INTERVIEW: Editor Theodora Clarke speaks to Margy Kinmonth, director of the Hermitage Revealed documentary
Margy Kinmonth is an award winning film and television director whose many credits include Mariinsky Theatre and Nutcracker Story for ITV about Russian opera and ballet; Outback Art – The Goldrush for C4; and Rubens – A Master in the Making. Her series Naked Hollywood with Arnold Schwarzenegger won BAFTA best documentary series. Kinmonth’s authored investigative films include The Secret World of Haute Couture, shot on location in Paris and the RTS Best Arts award winning film about Rudolf Nureyev and Francis Bacon: The Strange World of Barry Who? Theodora Clarke, Editor of Russian Art and Culture, met Margy in London to talk about her recent work, ‘Hermitage Revealed’. This documentary commemorates the 250th anniversary of the State Hermitage and will be released internationally on 9th September, 2014. Theodora Clarke: How did this documentary about the Hermitage Museum first come about? Margy Kinmonth: I love Russian art, history, music, literature, and I was already excited about the chance of doing this film as I have previously made two films in Russia before. The first was on the history of the Mariinsky for Valery Gergiev, when I spent several years in and out of Russia working in the opera house. During filming I met Professor Piotrovsky as he was a contributor in that film. Afterwards he asked me to make this film for him to mark the museum’s 250th anniversary. This is the first time I have made a film about a museum directly for the cinema. I am very excited that at this point the digital technology has allowed me to make a high definition film that really unites art and cinema. TC: So your film was a collaboration between yourself and the Hermitage. How did the relationship between yourself and museum work? MK: It was not a commission, it was an invitation. It has allowed me, as an international film maker to go in and see behind the scenes. As a film maker I have a natural curiosity to come, open doors and go backstage and see the workings of things. All my films are about the creative process and the factory, the thoughts and the process that go into making works of art of what they are, whether you are a writer, a sculptor, a curator, a writer. I am interested in the engine room. My films do have this sort of the secret world aspect. I wanted to know if there was a secret world in the museum. I went there for two weeks on a reccy, and they took me absolutely everywhere where the public do not go, and my camera could genuinely go behind the scenes. I was totally fascinated by the idea of what happens if the revolution in the museum and the arts suddenly becomes publicly owned. I was really interested in the ownership of the art. It is also a tremendous challenge to make a film about a 250-year history, where you start with somebody, a monarch or empress, like Catherine the Great, and you end up with today’s director, Professor Piotrovsky, who worked in the Soviet Union. So, I was interested in these two characters, and what happens when a palace becomes a Soviet state museum. TC: What kind of audience were you thinking about while working on the idea of the film? MK: I wanted to make a movie that could be enjoyed by people who were not necessarily art specialists. I took as my starting point the audience who are coming off one of this cruise ships and thought what it would be like if you only had two hours to spend in the museum. You would think: “What am I going to see? What am I going to remember?” Because you can spend two hours there, but what will you actually take home with you in your memory? What are you actually going to enjoy and appreciate? So, I am always interested in people, biographies and the stories of the people who were there. My film is not just a museum guide, there are plenty of those, and they are done brilliantly with marvellous explanations. I wanted the film to take you behind the scenes, to scratch the surface of all that gold and mirror, and go back into the world of history and the inner workings of the museum. TC: You have mentioned about the secret world of the museum. What did you have access to that you found really extraordinary and wanted to share with the wider public? MK: I loved the fact that you might open a secret door and go up the spiral staircase in the dark, and then you find this storage space for the Imperial porcelain, for example. And you go in and you discover that this was actually the bathroom of the empress Alexandra herself, and there will be the enamel and plumbing! People actually lived there, and now it becomes just storage spaces for the museum. This is a fascinating change of use. TC: Can you tell me more about the Hermitage Museum’s storage space off site and the director’s policy towards caring for the collection? MK: Yes, the storage space is what I was really interested in. The name of it is Staraya Derevnya, and people think it is funny that the storage room has its own label on the door. This storage space is one of the largest projects in Russian museum history. I was fascinated that despite the Russian Revolution the Soviets even kept all the Imperial carriages. Piotrovsky