Background story Treasury!
Treasury! Masterpieces from the Hermitage
2 February – 25 August 2019
but fantastic idea’
Back in the late nineties, Ernst Veen, the then director of De Nieuwe Kerk Amsterdam, came up with the notion of establishing a branch of St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum in Amsterdam. Michail Piotrovsky, the director of the State Hermitage, said it was ‘a crazy, but fantastic idea’ and together they went ahead and developed the project. As early as 2004 a pilot was launched in the Neerlandia building on the Nieuwe Herengracht, where the first ten exhibitions would take place. In 2007 the dream finally came true: the nursing home occupying the historic seventeenth-century Amstelhof building moved to more appropriate modern premises outside the city centre. The conversion of the Amstelhof into a state-of-the-art museum could go ahead. The work was done to designs by architect Hans van Heeswijk (building), Merkx+Girod architects (interior) and Michael van Gessel (gardens). Two years later, on 20 June 2009, the Netherlands’ newest museum opened exactly on time and on budget: Hermitage Amsterdam was a fact.
10 years at
Hermitage Amsterdam: a fascinating voyage through art history
Since the opening in 2009, sixteen major exhibitions have been held at Hermitage Amsterdam using works of art from the collections in St Petersburg. With twelve different departments and vast collections numbering over three million items, the State Hermitage is an encyclopaedic museum of world art. It has provided material for fascinating journeys through the history of art, including exhibitions about the tsarist courts (At the Russian Court; Dining with the Tsars), biographical exhibitions (Peter the Great; Alexander, Napoleon & Josephine; Catherine, the Greatest; 1917. Romanovs and Revolution), and shows devoted to archaeology (Alexander the Great; Expedition Silk Road), great art of the past (Splendour & Glory; Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens; Spanish Masters; Dutch Masters; Classic Beauties) and modern art (Matisse to Malevich; Impressionism; Gauguin, Bonnard, Denis). In all, over 6,000 items have come to Amsterdam and over 3.5 million visitors have attended the exhibitions.
The Hermitage Amsterdam has also used its extensive premises to accommodate the collections of other museums, for example during the Vincent. The Van Gogh Museum in the Hermitage Amsterdam show in 2012–13 and the Russian Atelier on the Amstel event in 2013–14. In addition, the Amsterdam Museum’s semi-permanent Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age presentation (2014 - present), temporary exhibitions by the Outsider Art Museum (2016 - present) and annual shows of work by the winner of the ABN AMRO Art Award have become regular features of life in the former nursing home on the Amstel.
Two jubilee exhibitions
This decade-long voyage through art history has now inspired the idea of presenting a unique, kaleidoscopic survey of highlights from the many different collections of the State Hermitage. Treasury! – a light-hearted presentation of alluring masterpieces drawn from all the collections – is the first of two special jubilee exhibitions to be held in Amsterdam next year. In the second half of the jubilee year, the State Hermitage will throw open its treasure chests for an exhibition entitled Jewels! The museum has a vast jewellery collection including thousands of pieces once worn by tsars and tsarinas, kings and princes, countesses and well-heeled commoners. They reflect the fashions of four centuries and encompass baroque, rococo, neoclassical, empire, art nouveau, modern styles and contemporary (21st-century) art.
Treasury! Masterpieces from the Hermitage
Treasury! will be a celebration of art throughout history. Over 250 works of art – from outstanding archaeological finds to top works by both great and lesser-known artists and exquisite examples of the decorative arts – will offer the visitor on an amazing 25,000-year journey through time and space. A historical and geographical cross-section encompassing a host of different cultures, from West to East, and from Egypt to Siberia.
However, the exhibition will start with a single object: the oldest in the entire Hermitage collection. The ‘Venus of Kostenki’ is a 25,000-year-old fertility symbol made of limestone and next of kin to the famous, more or less contemporary, Venus of Willendorf.
First section: open-mindedness
The first part of the exhibition, in the main gallery, will present visitors with paired works of art from many different periods and cultures. Chosen for their surprising similarities, visual or otherwise, these playful and exciting pairings will reveal similarities and differences between cultures and over time that will encourage visitors to adopt a more open and attentive attitude. Art is exciting and stimulating, offering many new discoveries, even in works that have long been familiar.
Art history is not a matter of degrees of authenticity or originality; it is about the narratives and meanings that underlie art objects. One of the interesting aspects of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is that it stands literally on the dividing line between East and West. This is evident in its collections, which display stylistic features and reciprocal influences from all directions. The history of art is not unitary. Every culture, every period, even every individual art historian writes a different art history. Sometimes there are what you might call ‘blanks’. And the collection of the Hermitage is particularly well equipped to hold up a mirror to us, enabling us to understand the history of art just that little bit better. That is what makes this exhibition so unique.
