(VERY hard to get online... more images to follow, as time allows, PaL)
A lavish breakfast spread at the Astoria Hotel, hot and cold. I chose the cold, conscious of the extra weight I have begun to carry around with me on this trip. Shortly after breakfast, our bus was waiting outside to navigate us through heavy morning traffic to the Hermitage, where we arrived an hour before the public opening—along with quite a number of tour groups that shared the privilege with us.
What a spectacle, though. I just used the word lavish for breakfast. It’s not adequate for the interiors of this one-time home of the tsars and their families. My pictures, if and when I manage to get them posted, will give a small idea of the outrageous magnificence of the place, the vast halls, the marble and gilt columns, the extravagant furnishings and—can one call them knick-knacks?
(Here are some...
The collection of paintings is superb, certainly of a quality to rival the Louvre, the Vatican, the British Museum… Good tourists, we dashed past walls filled with masterpieces—in the Spanish area alone, a huge stash of Velasquez, Goya, Murillo, El Greco. We paused for long enough to gape at a couple of madonnas painted by Leonardo, and were allowed a luxurious ten minutes in a long hall filled with Rembrandts. My personal favorite, a “Descent from the Cross,” with breathtaking chiaroscuro lighting.
Then on at breakneck pace—not our guide’s fault, she has done a wonderful job for us, expertly filling in the many gaps in our collective knowledge—to the top floor, an exhibition of “Hidden Treasures Revealed,” a trove of mostly impressionist and post-impressionist works brought back by the Red Army from Berlin after World War II. Originally looted from other countries and, I suspect largely, from the collections of the Jews the Nazis murdered, most of them have apparently remained unclaimed, and are shown as a group now for the first time.
From there to the Hermitage’s huge—and hugely impressive—collection of Impressionist and Modern works, walls richly hung with splendid paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin… and, again a personal favorite, Kees van Dongen. And even after those spectacular galleries, my jaw dropped as I entered the first of two whole galleries devoted to Matisse, the massive, familiar image of “The Dance,” “The Red Room,” and others seen previously only in the history books.
The same with Picasso… Breathtaking… Really beyond description. We spent perhaps three hours in the museum, and could have spent another three days and still not covered everything.
Still, onward… our bus made a brief photo op stop at an island (name, anyone?) in the middle of the Neva, and thence to the Flying Dutchman restaurant in the replica of an old sailing ship. A good lunch, with crab salad, fish in a “potato shirt,” and petits fours, and a marvelous view out over the river and the fountains which, unusually and happily for us, were working on this weekday because it happens to be “City Day” in St. Petersburg.
The afternoon was devoted to a preliminary exploration of the contemporary art scene hereabouts, and the bus took us to a somewhat less posh part of town where we stopped first at the Anna Nova Gallery. Wouldn’t you know, they were installing—a group show of young painters which we saw mostly propped against the walls. Several good painters, we thought—I regret I did not, for the most part—note down their names, nor do I remember any but for one Yury Alexandrov, whose work I liked a great deal, along with others in our group. Large paintings, with charcoal—or black paint—line drawing featuring somewhat ritualistic, violent, at times erotic scenes.
Next stop was D-137, supposedly the first contemporary art gallery in St. Petersburg, a renovated cellar with low, arched brick ceilings, where we were greeted by the gallery director, Kristina, and introduced to the work being installed (again!) on the walls. Another painter, Marina Fedorova, whose figurative pictures were concerned mostly with themes of loneliness and isolation.
In a second, smaller space, a few other gallery artists were on display, but nothing, to my mind, particularly noteworthy.
Our last stop for the afternoon, though, was certainly worthwhile. Ola Tobreluts is an artist of established reputation, as witness the number of books and catalogues for group exhibitions in which she has been included—including Edward Lucie-Smith’s “Artists of the Twenty-First Century.” She works in an amazing variety of media, from painting and sculpture to digital art, photography, and performance. Clearly much concerned—and well-informed—about art history, her painting styles range from classical-realist
to frankly expressionistic, and she seems to move comfortably between them. She has not yet shown in the United States and is holding out for the prospect of a museum exhibition. Particularly, she wants to avoid being branded as a “Russian” artist. Why not, she asks rhetorically, international. Why not indeed. We enjoyed her friendly hospitality in her studio, and left much impressed by her achievements as well as by her potential for a remarkable future.
Back at the hotel, there was barely time for a shower and change before reporting for dinner at the Adamant Restaurant, across from our hotel on the bank of the smaller Moika River. A private room awaited us, along with a band of somewhat surly waiters and a (to my mind) rather so-so traditional Russian meal. As we were eating, a trio of musicians burst in upon us—accordion, balalaika, mandolin—and soon a buxom singer who flirted with each of the men in turn and ended up handing out noise-makers which we soon learned were for sale, along with CDs by the band. Their intrusion was unasked for, and the response in terms of sales clearly less than they expected. They left in something of a sulk.
An after dinner cruise was scheduled to start shortly after dinner, and we walked to our embarkation point to discover that our boat was moored on the opposite side of the river. Summoned unceremoniously by bullhorn, we flocked back to the nearest bridge and back to the tour boat, heading out for the Neva and the fountains we had seen earlier in the day. A lovely moment, with the sun setting over the western bank, reflecting on the clouds above and the golden domes and details of the buildings below.
Our boat people warmed to us after some initial general annoyance, and broke out the vodka to warm us against the evening chill. Much merriment on board as we completed our hour’s tour, and walked back from the river bank to the Astoria.