believes that rather then smash up and destroy everything, like it was done after the French Revolution, Russian policy was to keep things and to show how bad things were. So, one of the obvious things you will find in the storage space is all the carriages of Catherine the Great, and all the presents to her lovers: they gave each other everything from carriages to Boucher and Watteau drawings and paintings. As I went into more storage areas I discovered a great deal of trophy art, which was taken after the Second World War. It was being stored in the storage spaces without labels or anything. Objects in a storage space often have questionable attribution and ownership. They are deemed unshowable to the public. So what they have created is a great big glass corridor, one kilometre of glass windows, where you can actually walk through and see everything on view. The quantity of stock is vast. Piotrovsky believes that the art should be seen and shared. He believes strongly that the museum’s objects should be seen by people. The Hermitage has become an encyclopaedic museum for everybody from scholars to children, and for artists to learn from. What he has done in these ten years I found very inspiring. The restitution laws were changed during these ten years. Everything that is in Russia, stays in Russia. Everything that is in Germany, stays in Germany. There will be no more giving back, but it all got to be seen. So, he allowed the hidden treasures of the Nazis, such as the Impressionists, to be shown in 1995. There is an amazing Degas painting, absolutely beautiful, genuine, Place de La Concorde. And that is surrounded by Renoirs and Monets, which are never allowed now to leave Russia. TC: Can you give me another example of objects in the collection which interested you because of their history? MK: There are literally thousands of objects not on display in the museum but that you can view within the stores. But also there are collections on view in the Winter Palace that visitors can see which have extraordinary histories. For example, on the ground floor in the Hermitage you can find the so-called ‘Hidden Treasurers’. You walk through this poorly lit gallery, and there are these pictures which are all very dark which have never been restored. They are displayed in all their original colours. So, these are on show, but they are never lent, they can never leave Russia. Other objects in the storage space, such as these early Buddhist frescoes, also interested me. They are inlayed in their original special little cases from Berlin with German writing on the sides. It felt that these pictures were straight off the train from Berlin and that you were literally touching an event that happened after the Second World War. I was pleased to have included some of these amazing images in the film. TC: You mentioned that Piotrovsky views the Hermitage as an encyclopaedic museum and that he is keen to display cultural objects to the public. From the examples you used it is clear that the Imperial family’s collections, Impressionists and so on are all on view. What is the museum’s attitude however to art produced in the Soviet Union? As in the 1920s and 30s many of the great avant-garde artists were deemed ‘formalist’ and ‘bourgeois’, like Malevich and Kandinsky, and were not on display in the museum… MK: Yes that is true. I think what is very interesting about this period is all the Soviet porcelain and the Socialist Realism imagery and storytelling that happened after the Revolution. The Lomonsov Porcelain Factory is on the outskirts of Saint-Petersburg, so not many people get to go to see it. I found it fascinating. It was a challenge to photograph porcelain to make it come alive. And none of that Soviet chapter has been integrated into the Hermitage collection. So, if you just went to the museum today, you would not see that aspect of Russian history. There is still confusion about the fact who owned and managed the Imperial porcelain factory in the Revolution. It was a very important moment, when the artists suddenly became storytellers. Instead of being people who are collected, like the paintings of Rembrandt and Rubens, after the Revolution the artists actually had a place in storytelling. That was really exciting. TC: The question of how to present the history of the Soviet Union and Russia is a challenge for anyone, especially for a non-Russian director. How much artistic freedom did you have as a director considering it was a collaborative project? You were working with a major state institution which is Government funded. Did you have any restrictions about objects or themes you could cover? MK: I know that Piotrovsky himself did not want me to focus only on the things which are in dispute. But he allowed me to make it a part of the storytelling. I worked with him and refined the script over time. But I was trying to tell it from the Russian point of view, because the Russian museum and the Russian history are unique. The British Museum, the Louvre or anywhere else they do not have these politics or history. TC: In the film you devote a section to the Siege of Leningrad? I have seen some incredible black and white photos of the Hermitage rooms featuring empty