By Peter Kupfer
AMSTERDAM, 14 DECEMBER 2009 The gala opening of the Russian
State Hermitages new satellite museum in Amsterdam was accompanied by
plenty of pomp and circumstance and no shortage of vodka. The
festivities, which were staged along the Amstel River outside the museum
on a gray, chilly summers night, featured performances by the Royal Dutch
Marine band (playing, appropriately enough, Mussorgskys Pictures at
an Exhibition), the Dutch National Ballet and the St. Petersburg
Admiralty Band, and culminated in a fog-shrouded fireworks display.
Among the poobahs attending the event were Beatrice, by the Grace of
God Queen of the Netherlands, and other members of the Dutch royal family,
as well as Dmitry Medvedev (by the grace of Putin President of Russia).
They were joined by hundreds of ordinary Amsterdammers gathered on the
banks and bridges of the Amstel along with a captive crew of journalists
from Europe, Russia and North America, who dutifully chronicled the
celebration from boats anchored in the river.
Its no accident, of course, that the fabled Russian museum agreed to
open a branch in Amsterdam. Three hundred years ago, Peter the Great
visited the Dutch capital as part of a clandestine, 18-month tour of
Europe, the first by a Russian ruler. Peters sojourn in Amsterdam, then
the wealthiest city in the world, clearly influenced the design and
architecture of St. Petersburg, the grand metropolis he later built on the
swampy banks of the Neva. The Dutch-Russian connection was further
strengthened in 1816 by the marriage of Duchess Anna Pavlovna, the
daughter of Czar Paul I, and Prince Willem of Orange, who later became
King Willem II of the Netherlands.
Narkiz Bunin: Sentry of the Life Guards
Oil on canvas
Photo courtesy of Hermitage
The new museum occupies a former nursing home, a handsome if
unremarkable three-story brick building wrapped around a large courtyard
in the heart of old Amsterdam. The architect, Hans van Heeswijk, has
wisely left the 17th century façade unaltered except for adding a
glass-enclosed entryway in the rear. The interior design, while not
strikingly original, has succeeded in breathing light and air into what
was once a gloomy warren of small rooms and labyrinthine passageways. The
spaces are clean, bright and airy, with the white walls and wide-plank
blond wood floors accented by sleek black metal moldings and stairways.
Here and there the architect has preserved details of the original
building, such as the wood-beam ceilings in the cabinets adjoining the two
main galleries, but these gestures to the past feel somewhat contrived and
out of synch with the rest of the museum.
The pyrotechnics accompanying the opening of Hermitage Amsterdam were
more than matched by the glittering spectacle of the inaugural exhibition.
At the Russian Court: Palace and Protocol in the 19th Century
presents some 1,800 objects on loan from the mother museum in St.
Petersburg. (While that may sound like a lot of art, its a mere pittance
compared to the State Hermitages vast holdings, which comprise an
astonishing 3 million items.)
If nothing more, the show makes clear that the House of Romanov, which
ruled Russia for more than 300 years, had no reason to envy the royal
courts of Europe in terms of wealth and opulence. On display are master
paintings, exquisitely crafted gowns, uniforms and other costumes,
extravagant jewelry and ornate dinner services, furniture such as the
gilded, red velvet Romanov throne and rare musical instruments such as
a fabulous neo-rococo grand piano that belonged to Alexandra Fyodorovna,
the last czarina (who, along with her husband, Czar Nicholas II, and their
five children, was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918).
Unknown atelier: Ceremonial dress of the Dowager Czarina Maria
widow of Paul I Maria Fyodorovna, zijde / silk, 1820 -
Photo courtesy of Hermitage Amsterdam
The exhibition is divided into two wings, one devoted to the highly
regimented protocol of the court (the rules even decreed how much gold
thread could be woven into a gown), the other to the grand dinners and
themed balls hosted by the czars at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg
(which now serves as the main building in the State Hermitage
It is difficult to find fault with a show that contains so many
magnificent objects. Even if the curators had heaped them all in the
middle of the courtyard, it would still be well worth a visit to the
museum. Yet they could have done a better job of telling the story of the
Romanovs and the life of the court. Unless one is already familiar with
Russian history and culture it is difficult to make sense of it all. One
has to refer to the catalog, a beautifully illustrated volume containing
informative essays on nearly every aspect of court life, to get a sense of
how the House of Romanov functioned.
Moreover, many items seemed to be lumped together without much thought.
A dazzling jewel-encrusted gold box, for example, was nearly lost in a
large display case filled with an assortment of other items.
Table laid with china from the Royal Porcelain
Manufactory in Berlin,
given to Czar Nicholas II in 1894 by Emperor
Wilhelm II, Berlin, 1894, porcelain;
France, wine and water glasses,
early 20th century; Paris, silver cutlery, 1778-1779,
candelabra with fire-gilt bronze putti, 1880-1890.
van Heusden en Ruud van der Neut
Photo courtesy of Hermitage
Most of the paintings in the show are banal formal portraits of the
imperial family and other members of St. Petersburg society by second- and
third-tier artists. One exception is German society painter Franz Xavier
Winterhalters vibrant portrait of Countess Varvara Musina-Pushkina, which
is featured on the cover of the catalog and other exhibition materials.
Dressed in a frilly red, white and blue gown, festooned with swirls of
pearl necklaces and gold bracelets, and wearing a slightly smug
expression, the countess is a study in imperious entitlement. Another
standout is a striking portrait of an angelic young man holding his violin
and looking a bit peeved no different perhaps than any other boy who
would rather be out playing with his friends than practicing his scales.
The most memorable part of the exhibition is the hall devoted to the
elaborate balls hosted by the czars. The walls are embellished with gold
leaf designs echoing the ornate interior of Nicholas Hall, the grand
ballroom at the Winter Palace. The room is dominated by three large
circular cases displaying meticulously restored costumes worn by members
of the court. Every 20 minutes, as music by Russian composer Mikhail
Glinka fills the hall, the cases begin revolving and the famous ballroom
scene from Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurovs Russian Ark is
projected on the wall. One can almost imagine being a guest at a grand
ball in the Winter Palace. For a magical moment, life at the Russian Court
truly comes alive.
At the Russian Court: Palace and Protocol in the 19th
Through 31 January 2010
Title photo: Malta, Star of the Order of St John of
Early twentieth century Silver, enamel, stamped.
4.9; Rome, Tanfani & Bertarelli, Maltese Cross
century, Silver, enamel, textile;
Stamped, engraved, chased, enamelled.
13.7 x 4.8.
Photography: Herman van Heusden en Ruud van der
Photo courtesy of Hermitage Amsterdam
Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National / Foreign desk
at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance articles on the arts, travel
and technology have appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles
Times, Asian Art News and other publications. He last wrote on Barney Kilgore:
The Man Who Made The Wall Street Journal for
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