Would Catherine the Great Approve?

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Little did I know what might happen when I agreed to participate in a special event at the Getty Museum last spring, introducing the screening of the Russian Ark, a whimsical movie shot entirely inside the Hermitage Museum. During the film, I whispered into the microphone my own commentary about the masterpieces of art and the sumptuously decorated rooms that the camera was gliding past. Have you heard about the law of unintended consequences? When the power engine of the KCRW website spread the news about this event--next thing I know I was staring at an email from a representative of the Hermitage Museum in London, who happens to be a recipient of my weekly Art Talk. "Would you be interested to come to St. Petersburg for an international symposium on 'The Museum and the Art Market' to be held at the Hermitage?" How could I say, "No" to that?

So, back to Russia, my second trip in almost thirty years. Landing in St. Petersburg at three in the morning and driving through the empty streets, I see that the city is in much better shape than it was during my last trip. First and foremost on my agenda is to check out what's happening at the Hermitage where I used to work so many years ago. The main entrance these days is through the gilded bronze gates of the Winter Palace facing onto the immense expanse of the Palace Square. Inside the Museum, as always, are crowds of bewitched visitors, enamored by the grand rooms of the Imperial Palace. After a lengthy period of restoration, many exhibition spaces have reopened. The hall with two famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci is chockfull of tourists wanting to be photographed in front of his Madonnas. The Rembrandt Gallery, with its almost two dozen canvases by the Master, have never looked better, especially considering the bittersweet return of his much beloved Danae. It took years before this radiant painting of a reclining nude woman could be restored after the senseless attack by an assailant who threw acid over it.

The biggest and most welcome surprise is the presence of contemporary art in the Hermitage, which previously had rarely shown art of the 20th century. During the last few years, visitors to the Museum could see works by Mark Rothko and Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois and Andy Warhol to name just a few. Currently on display is an exhibition of the late paintings by Willem de Kooning, many of them executed during the long and sad decline of the artist, afflicted by Alzheimer's disease. I thought it was a strange choice to introduce de Kooning for the first time to the Russian public by showing only his late works, considered by many not to be his best. At the symposium, Hermitage Director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, talked about the new initiative of forming a collection of 20th century art. Another encyclopedic museum, the Metropolitan in New York, started such a collection almost thirty years ago, which was initially perceived as quite a controversial step. Now it's the Hermitage's turn. Not everyone among the Museum staff is happy about this. But as Mr. Piotrovsky put it during the symposium--why collect contemporary art? Because Catherine the Great, who founded the Hermitage, did just that... "she collected contemporary art and we should do the same."