frames with the paintings removed. Could you tell us more about that? MK: I had two fantastic contributors who talked about the siege including a lady I found who is ninety-three and survived the blockade. I went to interview her in this absolutely minute communal flat, half the size of this table. She described what happened during the siege, when she was a little girl. There was another person, who worked at the Hermitage, who described living through the siege and eating a cat, her grandmother’s cat, who was killed in order to keep her alive. She also described the moment when her father got the leather belts, and they cooked these leather belts and made that into a meal. They were so hungry… A hundred curators died during the siege, and roughly a third of the population of Leningrad also died during the siege. They all sheltered underneath the Winter Palace, near the network of heating pipes, where they had storage areas. So, everybody sheltered underneath the museum during the bombardment. The Hermitage itself was being specifically targeted with bombs, because they wanted to destroy the centre of culture and the intellectual heartbeat of Russia. At the Nuremberg trials afterwards evidence was revealed, proving that they were actually bombarding the Hermitage itself. That was just a chapter in history that we cannot conceive. We think the Second World War was bad here in the UK, but actually it is nothing in comparison to what happened in Russia. TC: What happened to all the paintings in the Hermitage during the Siege? MK: They were evacuated. As soon as they heard that the Germans had got to Riga it was a signal to evacuate the whole museum, all three million objects. The whole museum was packed up and taken on trains into interior of Russia to Yekaterinburg. There was only one statue that was too big to take, called Jupiter. This enormous Jupiter stayed in the museum all on his own. I included that scene in the film with the image of this empty museum and this rather sad lone statue left behind. Three trains were prepared with gun carriages on the front and the back. The first train had all the gold objects, all the very precious Serbian gold. It was all packed on the first train with most precious objects. Two trains got away and the Germans arrived, and the third trains did not actually leave. During the Siege the museum curators were pretty efficient about packing things. It happened in June, during White Nights, when there is continuous daylight in Russia. Everybody was packing, and they were evenputting the pieces of cork inside the little tiny glass bottles to stop the breaking. There was one lady who described dropping corks into these bottles for hours and hours, and then there was a tremendous flood.The descriptions of packing were absolutely incredible. I have tried so hard to find one of the people involved to speak to but they have all now sadly died. We have included though beautiful charcoal pictures of the museum in the blockade. But it is hard to describe in the film quite how hard the hunger was during the war. The museum staff would go around, telling each other about their bit of the collection, literally passing their knowledge on because of this risk of not being there in the morning. TC: It is incredible to think that despite the horrors of WW2 and the huge number of bombs dropped on Saint Petersburg (or Leningrad as it was then) that so many cultural objects were saved in the museum’s collection. In your film you touch on many of these cultural objects that have survived such a turbulent history and can be still seen in Hermitage today. I was also struck by the archival material you included. Could you tell us more about the material you found during your research? MK: Yes, we included photographs but I also finally found some archive footage of the packing, which was quite amazing. And before they had cameras there were eyewitnesses doing pictures. Piotrovsky believes that the preservation of art is paramount. He is dedicated to the survival of the museum and its culture, its objects. TC: What is the Hermitage’s policy towards the return of stolen or looted objects, such as the British Museum’s debate regarding the Elgin Marbles? MK: Well the director’s belief is to hold on to any art in the museum if there is ever any question of something being given back or destroyed or lost. His mission is to keep the collection together. Piotrovsky has cited an example of when Ukraine became independent, the Ukrainian museum was given back its objects, and then they were all bombed and destroyed. The Hermitage Museum itself has had to survive numerous threats: it has burned down, it has been completely rebuilt at one point. I went to the restoration department and included a little sequence about that. TC: I presume you have seen the film Russian Ark which has become a cult classic of the Hermitage. What would you say is the big difference between your film and that? MK: I have seen it many times. Russian Ark stops at the certain point in history, and my film comes right up to date. In fact in this film we do not show only the paintings, which had been acquired by Catherine the Great, various Tsars and so on, we bring the artwork right