The displays will also reveal that the interpretation of a work of art is not set in stone. One man’s ‘Late Gothic’ is another man’s ‘Early Renaissance’. What one historian regards as Byzantine, another may call Eastern Roman. We do well to realise this, so that we can approach art with an open mind and perhaps try to look at it as children do, without preconceptions and with new eyes.
A felt swan excavated from a third-century BC Siberian tomb of the Pazyryk Culture and an installation, Stupidity standing on Death (2016), by Belgian artist Jan Fabre. The ancient swan once adorned a ceremonial chariot belonging to a tribal chieftain of the Pazyryk Culture (which is akin to that of the Scythians).
A Greek volute krater dating from the fouth century BC and decorated with a sacrificial scene, paired with a Russian porcelain calyx krater made in 1831 and depicting a cavalry regiment. The shape of the Russian vase is based on that of Ancient Greek examples.
A Protestant concept by Lucas Cranach the Elder and a Catholic work by Lorenzo Lotto. Cranach’s Virgin (late 1520s) is replete with symbolism: in one hand, the Christ Child holds an apple, a reference to the original sin of Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man. In the other, he holds a piece of bread, referring to the Last Supper, the symbols of which (the sacraments) were to relieve Christians of original sin and grant them life everlasting. Lotto’s Madonna (1542), by contrast, is a tender depiction of a mother and child. Only the angels hovering overhead reveal them to be the Virgin and Child. The three angels symbolize Faith, Hope and Charity (1 Corinthians 13:13) and were discovered in 2014, when the painting was restored.
A small, solid gold, Siberian plaque (late seventh-century) showing a panther lying on its side, paired with a flamboyant Russian vase (1802) made of red jasper with gilded bronze handles in the shape of panthers. In both cases, the panthers are symbols of power.
A bronze incense-burner from eleventh-century Iran and a thirteenth- or fourteenth-century bronze ewer or ‘aquamanile’ from Germany. You might almost think the German artist had seen the Iranian example at some time. Could such a thing have happened during the Crusades? After all, many kinds of craftsmen participated in them. Might they have remembered the new styles they had seen after they returned home and passed the ideas down to future generations?
The sculpture of Aphrodite (Roman work after a Greek example) was produced in the third or second century BC in the so-called ‘wet style’, where the body is clearly visible beneath the clothing. As if the subject has just walked out of the sea fully dressed. Thanks to the military campaign of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, the style spread to the Orient, a fact demonstrated here by a sixth-century Buddhist sculpture from the Karasahr area, now in the Xinjiang region of north-western China.
An incomplete torso of a second-century Roman Venus paired with Spring (1910–11), a bronze by French artist Aristide Maillol. He and his contemporaries pointed to archaeology to demonstrate that a work of art need not always be perfect and complete in order to be beautiful.
Official portraits often depict monarchs as eternally youthful. Rulers are portrayed at their peak of physical beauty and power. The Egyptian pharaoh Amenemhet III (nineteenth century BC) is shown in a dignified pose, seated on his throne and wearing the royal ‘nemes’ headcloth so familiar to us from the mask of Tutankhamun. Catherine the Great is portrayed by the French sculptor Houdon (1773) as a wise ruler, adorned with a tiara and the chain of the Order of St Andrew the Apostle. Catherine actually demanded to be shown as she really was, without spurious embellishment. The face of Amenemhet III is likewise a true-to-life depiction, not an idealised portrait of the kind so often encountered in Ancient Egyptian art.
A fourth-century Sassanid Dynasty silver dish showing King Shapur seated on his horse and hunting a lion, paired with an early seventeenth-century Italian maiolica plate depicting a huntsman on horseback. The two compositions display striking similarities.
Two paintings that include peripheral depictions of religious followers and of their donors: in a Buddhist painting from Western China (twelfth or thirteenth century) they are shown in the bottom left-hand corner, and in Maarten van Heemskerck’s sixteenth-century crucifixion triptych at bottom left and right.
Velázquez’s scene of men at a breakfast table (Breakfast, c. 1617) is almost identical to another famous mealtime painting, The Supper at Emmaus by Jacopo Chimenti (c. 1600). The figure of Christ, identified by a halo in the painting by Chimenti, is absent in Velázquez’s picture. The two artists were contemporaries. In a striking similarity, the man on the right is identically dressed in both paintings.
