One of the features of Europe’s interwoven network of royal families was that it led to a great deal of cultural transference between the different states. In order to avoid marrying beneath themselves, royals were tempted to look abroad for spouses, with the result that the incomers would often bring a top-down cultural revolution with them.
This was certainly the case with Catherine the Great (1729-96), a German princess who married into the Russian royal family, and who founded what is now known as the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Almost 100, mainly large works, from this famous museum comprise the content of the exhibition, “Hermitage: 400 Years of European Masterpieces,” now showing at the National Art Center Tokyo.
With such a wide-ranging exhibition, the obvious storyline is a potted history of European art movements, while the obvious marketing ploy is to emphasize the biggest names. Predictably, the organizers have gone for both of these approaches. The main image used to publicize the exhibition is Henri Matisse’s chromatically pulsating “Red Room (Harmony in Red),” a painting from 1908 that is quite unrepresentative of the bulk of the work on display, which is dominated by realist and academic art.
Organizationally, the exhibition is divided neatly and chronologically into centuries, with the usual, familiar art-historical references. The 18th century, for example, is titled “Rococo and Neoclassicism: the Century of Revolution.” The revolutions in this case are the French and Industrial revolutions, and have nothing to do with Russia, which had to wait until the early 20th century for its own monstrous upheavals.
While “The Iron Forge Viewed from Without” (1773), a fine example of Joseph Wright of Derby’s fire-lit night paintings, gives us a vivid sense of the Industrial Revolution, the French Revolution is only vaguely hinted at in a couple of decadent-looking allegories of rosy-cheeked cupids by Francois Boucher and some caricatures by the amateur Swiss painter, Jean Huber, of the major French Enlightenment philosopher, Francois-Marie Voltaire (1694-1778), whose ideas fed into the French Revolution.
Despite the implicit anti-monarchical bent of Voltaire’s ideas, Catherine the Great was happy to collect these paintings and to also enter into a lengthy correspondence with the philosopher himself, of whom she had a very high opinion. This is one of the interesting ironies of the exhibition. While France was subjected to revolution from below, in Russia the revolution, such as it was, was implemented by modernizing monarchs such as Catherine, determined to Westernize and Europeanize what was still very much a Eurasian country.
Although it is understandable that Catherine the Great should look west for cultural inspiration — she was after all German — what is striking is the degree to which almost every Russian monarch shared in the cultural cringe to the Occident.
If there is one unifying feature of all the paintings in this exhibition, it is that none of them are by Russians. The cultural cringe is also evident in the photos of the Hermitage Museum shown in the exhibition, a group of buildings that evoke the fripperies of pre-Revolutionary France rather than the austere majesty befitting a semi-Asiatic autocrat. Because of this, one is almost tempted to view the Russian Revolution of October 1917 not so much as an affair of the proletariat but as a disguised re-assertion of the Russianness of Russia — although it hardly seemed so at the time.
Although the curators have been careful to ensure that there are plenty of big names in the roster of works, some of the most interesting pictures in this exhibition are by artists whose work has been by-passed by the main art-history narrative. Pierre-Narcisse Guerin’s “Morpheus and Iris” (1811) is an overcooked piece of academic art, but entirely forgivable because of its neoclassical brilliance; while “Horace Vernet’s overly precious and ethereal “Angel of Death” (1851) is ludicrous but also strangely inspiring.
Another work that stands out from undeserved obscurity is Francois Flameng’s effervescent “Reception at Malmaison 1802″ (c. 1894). This was painted at a time when, according to the art-history textbooks, Impressionism had already revolutionized French art. Flameng, however, seems not to have noticed, preferring to paint scenes from history in a rather clean-cut realist style.
What adds interest to this work is the fact that it was bought in 1896 by the last Russian Tsar, the ill-fated Nicholas II. The scene depicted shows Napoleon Bonaparte, shortly before he became emperor, behaving very unlike the “great man of destiny,” as he chases his stepdaughter Hortense de Beauharnais during a game of tag.
The frivolous nature of the scene no doubt appealed to a monarch who, when he received a telegram informing him of the annihilation of his fleet by the Japanese navy at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, merely read it, stuffed it in his pocket, and continued playing a game of tennis. In this sense, the art on display can be read as testifying to the wide gulf that existed between the Westernized Romanov dynasty and the still very Russian Russian people.
“400 Years of European Masterpieces from the State Hermitage Museum” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs till July 16; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,500. Closed Tue. www.ntv.co.jp/hermitage2012.