up to date. I even went to Washington D.C to interview the Director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington about the works in the their collection from Russia. It was a very interesting because the American museum does not allow much lending abroad. I realised my film was going to make quite an amazing impact, because it is the first time everything in the Hermitage Museum’s history is being united into one great big story. And the fact that the film is going to have this distribution all over the world on one day it is quite incredible. I was excited by the idea of the fact that the modern technologies allowed us to film it all in high definition. And many people will get a chance to see the art without actually going to Russia. TC: Is there one story that captured your imagination when you were doing the documentary? MK: The story I can never forget was the guy who saved Rembrandt’s Danae when it was attacked by acid. The museum guard, who was standing next to it, threw himself between the acid and the Rembrandt to try and save the painting. I couldn’t fit him into the film but it was an amazing story. There were a few other things I was not able to film that also struck me. For example, they have funerals in the Hermitage when curators die, they actually have a church in the museum. During the three years I was shooting this film, the church was under restoration, so we couldn’t go in. I discovered though that this curator who was in charge of the Pazyryk collection, which is the oldest archaeological finds in the museum, and was a very elderly lady I had met on my reccy, had died and they had her funeral in the museum. I loved all these old ladies I have met in the museum, they are all total experts. TC: Have you shown your film in Russia? What was the response? MK: Yes, people loved it. The film was presented twice during the Moscow Film Festival, and also within the Hermitage Museum. The film will be released in Russia on 9th September, 2014 at thirty-five cinemas across the country. TC: The Hermitage is often considered a very traditional museum. However, they have had controversy with the recent Chapman Brothers exhibition and at the moment it is hosting Manifesta, the contemporary art biennale. You could argue that Saint-Petersburg is slowly changing from an art destination focused on imperial history revolving around the palaces, such as Pavlosk, Peterhof and the Hermitage, to contemporary art with the opening of Hermitage 20/21, Novaya Hollandiya and other contemporary art spaces…. MK: Yes the response to the Chapman Brothers show was an interesting moment at the museum. I was also struck by the fact that they though Louise Bourgeois to be too shocking. They had an exhibition of hers and then she bequeathed one of her pieces, a four-foot high, blue dog featuring multiple breasts. Apparently it was too shocking to the general public and they had to move it into a corner. I was shocked that people could be so outraged in Russia. I suppose coming from London I am almost unshockable! I think what is going to change things is when they move the Shchukin and Morozov collections into the General Staff building, it will get you out of the palace environment. The famous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections are being moved from the top floor of the Winter Palace to the General Staff building. They have just moved Malevich’s Black Square and Kandinsky’s works when I was there and the Matisses are following now too. TC: Not many visitors to the Hermitage will know about the new wing 20/21. Could you tell us more about it? MK: Yes, I agree, it has a very little, obscure entrance off palace square. I was so excited to see the Black Square, and it is displayed in quite a random room upstairs. It is a really significant work, particularly when you see the current Tate exhibition which explains how important Malevich was in the history of art. After people see the film, they will have be shown where the General Staff building is. TC: You are a British director, but you have done many Russian projects. What is it that attracts you to Russian culture? MK: I started with The Nutcracker, because I discovered that nobody had ever done a movie about Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. I wanted to make a dark story about it, so it has started really with that. Then I have started working with maestro Gergiev, and he let me made The Nutcracker on the condition that I would make an anniversary film for him about the Mariinsky. I would like in the future to also do Sleeping Beauty. TC: What are your future plans? MK: I have just done a film about war art with Eddie Redmayne, that will come out towards the end of the year on ITV. It is the first time Eddie has ever done a factual film. We have been working for about a year on this film about war artists. And I am also developing a film about art in hospitals, and relationship between art making you feel better. We are working with Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, because they are doing project with Brian Eno on soundscapes in the waiting rooms. http://vimeo.com/98912705 For more information about Hermitage Revealed, please visit the website.