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Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Exhibitions - The Hermitage - St Petersburg

Star rating – 10/10

From the People’s Palaces of the Moscow Metro to the massive and opulent Baroque style Winter Palace of the Tsars’ in St Petersburg, which now houses the Hermitage art collection, the royal excess here is so over the top it’s no wonder they had a revolution. The building itself was started by Peter the Great, the founder of the city of St Petersburg itself, to rival Versailles, but really finished by his daughter Elizabeth, and continued by Catherine the Great, and is now a fantastic collection of such quality and quantity that it is impossible to appreciate it all fully.

After the Russian Revolution the Soviet regime appropriated the private collections of nobles and rich Russian citizens to add to their collection. It is surprising in a way that all this art and opulence survived the revolution and subsequent Soviet era, but Lenin insisted that all the treasures now belonged to all of the people, and implored them to leave them for the pleasure of the ordinary Soviet citizens to enjoy – and luckily for us, they did.

Apart from the beauty and splendour of the Palace itself, there are works here by almost every Grand Master you care to think of. It really is a dizzying display of beauty and creativity. It is hard to pick out favourites from such a collection, but I do have some. The unfinished sculpture of ‘The Crouching Boy’ by Michelangelo is the only piece of his work in Russia. And although still unformed in places, the way his chisel captures the sinews and muscles in the boy’s frame is remarkable.

‘The Lute Player’ by Caravaggio is also startlingly beautiful, surprisingly one of three versions of the same work by the artist in the world, and thought to portray one of the castrati singers from the Sistine Chapel. Of the two prized depictions of the Madonna and Child here by Leonardo da Vinci, my favourite is the Benoir Madonna, named after the architect who previously owned the painting, and a great example of early Renaissance art.

There is a whole room full of Rembrandts, including ‘Danaë’ which was infamously vandalised by a mentally ill man with acid and a knife in 1985. It can now be seen, showing remarkably few scars, after twelve years of painstaking restoration.

The French Impressionists get a whole suite of thirteen rooms dedicated to them, moving through Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, van Gough, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse. It really is a sight to behold, and it’s hard to do justice to them in a meaningful way on a short visit. But if you get the chance, I urge you to visit the Hermitage, to wonder at the opulence and splendour of its buildings, but more than that, to see some very special works of art, even if you don’t have chance to take it all in.

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