What happened when Russia met Prussia

It is not so usual today to find a full-scale historical exhibition using works of art to explore a complex narrative, but that is what the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten (Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation) offered in this highly ambitious display and its scholarly catalogue. The theme is the history of political and cultural relationships between Prussia and Russia from 1800 to 1860, a history marked as much by fear and covert power struggle as by any genuine friendship: throughout the period and indeed through the 19th century, Prussia (and then Germany) was terrified by the menace from the East. The central motif is the marriage in 1817 of Princess Charlotte of Prussia to the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia, who, in 1825, succeeded his brother on the Russian throne. Though she changed her name to Alexandra Feodorovna and became a Russian Orthodox, throughout her long life Charlotte remained passionately devoted to Prussia, making many visits home and engaging in active artistic patronage and expensive court entertainments such as the glittering Lalla Rookh entertainment organised in Berlin at great expense in 1821.

The catalogue is organised on historical lines, with essays primarily by historians, several employed by the Stiftung. A sensible balance is struck between the essays, which are arranged by historical theme, and the well researched catalogue entries accompanying each object, though a broader context is not always evident. Thus, while the essays explore the political complexities of the period, they avoid the wider issue of the place of Prussian and Russian court culture in an international setting.

Both courts favoured a highly sophisticated intimacy at the same time that they enforced harsh absolutist rule. Both strove to present themselves and their countries in a way that did not acknowledge their own past: Russia showing itself as a wholly European country, with only the most playful references to ancient traditions, Prussia as a nation on the grandest scale, rather than the small military country with a modest capital city. The numerous military pictures that are included reflect one strong shared interest, and source of anxiety, between the two countries.

For the student of the decorative arts and of architecture, in particular, this richly illustrated catalogue is of special importance. It depicts the tradition of court portraiture at the time: the art of court painting was hardly at its finest here, with the ingenious Winterhalter more or less absent, but the sculpture busts by Christian Daniel Rauch present a forbiddingly impressive view of royal personages. The catalogue extends to inhuman, but magnificent, porcelain produced by the Imperial Manufactory in St Petersburg, late neoclassical furniture including the Prussian speciality of iron furniture and an accumulation of malachite pieces originally from St Petersburg and often given to Prussian relations. St Petersburg and Berlin (greatly improved at the period by the court architect K.F. Schinkel) are represented by a fine array of architectural drawings and paintings, often romanticised, which bring out the fundamental contrast between the two cities.

The relations between the two courts extended into a more public sphere, notably in organisation of stage productions and the development of museums. This was the period when the dominant influence in the enunciation of the character of the museum shifted from Italy and France to the German lands. The concept of the neoclassical museum as a temple to learning and the visual arts is embodied in views of the Altes Museum in Berlin, reflected in depictions of the Hermitage as it was shaped under the advice of German architects and experts. The strength of German-Russian cultural relations extended to the fervent Russian admiration for such designers as Schinkel, and on the other hand the erection in Potsdam of the (surviving) Russian village. In Berlin, and in the ex-Imperial palaces and pavilions around St Petersburg, much of the surviving architectural fabric is a stirring reminder of the period celebrated in this very impressive volume.

Giles Waterfield

o Antonia Meiners and the Generaldirektion of the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg (eds), Macht und Freundschaft: Berlin-Sankt Petersburg, 1800-60 (Koehler & Amelang), 336 pp, €29.90 (hb) ISBN 9703733803636

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