Platform
Behind the façade

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 8

Platform
Behind the façade

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 8

Platform
Behind the façade

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 41, Winter 2014

Page 8

Filmmaker Margy Kinmonth was given unprecedented access to the Hermitage Museum and discovered a world of extraordinary art, hidden from public view

My first steps inside the State Hermitage Museum took me through acres of gold and marble imperial throne rooms, past giant porphyry vases and mirrors that reflected the light from St Petersburg's great frozen River Neva through ruffled curtains. It was 1980, the winter of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and there was a minus-20 degree blizzard outside.

Suddenly a small, secret door opened and I glimpsed a long, dark corridor stretching away into the labyrinthine workings of the enormous museum. Some of the curators in the Tate art group of which I was part vanished through it on an assignment. I wanted to go with them to see what lay behind.

As a filmmaker, I have always been fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes in great institutions, where the public cannot go. I have documented the world of the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg, the secrets of haute couture at House of Chanel in Paris, and the dark underbelly of Hollywood at Twentieth Century Fox.

Wind forward to 2011. Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, invited me to make a film to celebrate the 250th anniversary of its foundation by Catherine the Great in 1764. Some Russian museums and institutions are completely inaccessible to filmmakers, but Piotrovsky's spirit of glasnost and openness to the West spurred him on and he invited me to make a documentary about the Hermitage. As he said, "It deserves to be a museum which belongs to the whole world, just open the door and let them come in."

It was an unprecedented invitation. He gave me free rein to tell the story of how this former imperial palace had survived the Revolution to become a state museum – a claim no other museum in the world can make. Now it is a state within a state, a self-contained country in its own right.

I was faced with literally millions of choices. One of the largest collections in the world, the Hermitage has 2,000 rooms across ten buildings, holding more than three million objects and employing more than 200 curators – more than any other museum. Where to start? I wanted to tell the story through the curators and witnesses to the history that had played out within its walls. With an army of Russian cameramen, I set out to explore the lesser known parts of the museum, such as the Imperial Porcelain Factory where fine china is still produced today, as it has been continuously since the reign of Catherine the Great.

Like the Vatican, the Louvre and the British Museum, the Hermitage has its own infrastructure – a small city boasting its own post office and church within the building. Curators' funerals take place in Professor Piotrovsky's office. Artists occupy the galleries while the museum is shut, copying the old masters and sculptures which crowd ceiling to floor. Before dawn, troops of workers hoover, dust and polish the baroque Jordan staircase in the dark.

Millions of extraordinary, rarely seen objects of astonishing provenance are not even on show but kept in Staraya Derevnya, a vast storage space situated next to a cemetery on the outskirts of St Petersburg. Here there are many secrets. Art from millennia of Russian history; unidentified, unattributed pieces; trophy art; surplus work and duplicates, some of it broken, some waiting to be seen. I even stumbled on some central Asian frescos originating from the
Asian Art Museum in Berlin.

A whole floor dedicated to the furniture of Catherine the Great is stored in a dust-free environment behind a kilometer of glass cases. Catherine's magnificent collection of gold carriages, the Maseratis of their day, can be wondered at, as well as birthday presents to and from her lovers, Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov and Grigory Potemkin, close confidantes who helped Catherine run Russia during her 34-year reign. One carriage was painted by the French Rococo master Watteau. When I asked Professor Piotrovsky why they were not smashed up during the Revolution, he replied: "The French Revolution was much more cruel to its cultural heritage than the Russian revolution. There are two ways you can do something against the previous regime: you just destroy things, which mostly is done, or you show things and say, well, look how bad it is."

I finally got to go through the secret door when the professor took me behind the scenes to film Catherine the Great's private gemstone collection – thousands of cameos and intaglios all stored in tiny drawers in their original Roentgen German marquetry cabinets.

As Piotrovsky says, "The obsession that she had for art is a passion which everybody who works in the museum must have.It's a great delight to work with all these things, to work in such surroundings. That's why sometimes the government thinks that they don't need to pay us money, because we're enjoying our life being here." Curators are paid a pittance, but they all share an infectious enthusiasm for the Hermitage.

Piotrovsky has been brought up in the museum – it was in the Hermitage that he took his first steps – where his archeologist father, Boris Piotrovsky, was director before him. Piotrovsky, who still has a sense of wonderment about the museum, speaks nine languages, and describes his role of director in perfect English: "I'm a co-ordinator, and the final person for arbitration. Final decisions are mine, so it's very totalitarian, but it's how it was always and should be."