The Romanov Portrait Service was made in 1862 by the Russian Imperial Porcelain Factory, which also produced the Suprematist service (1923) with which it is paired. The two were produced only fifty years apart but represent two entirely different worlds. The early twentieth-century service shows how fast society was changing. The arbiters of taste were no longer the royal elite, but (wealthy) commoners.
George Romney’s portrait of Harriet Greer (c. 1786) obeys all the rules: every detail is clearly shown, the textures are perfectly rendered and Greer’s facial expression is dignified. Valentin Serov’s Portrait of Princess Zinaida Yusupova of circa 1902 is also an academic work in the tradition of Russian portraiture. But Serov has permitted himself a degree of Impressionist freedom and the princess’s clothing is only sketchily painted. The emphasis is on her fine features and expressive eyes. Yusupova was a member of one of the oldest and wealthiest aristocratic families in Russia.
Donna nuda by (the school of?) Leonardo da Vinci (sixteenth century) and Henri Matisse’s Nude (1908) both show a woman proudly parading her nudity. The character of the two pictures is the same, despite the difference in date. The comparison also shows that Leonardo was as much an autonomous artist as Matisse.
A portrait of Margaret of Savoy, Duchess of Mantua and daughter of the King of Spain, painted by Frans Pourbus the Younger in 1608, paired with a portrait of a noble Chinese courtier also dating from the early nineteenth century. In both cases, the subject’s rank and social position is indicated by the motifs on the clothing.
The dragon-slayer soldier saint enjoyed unparalleled popularity in both Catholic Europe and Orthodox Russia. The stylised sixteenth-century Russian icon is less dynamic than its Italian counterpart by Tintoretto (1555–58) but the compositions are very much alike.
Horse armour from the Pazyryk Culture (third century BC) paired with a suit of Turkish Ottoman horse armour, with rider, dating from the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Both suits had a protective as well as decorative function. The Pazyryk burial gear, made of organic materials, expresses the grief felt at funeral processions. Turkish silver weapons accentuate the warlike spirit of the battles.
Second section: a wander around the departments of the Hermitage
The scope of the State Hermitage’s collections makes the museum one of the most encyclopaedic on Earth in its coverage of world art and creates the opportunity for a presentation like that in the first part of Treasury! Almost no other museum in the world could do so. The comprehensiveness of the collections will be equally evident in the second part of the exhibition, where – as in the Hermitage itself – visitors will find themselves skipping randomly from one cultures or art form to another. They will encounter art from Siberia, Ancient Greece and Rome, Western Europe and the Orient, Russian art, as well as arms and armour, ancient books and manuscripts, contemporary (21st-century) art and the decorative arts.
Each room will feature rare objects and outstanding works from all the cultural regions represented in the collections of the Hermitage. The rooms focusing on Western European art, for example, will present not only Rogier van der Weyden’s masterpiece Saint Lucas painting the Madonna, but fine portraits by Moroni and Van Dyck, a marble bust by Bernini and works by a wide range of major artists like Dürer, Fragonard, Rembrandt, Thorvaldsen and Zurbarán. In the rooms displaying oriental art, exhibits will include early Islamic art from Syria, Iran and Central Asia and a Sogdic wall painting from Penjikent.
There will also be a room devoted to one of the Winter Palace’s most extraordinary interiors: the nineteenth-century Malachite Room. This was once the anteroom to the tsar’s audience chamber, St George’s Hall, and its interior is a reminder of the imperial character of the Romanovs’ Winter Palace – now the most important edifice in the State Hermitage complex. Exhibits will include outstanding examples of the decorative arts, such as the renowned thirteenth-century Processional Cross of St Trudberg (the ‘Freiburg Cross’), while Russian contemporary art will be represented by an installation by Dmitry Prigov (1940–2007).
Finally, the exhibition will touch on the State Hermitage’s latest projects, showing the kind of museum it intends to be in the 21st century. Branch museums now exist both in Russia and elsewhere. The oldest and greatest of them is Hermitage Amsterdam. Within Russia, there are branches in Kazan, Omsk and Vyborg. Hermitage Barcelona is expected to open in 2019. The State Hermitage has recently launched its own Outsider Art Project, in partnership with Hermitage Amsterdam and the Outsider Art Museum previously mentioned in this document. In St Petersburg, the museum complex is to be expanded through the addition of new buildings and historic palaces: the Menshikov Palace, the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, the General Staff Building, and the new restoration and storage centre at Staraya Derevnya.