by Roderick Conway Morris

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Father Peter and Mother Russia

By Roderick Conway Morris
VICENZA, Italy 18 August 2001
State History Museum, Moscow
Russian peasant girl in festive costume from the Tver Governorate, c.1830



When Catherine the Great complained about the injurious effect St. Petersburg's climate was having on her health, an unusually outspoken favorite replied: 'It is not God's fault, Madam, if men are so obstinate as to build the capital of a great empire in a land destined by Nature to be the habitation of bears and wolves.'

The construction of St. Petersburg, 'a city without character, more pompous than imposing, more vast than beautiful, filled with buildings without style, without taste, and without historical significance,' in the words of the French Marquis de Custine (who also recorded the anecdote about the Empress Catherine's complaint during his visit to Russia in 1839), was an act of defiance not only against nature, but also against Russia's traditional visual universe.

Sited amid a swamp, on a sea that is icebound for several months a year, the new capital was mainly designed by foreigners, and scores of Western architects and craftsmen had to be brought to Russia to realize the project and train their local colleagues. However, although Peter the Great's 'Window to Europe' was the point of entry for Western aesthetic ideas, the light of Western political philosophies shone through it but dimly, and this 'reforming' czar actually strengthened Russian absolutism and the machinery of repression.

Peter's autocratic powers enabled him to impose Western styles on the aristocracy, which was wholly dependent on him for its existence, and whose members could be dispensed with, exiled and executed on the Emperor's whim. But the lower orders, that 'class of men who have no acknowledged rights, but who, nevertheless are the nation itself' (as Custine described them), and even the old merchant class, put up dogged resistance to the importation of these alien tastes.

Thus, in the artistic and decorative realms, Peter's brand new capital and associated edicts aesthetically divided Russia into two nations, and their parallel existences, contradictions and confluences are a constant theme in 'Everyday Treasures: Jewels of Russian Life,' at Palazzo Leoni Montanari (where the show continues through Oct. 28).

The exhibition consists of more than 250 artworks and artifacts dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries, including paintings, wood, ivory and metalwork, gold and silver, glass, furniture, ceramics, porcelain, household utensils, embroidery and dress. They have been loaned by Moscow's immense State Historical Museum, most of whose collection of 4 million pieces was shut away from public view until the fall of the Soviet Union.

Wood, which was, of course, available in abundance, was the primary material for traditional Russian artifacts, art in the form of icons, architecture in church building, and was used even for making roads. Twenty-seven varieties of wood were employed in the ancient cultural and commercial center of Novgorod.

All houses, of both rich and poor, were made of wood, which was regarded as the most healthy of materials for human habitations. Typically, houses were adorned on the exterior with carvings of motifs, such as the sun, harking back to pre-Christian times, which were designed to protect the building and its inhabitants from evil forces.

The apotropaic function of these far from merely decorative symbols explains the disparity, puzzling to visitors, between the attention lavished on the outside of dwellings and the sparseness of their interiors. As Custine observed: 'In comparing this exterior sumptuousness with the scarcity of comfortable furnishings and lack of cleanliness which strike one inside these toy houses, one regrets seeing the taste for the superfluous hold sway over a people who are still unacquainted with the necessary.'

There are some excellent examples of this characteristic architectural woodcarving in the show, and a broad sample of other objects dexterously carved from wood, including a sturdy front-door lock made entirely of wood with a wooden key. Also on display is a window with panes made of mica, which was used as a substitute for glass.

Woodcarving skills were brilliantly applied to the fashioning of ivory, locally obtained from walrus and mammoth tusks. Examples here range from combs decorated with beautifully delicate vignettes, to boxes and full-scale pieces of furniture. Among the latter are a large inlaid chest of drawers and mirror frame, embellished with figures and motifs inspired by Western classical sculpture - striking cases of a successful marriage between traditional Russian techniques and the new art forms promoted by Peter I and his successors.

In old Russia, figurative art was devoted above all to icon painting, and Western-style painting, particularly portraiture, was regarded as blasphemous by traditionalists. These objections were brushed aside by Peter, and portraits soon became popular among the nobility. Interestingly, by the 19th century this genre was even being patronized by richer peasants and merchants, though the elaborate traditional costumes they donned for the occasion suggest that they were the kind of Russians who would still have been skeptical of other innovations.

The westernization of the living habits of the upper class also gave rise in the 19th century to a peculiarly Russian type of portrait in which individuals and families are posed in the equivalent of a wide-angle lens shot of their reception rooms, the European furniture, fittings and ornaments being as carefully depicted, and as much stars of the piece, as the sitters themselves.

The State Historical Museum has an especially good collection of this curious genre. Since many of them ended up in the Museum as the result of confiscations under communism, the details of their authors and subjects have often been lost. Yet they are an invaluable record of a lifestyle that once was, and which, like that of the peasants and merchants of old Russia, was swept away for ever by the Revolution and its aftermath.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024