The city of St Petersburg is known among art lovers mainly for the mythical Hermitage, the venerable, world-class institution which is up there with the Louvre, the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi in Florence or London's National Gallery for the sheer size and importance of its collection and its role as a universal cultural icon with a first-rate research and exhibition programme. However, in my visit to St Petersburg last September I was lucky to discover another prime St Petersburg art institution, the State Russian Museum.
Whereas the Hermitage's collection is international in outlook, the State Russian Museum was conceived since its foundation by Emperor Alexander III as a museum of Russian Art. Nicholas II ordered the removal of the collection to its present location at the imposing Mikhailovsky palace (very close to the river Neva and the Winter Palace, the main site of the Hermitage), which was completed in 1898.
A thorough visit to an institution this size is bound to take (at least) the better part of a day. Luckily, in the case of the State Russian Museum help is at hand in the form of the museum audioguide which provides plentiful and highly informative content. Chronologically, the visit begins with a breathtaking collection of Russian icons which was one of the highlights of my day (again, the audioguide was a big help in making sense of this highly abstracted style of visual communication). There is a chronological leap to 18th- and 19th-century art (predominantly painting), with many extremely fine pieces in the classical tradition (too many to try and summarise here), including the huge-format history and mythological paintings which were considered the crowning achievement of an academic painter in the 1800s and are nowadays very difficult to see outside these historic institutions with the room to display them. Portraiture has a big presence in the collection and one of the high points is surely the work of Ilya Repin (1844-1930), a hugely talented and prolific painter whose output takes up entire rooms in the State Russian Museum and is well worth examining at length.
As the visit reaches the last decades of the 19th century and the turn of the 1900s the collection explores the influence of the Romantic and Symbolist currents on Russian art, and, later, the explosion of successive Modernist waves of artistic production for which Russia was one of the principal testing grounds, with the revolutionary programme of figures like Kazimir Malevich and the development (among other movements) of cubo-futurism and constructivism overlapping with the radical societal changes brought about by the Bolshevik revolution. There is too much information here to be digested in a short time, especially, perhaps, at the end of a long day. The last stretch of the visit offers a fascinating look at work produced during the Soviet period, in which the dominant cultural thinking appears to have strongly favoured figuration (often with a political slant) rather than abstract art, which (as in the case of the Hermitage) is comparatively underrepresented.
Like the Hermitage, the State Russian Museum maintains an active programme of temporary exhibitions and I was more than a bit miffed to be just a few days early to visit Wassily Kandisky and Russia (22/09 – 04/12/2016), which can still be enjoyed if you happen to be in the area and apparently focuses on the cosmopolitan Russian artist's early career and the influences his country of origin had on his artistic production.
A definitive must for any art lovers finding themselves in the vicinity of the former imperial capital.