‘100 Years of the Pushkin Museum’ (until July 1) and ‘Imaginary Museum’ (until July 29) at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, 12 Ul. Volkhonka, m. Kropotkinskaya, www.arts-museum.ru
Open Tue.-Sun. 10 am-7 pm, closed Mon.; ticket office closes at 6 pm
‘Portraits of Collectors’ (until August 26) at the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts’ Department of Private Collections, 10 Ul. Volkhonka
Open Sat.-Sun. 11 am-8 pm, Wed. and Fri. 11 am-7 pm, Thurs. 11 am-9 pm; box office until an hour before closing, closed Mon. and Tue.
University study aid, Stalinist propaganda warehouse, blockbuster exhibition organizer — the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts has played many roles. This summer, the storied museum is honoring its centennial with a trio of exhibitions celebrating its past, present and future. “100 Years of the Pushkin Museum” documents the museum’s history, while “Portraits of Collectors” showcases prominent collectors and the works they’ve donated. The most stunning, “Imaginary Museum,” displays 46 masterpieces on loan from major museums around the world.
Today, the Pushkin Museum is a site of “global artistic culture,” said Andrei Tolstoi, the museum’s deputy director for scientific activities. But as “100 Years of the Pushkin Museum” recounts, it began as no more than a collection of old coins and plaster copies.
The museum’s history began in the mid-18th century, when the newly formed Moscow State University began collecting ancient money and medals for use by numismatics students. Soon after, the art history department acquired copies of ancient Greek sculptures. In the late 1800s, the university’s treasure trove had grown big enough that Professor Ivan Tsvetayev began gathering funds for a museum to house them.
Construction broke ground in 1896 under the direction of Roman Klein, who also designed Moscow’s TsUM department store. Future Constructivist icon Vladimir Shukhov assisted with the engineering, designing features including the glass atrium.
In a 1906 letter to art historian Nikolai Romanov, Tsvetayev expressed his vision of the museum as a force capable of healing the country’s growing fissures: “Workers weighed down by all sorts of cares will come to our museum of fine arts, and here each one of them will find the inner calm and knowledge that perpetually flows forth from works of science and art. Here there will be no Right or Left, but simply enjoyment and enlightenment.”
The museum opened on May 31, 1912, with the lengthy title of “The Emperor Alexander III Museum of Fine Arts of the Moscow Imperial University.” Archival film clips show Nicholas II and the Romanov clan arriving at the opening ceremony, Alexandra and the girls clad in white dresses and flowertopped hats.
Under the Bolsheviks, the museum shifted from collecting art to spreading Marxist-Leninist ideology. Photographs show the main hall filled with statues of Lenin, Gorky and Stalin alongside muscled athletes and workers. Outside Moscow, traveling exhibitions educated the masses on topics such as “Women Before and After the Revolution” and “Anti-Easter.”
During World War II, the museum successfully evacuated more than 110,000 artworks to Novosibirsk and Solikamsk, although the building itself suffered from bombing and neglect. But perhaps the greatest threat came from home.
In 1949, Stalin dedicated the museum exclusively to showcasing the thousands of gifts sent for his 70th birthday. Exhibition photos show rugs, paintings, vases and statues emblazoned with his image occupying the places once held by Greco-Roman relics. After the dictator’s death in 1953, suggestions arose to turn the museum into a permanent shrine for the presents.
Fortunately, Khrushchev’s denunciation of the personality cult put an end to such plans, and the museum resumed normal activity. Landmark events such as the famous Picasso exhibition in 1956 announced the museum’s belated arrival on the global art scene.
In recent years, the Pushkin Museum has grown rapidly, with recent additions such as children’s center Museion in 2006. The anniversary exhibition concludes with a model of the new “museum city” slated for completion by 2018 (see infographic). The planned changes will more than double the museum’s size and add new venues including cafes and a concert hall—to the chagrin of architectural preservationists, who say the construction plans intrude on (and in some cases destroy) protected monuments (see box).
Many of the museum’s most valued works have come from Moscow collectors including Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, who furnished a large number of its famous Impressionist and post- Impressionist masterpieces. The Museum of Private Collections was founded in 1994 to develop the museum’s relationship with collectors; today, it holds about 7,000 pieces of Russian and Western European art from more than 30 collections.
“Portraits of Collectors” spotlights major collectors such as Alexander Shveidel and Ilya Glazunov, and selected works from their holdings. The 300 items on display range from ancient Byzantine and Russian icons, to Old Masters of Western European painting and graphics, to Russian paintings, graphics and sculpture from the past three centuries.
The summer’s most popular show, “Imaginary Museum,” reflects the museum’s growing relationship with institutions abroad, featuring famous works on loan from the Louvre, the Prado, the Tate Gallery and other leading museums. Rather than being displayed separately, the pieces are sprinkled throughout the permanent exhibition halls according to period and style.
The title expresses “the Pushkin Museum’s attempt to create—not only in the imagination, but in reality, even if only for a short time – a kind of ideal museum, with no omissions and featuring the finest names in the history of art,” Tolstoi said.
For the first time in Moscow, viewers can see work by fantastical Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch. “Cutting the Stone” (c. 1490) depicts the Renaissance practice of removing “the stone of madness” from a patient’s head. A work by 16th-century Italian portraitist Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Portrait of an Old Man Sitting in a Chair” (1575), is also appearing for the first time in Russia.
Among the ancient highlights is an Egyptian scribe statue from the tomb of Prince Heti, which dates from 2400 BC, as well as a statue on loan from the Louvre depicting Gudea, the ruler of the Sumerian citystate of Lagash around 2200 BC. In the Greco-Roman collection, visitors find painted vessels such as a kylix (a two-handled wine-drinking vessel) dating from the fifth century.
Spanish masterpieces on display include El Greco’s “Christ on the Cross” (1605) and “Prince Baltasar Carlos on Horseback” (1635) by Diego Velazquez. Modern highlights range from the bucolic peasant painting “L’Angelus” by early Impressionist Jean-Francois Millet (1857-1859), to Gustav Klimt’s sensuous “Adam and Eve” (1917-1918), to “La Clef des Champs” (1936) by surrealist Rene Magritte.
All three shows close in late summer, but visitors can look forward to a number of other major exhibitions this fall. In September, the Pushkin Museum will stage an exhibition with the Le Corbusier Foundation about the groundbreaking modern architect. The “Portraits of Collectors” series will also continue in the fall with a show of Dutch graphics from the collection of Nikolai Mosolov.
Controversial features of the reconstruction
- Old Masters gallery: architectural preservationists say the plan will involve illegal construction on the territory of the Vyazemsky estate
- Exhibition center: the most controversial part of the project; activists say it will destroy the historic Kremlin gas station and infringe on the Golitsyn and Rumyantsev- Zadunaisky estates
- Depository-restoration center: museum director Irina Antonova insists on a storage space connected to the museum; citing space, the Ministry of Culture and Mayor Sergei Sobyanin have proposed to move it to the southwest suburbs
- Auditorium: another of Antonova’s favored projects, which critics say encroaches on the Glebov estate
Five facts about the Pushkin museum
1. The biggest collection, the Graphics Department, currently holds more than 380,000 works
2. Director Irina Antonova has headed the museum since 1961
3. It was renamed in honor of Alexander Pushkin in 1937, on the 100th anniversary of the poet’s death
4. It holds one of the biggest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world
5. The museum’s most-visited exhibition of all time was its 2010 Picasso show
This article first appeared in The Moscow News