Hermitage film chronicles great museum's turbulent history
Director recalls how institution has been shaped by wars, revolution and purges
By Javier Pes. Web only
Published online: 24 July 2014
The dramatic history of the State Hermitage Museum is the subject of a documentary that is due to be released in cinemas across the UK on 9 September as part of the UK-Russia Year of Culture. “Hermitage Revealed”, directed by Margy Kinmonth, was shown during the Moscow International Film Festival last month and a preview was screened this week in London. Kinmonth acknowledged that recent events in Ukraine had overshadowed the film, which was two years in the making and commissioned to celebrate the Hermitage's 250th anniversary this year.
The film was shot in the Winter Palace, the General Staff Building and in the store and conservation centre Staraya Derevnya designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas on the outskirts of St Petersburg. It also features a section shot in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. A Foxtrot Film production, funded by the Vladimir Potantin Foundation set up by the Russian billionare who is a trustee of the Hermitage as well as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, “Hermitage Revealed” includes interviews with the Hermitage's director Mikhail Piotrovsky, museum curators, as well as Koolhaas, and the British artist Antony Gormley.
The St Petersburg-born, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, does not appear in person although Piotrovsky is shown boarding a train to Moscow for one of their regular meetings. Putin is a stalwart supporter of the institution. But during the era of Perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Piotrovsky had to fight those who wanted to sell off works from the collection. His predecessors in the Soviet era risked their careers stopping politicians giving away works to visiting heads of state. Under Stalin the deputy director Jospeph Orbeli risked his life begging the dictator not to allow the sale of any more works. (Many curators were dismissed during the Great Purge and 45 died in the gulags.)
“Hermitage Revealed” conveys how wars and revolution have shaped and endangered the great museum. Piotrovosky, whose father, Boris, was a director of the museum, calls the siege of Leningrad during the Second World War “Medieval”. Around 100 members of staff died. Curators passed on their knowledge to colleagues by word of mouth and many lived with their families in the museum's basement. A former curator recalls her grandfather, who was also a Hermitage curator, making a stew from leather belts during the war.
Staff filled three trains with works of art to save them from destruction or looting by the German army. There were no “nobel German officers” who were going to save St Petersburg unlike Rome and Florence, Piotrovsky says. He recalls how two trains headed east but it was too dangerous for the third to leave. He tells how something similar happened in 1917, when two of three trains left for Moscow filled with art as the German army approached what was then Petrograd. The third train was stopped by the October Revolution.
The film includes an interview with Earl A. Powell, the director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. He describes how the banker and art collector Andrew W. Mellon purchased 21 Old Masters, which are now in Washington but were formerly part of the Hermitage's collection. These were sold by the Bolsheviks in 1930-31 for around $6m. Powell calls the spectacular purchase a “coup”. A Hermitage curator shows an illustrated guide published in 1911 of the Hermitage's masterpiece. The commissars who forced the sale picked works using a copy of the guide.
While Piotrovskly appears frequently, played by a child actor as a boy exploring the Winter Palace, the hero of the film is Catherine the Great. The Titian, two Raphaels, five Rembrandts and four Van Dycks bought by Mellon, which form the founding collection of the NGA, were all acquired by Catherine the Great, who purchased around 400 great paintings among other works in a spending spree that has never been equalled. A curator points out that she did so while fighting two wars.
In 2002, the Hermitage was the subject of the critically acclaimed historical drama, “Russian Ark”, directed by Alexander Sokurov. Set in the Winter Palace and consisting of a single 96-minute sequence using a Steadicam, “Russian Ark” is a virtuoso example of filmmaking. “Hermitage Revealed” is a more conventional film, which allows the staff and turbulent history of the institution to speak loudest.
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