The selection of art from the Hermitage on show at the National Gallery of Victoria can be summed up by a single word: spectacular. The loan, until November 9, consists of about 450 works and includes some of the greatest names in European art, with major paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Anthony van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens and Velázquez.
Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) was both the founder of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, as well as the woman who politicised the international art market and made Russia the pariah that snapped up the great collections of art, regardless to the price.
When George Walpole, the grandson of the great English art collector and Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, decided to sell Granddad’s art collection to fund his extravagant lifestyle, he promptly contacted the Russian ambassador to Great Britain, Alexey Musin-Pushkin, who had organised the purchase for Catherine for the staggering sum of £40,000 (A$85,500).
The English were furious and felt humiliated: they pilloried Catherine in the thriving caricature press and secretly encouraged wars designed to drain the Russian coffers.
The Empress of All Russia was undeterred and continued to acquire some of the most significant art collections of her day, including those of Count von Brühl, the Duke de Choiseul, of Crozat de Thiers and that formed by Johann Gotzkowski for Frederick II of Prussia.
The pattern set in place by the German-born monarch, who on one hand was a ruthless plotting despot and on the other an Enlightened autocrat with an appetite for art and lovers, was to continue in the history of the Hermitage.
Now, 250 years later, the State Hermitage Museum is one of the greatest art collections in the world, and is from time to time still mired in controversy.
Quite a number of these treasures were assembled by the empress herself and are generally on permanent display in the museum. In the spirit of the 250th anniversary celebrations of the Hermitage, when the British Museum controversially loaned part of its greatest treasure, the Elgin Marbles, to the Hermitage, the Hermitage has reciprocated with this breathtaking generosity to Australia.
While a work such as Rembrandt’s Young woman trying on earrings, 1657, (see below), one of the most famous and intimate masterpieces by the Dutch master, and Titian’s fabulous Portrait of a young woman, c1536, will attract the huge crowds, I am personally drawn by some of the quirky pieces in the exhibition.
As part of the Walpole collection, Catherine bought the Donna Nuda, early 16th century (see below), as an autograph painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The attribution remained unchallenged for more than a century and, although now it is disputed and is generally ascribed to the School of Leonardo, it is a most startling and haunting piece.
It can be described as a close copy of the Mona Lisa except for one very significant difference: La Giaconda is shown completely naked and the beguiling smile gains a sexually provocative quality. The gaze has been reversed as she undresses the beholder with her penetrating and coquettish glance. It becomes a very contemporary, surrealist-like invention.
One of the drawings in the show, Hendrick Goltzius’s Bacchus, Venus and Ceres, 1606, is a show-stopper in every respect. The great Dutch printmaker has created a pen drawing with wash using a goose quill, which is more than two metres high and of exquisite refinement.
Usually it is in Room 250 in the New Hermitage Building in St Petersburg in an awkward position where viewing is difficult. In Melbourne it is beautifully shown and exquisitely lit.
As a general observation, the display at the National Gallery of Victoria is sympathetic to that in the Hermitage, retaining much of the original colour scheme, but the lighting in many instances is vastly superior and many of the works are exhibited to an unprecedented advantage.
This is not an exhibition of only old master paintings and drawings with a few sculptures included, but one which seriously engages with the Chinese art collection assembled by Catherine, applied arts and architectural and design drawings.
There is an exquisite Chinese Crab-shaped box, from the mid 18th century, woven out of thousands of very fine silver filigree threads in which the empress kept her rouge makeup, as well as her Cameo Service dinner set, which she commissioned from the Sévres Porcelain Factory in France in 1778-79.
This is arguably the finest old master exhibition to visit Australia and should set record crowds. A dark cloud on the horizon is when politics is forced onto art and other cultural events.
I remember when in 1979 when the Old Master Paintings from the USSR toured Australia through the Australian Gallery Directors Council and some politicians arranged boycotts because that year the Soviet Union commenced its costly and ultimately pointless war in Afghanistan.
In some countries now, America and Australian are boycotted for their present and equally pointless involvement in the same country. Logic would demand that if nationalist zealots would boycott an exhibition from Russia because they disapprove of some of its foreign policies, the same would apply to China, the United States, Japan, Germany and so on. The art world would become a very lonely place.
One can only hope that the Australian public has attained a maturity to accept an art exhibition for what it is and celebrate what is undoubtedly a major event in the Australian art calendar.
Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great is at the National Gallery of Victoria until November 8. Details here.