So Many Tsars, So Little Time

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at090630c.jpgIt's been only a couple of months since my last trip to Amsterdam, so there better be a good reason to return so soon for yet another visit. And how could I say no to an invitation to attend the inaugural ceremony for the opening of the Hermitage Amsterdam, the ambitious collaboration between the famous museum in St. Petersburg and its colleagues in the Netherlands? While two previous attempts at branding by the Hermitage Museum – first in London and then in Las Vegas – turned out to be short-lived, this latest and most ambitious venture, in a beautifully restored 17th century building in the center of Amsterdam, seems to have real staying power.

at090630b.jpgThis project has been in development for more than a decade, with Dutch authorities contributing almost $60 million to the renovation of the historical building. But there is another, much deeper layer of history resonating through this cultural collaboration, and that is the famous visit to Amsterdam more than 300 years ago by Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who brought his entourage and stayed there almost a year. At that time, Amsterdam was the most prosperous and advanced of all the cities in the world. Upon returning to Russia, Peter started planning to build a new city emulating the canals and bridges of Amsterdam, and that's how St. Petersburg came into existence.

at090630f.jpgSo, once again, the Tsars are back in Amsterdam, in the huge, ambitious exhibition telling the intricate story of the Imperial Court and palace protocol in 19th century Russia. There are dozens of elaborately bejeweled and embroidered gowns of ladies in waiting on view, along with the imposing uniforms of the officers of the court, so one could understand why crowds of visitors were glued to the vitrines, drooling over these impossibly lavish outfits.

at090630a.jpgNumerous large and small portraits of Russian Tsars and various members of the Imperial Court are displayed in this new museum's two main galleries, which echo in size and proportion the major reception halls of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Add to that hundreds of pieces of gold and diamond jewelry, including those belonging to Nicholas and Alexandra. In their painted portraits and photographs, the last Russian Tsar and Tsarina look as if they already can hear the not-so-distant sounds of the coming revolution, in which they and each of their five children were shot by a Bolshevik death squad in the cellar of a house in Siberia.

at090630e.jpgTo everyone's surprise, every fifteen minutes the sound of music floats through the exhibition, and the gallery walls come alive with projected images of people dancing in the actual halls of the Winter Palace, wearing costumes similar to the ones on display. I instantly recognized the footage; a couple of years ago, the Getty Museum screened this movie, The Russian Ark, which was filmed inside the Winter Palace. I was asked to introduce and narrate this highly unusual movie, shot in one uninterrupted 90-minute take. The movie ends with a scene recreating the last Imperial Ball, shortly before the October revolution of 1917, and that's exactly what visitors can see while they're strolling through the galleries of the new Hermitage Amsterdam.

Next week I'll have more on my trip to Europe, but now let me share with you the latest news concerning both Los Angeles and Amsterdam. Today it was announced that Ann Goldstein, a highly regarded senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA, has been appointed Artistic Director of the renown Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, famous for its collection of 20th century art. Currently the Stedelijk is under construction due to remodeling and expansion, with plans to reopen next year – a good reason for me to start planning my next trip to the Netherlands.

Banner image:Court gowns in the Hermitage Amsterdam, which opened on June 19