and antiquities I’ve ever seen. However it is let down by poor curation, and I think this is a real shame. That said, if you’re a lover of art (and if you’re reading this blog, I assume you are) then I’d say that if you’re ever given the chance to go to St. Petersburg, you should bite off the hand of whomever afforded you the opportunity. Not just the Hermitage, but the entire city, is quite spectacular!

For more information about the Hermitage museum, visit http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/