Half-way through my artist's residency at Haihatus Art Centre in Finland in September (which was a fantastic experience!) I took a few days off and travelled by train across the Russian border to St Petersburg aiming to visit the main art museums, including, of course, the Hermitage. I reached this mythical institution by marching up the Nevsky Prospekt all the way to Dvortsovaya Ploshchad (Palace Square), right before the Palace Embankment on the river Neva. There I was struck by the dimensions of the museum's main site, the 18th-century Winter Palace (planned by Empress Elizabeth, completed by Catherine the Great in the late 1700s, and stormed by the Bolsheviks in 1917 in the momentous event that gave birth to the Soviet Union). Also impressively, the Winter Palace houses only half of the Hermitage's collection, the other half being located right across the square in the so-called (and equally massive) General Staff building which in imperial times housed military and ministerial dependencies and was partly ceded to the Hermitage in the 1990s.
The ground floor of the Hermitage is entirely devoted to archaeology and in my first wanderings I caught tantalising glimpses of Siberian and Central Asian antiquities, but time was of the essence and I decided to move on to the painting galleries on the first floor. The sheer number of visitors soon became a major hassle and at times (as in the Italian Renaissance section) even physically moving from room to room became difficult (I gave up trying to examine Leonardo da Vinci's Madonna Litta and Benois Madonna up close because of the throngs of mobile-wielding tourists desperate to get to the front of the queue and snap a photo). The Hermitage is rightly famous for its truly remarkable collection of Rembrandts, which contains many treasures (including his Danaë, c 1636) and made a deep impression on me. The Italian, Spanish and Dutch/Flemish sections are also very substantial- Don't miss the Van Dycks and the beautiful works by Velázquez, Murillo and José de Ribera in the compact but remarkable Spanish section.
Temporary exhibitions are displayed in dedicated rooms inside the Winter Palace and are covered by the general ticket. At the time of my visit there were two first-rate such offerings; Byzantium through the Centuries (25/06 - 02/10/2016) included items spanning the long history of the Byzantine Empire including some breathtaking icons, which I didn't have time to examine in as much detail as I would have wanted. Erté: an Art Deco Genius. Return to St Petersburg (22/06 – 18/09/2016) was a gorgeous display of delicate watercolours, gouaches, prints and drawings by St Petersburg-born Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (1892-1990), known as Erté, who moved to Paris in 1912 and went on to develop a world-renowned career as an illustrator and designer. Regrettably, and given the pressures of time, I was only able to whoosh through some areas of the Winter Palace (like the Russian and French sections) and I was forced to give up on major chunks like the entire archaeology section and the Far East section on the top floor.
Having spent the whole of my first day in St Petersburg at the Winter Palace, I decided to come back the next morning and head for the General Staff building, which houses Russian and European art from the 19th century onwards, including the museum's well-known impressionist and post-impressionist collection. Luckily, the throngs of visitors were absent and the visit to this immense enclosed area was very relaxed (the interior space, which must have been an open courtyard, has been converted into a series of massive linked volumes which stand mostly empty at present and indeed it would appear the Hermitage's holdings are still in the process of being redistributed between the museum's two main spaces, with the Hermitage website frustratingly providing outdated information as to the location of the different parts of the collection).
The visit to the General Staff building starts on the third floor which houses mostly 19th-century painting (including works by Jacques-Louis David, Carolus-Duran and John Singer Sargent as well as a large Russian art section). On the fourth floor, the visit continues with a small but beautiful room that explores the use of pastel by the likes of Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso. From there the visit becomes truly unforgettable, starting with impressionist and post-impressionist painting (pointless to try and enumerate every remarkable work here) and progressing through late 1800s and early 20th-century Modernist figurative currents, including work by Claude Monet, Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat, Paul Signac, Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Picasso, Pierre Bonnard, André Derain, Kees van Dongen, and many others. The section devoted to Paul Cézanne is small but very impressive, as is the room housing a set of works by Vincent van Gogh which was one of the highlights of the day. Abstraction is heavily underrepresented here, which may be a legacy of the dominant cultural thinking of the Soviet period -an exception was the interesting room devoted to the work of Russian artist Eduard Steinberg (1937-2012), bequeathed to the Hermitage after his death. Disappointingly, the few works by Wassily Kandinsky in the Hermitage collection were nowhere to be seen, probably in preparation for the Wassily Kandinsky and Russia exhibition at the State Russian Museum (22/09 – 04/12/2016) which, again very disappointingly, I was too early to see (Then again, if I had, I would probably have genuflected uncontrollably in front of the paintings and tried to kiss them, which wouldn't have ended well).
Out of a handful of temporary exhibitions in the General Staff building at the time, I was impressed by Edouard Manet. 'Olympia'. Theme and Variations (30/07 – 30/10/2016), which juxtaposes Manet's Olympia (1863, usually at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris) with Titian's Danaë (1553/54, from the Hermitage collection) and a remarkable set of works on paper to reflect on the treatment of female nudity in Western art.
After these two inspirational days, the next morning I headed to the equally impressive State Russian Museum (watch out for my follow-up piece!).