Although their roles have differed hugely, Catherine the Great and Piotrovsky have both been guardians of this huge historic collection, which still bears the mark of the Imperial household. Many parts of the palace were requisitioned after the Revolution to become museum storage spaces. The exotically tiled bathroom of the assassinated Empress Alexandra has become the storage space for porcelain, chaotically piled to the ceiling in acres of tissue paper, among the cisterns and pipes.

Every curator is dedicated to their own collection – it's a job for life. They are the experts who never retire. The oldest is Julia Kagan, Curator of Engraved Gems, who is still working full time well into her eighties. Everybody who works there has lunch together below stairs in the small canteen, from security guards, keepers and cleaners to the heads of departments and deputy director, all queuing up for black bread and borscht, Russian-Ukrainian solyanca (meat soup), salmon and buckwheat, served in industrial-size Soviet tin dishes by women who looked as if they had stepped out of Russian paintings. Of all the rituals, lunch seemed to sum up the spirit of the place – a living entity, a great anthill of workers who had collectively replaced the Imperial Court for which it had been built, but now lived to preserve its art and the objects for future generations.

The dedication of the Hermitage curators was especially poignant during the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944). During night-time German bombing campaigns, the curators became fire-wardens, patrolling the blacked-out galleries and exchanging their knowledge by word of mouth, in case they did not live to the next day. A plaque on the stairs commemorates the hundred staff members who died of starvation in the siege. I did not, however, find a plaque in memory of the 45 curators who were sent to the Gulag prison camps during Stalin's purge, although some of their descendents and colleagues still work in the museum. Sergei Androsov, Head of Sculpture, told me how his grandfather, Nikolai Bauer, Head of Numismatics, was sent to the Gulag and never seen again. The family were not informed of his execution until many decades later. Professor Piotrovsky told me that even his own father spent half a year imprisoned in the camps.

Another secret of the Hermitage is the cluster of cats living on the heating pipes under the Winter Palace, a rat-catching colony which has been in residence ever since the reign of Catherine the Great – apart from a short period during the siege when starvation impelled the population to eat their pets.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, some of the art that had been seized in Germany by the Red Army was returned – The Pergamon Altar, for example, was given back to the East German government in 1956, but it was only revealed 40 years later that other works taken from Germany had remained in Russia. Restitution remains a controversial matter. In the 1990s, the authorities voted to change the law, stating that all art should stay where it was – in Russia – and nothing more was to be returned or exchanged.

Then came the task of exhibiting these works publicly. This process began with the sensational Hidden Treasures Revealed exhibition of 1995, showing masterpieces of Impressionist art that had not been seen since the Second World War. Although the hierarchy at the Hermitage was reluctant to allow these works to be filmed in case it ignited further controversy, in the end we were permitted to include some of the paintings 'that never leave Russia', including Place de la Concorde, 1875, a masterpiece by Degas that belonged to Otto Gerstenberg, an insurance magnate an art collector. After the fall of Berlin in 1945, the picture, among other 'trophy' or 'displaced' artworks as they are now called in Berlin, was sent to the Soviet Union and put into storage. The work, a seminal piece of early Impressionism that captures an informal Parisian street scene, was believed lost until Piotrovsky brought it out of the storeroom and onto the gallery walls. His ethos is to show and share the collection with the world. "The sin is not to show the art," he says. "Maybe it's still part of our socialist upbringing and education. Art is more important than property and money. I'm afraid not everybody thinks this way, but still it's what we try to teach at the Hermitage."

Professor Piotrovsky has led the museum through a difficult transition from Soviet to modern times. If a mark of popular status is how many flowers you get on your birthday, then the director definitely comes top. A forest of huge bouquets filled his office, which were eventually delivered in several van loads to the local hospital.

What will happen next at the Hermitage? Russian history continues to evolve with the museum as its repository. Professor Piotrovsky sums it all up: "We are keeping the memory of Russia and the Russian empire alive. Not only through objects but by trying, with this museum, to remind people of what our history is."

Margy Kinmonth is an award-winning filmmaker. Hermitage Revealed will be screened at cinemas worldwide in November. Information about screenings and tickets are available from hermitagerevealed.com. The DVD is available at foxtrotfilms.com

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