Collection Highlights from the New Wing of the Hermitage Museum
Last year the Hermitage Museum took over the General Staff Building, which increased their size by eight hundred rooms. This additional building has made the Hermitage Museum the largest museum in the world. In 2014 the new space was used to host Europe’s contemporary art fair, Manifesta 10. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2015 that the curators were able to start moving into the General Staff Building. The design of this new building is very contemporary with state-of-the-art museum lighting throughout all of the galleries. This new space has allowed the curators to display a much larger quantity of work dedicating entire rooms to individual masters. Two large rooms at the Hermitage's General Staff Building are dedicated to the works of each of these artists: Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent van Gogh. On display are two of Bonnard’s greatest masterpieces: Early Spring. Little Fauns. (1909) and Train and Bardes (1909). Both convey the artist’s quiet voice and his seductive mischievousness. Here we see Bonnard’s ability to develop complex compositions in sunlit environments populated with friends and family. The Cézanne collection chronicles his early work, including two landscapes: Jas de Bouffan, the Pool (1876) and Houses Along a Road (1881). Also on display are his still life series (1879-1895), the figurative series starting with Bathers (1890) and ending with Lady in Blue (1900) and his Mont Sainte-Victoire series up to his very last painting, Blue Landscape (1904-1906).
Even from the very beginning of Cézanne’s work you can see that he took a unique approach. His early landscapes are masterful in their approach to breaking up form almost to abstraction while still maintaining volume. The way the curators at the Hermitage have now displayed his work makes it much easier to understand why Cézanne’s work is referred to as “painterly architectonics.” While the landscape paintings of the Old Masters were constructed by dividing them into three planes: foreground, middle ground and background, Cézanne did not use this formula. Instead, he used color and brushwork to "construct" a scene. By doing this his work remains true to an underlying architectural ideal that every portion of the canvas should contribute to its overall structural integrity. This created a painterly quality and dynamism that had never before existed. His figurative works on display, Lady in Blue (1900) and The Smoker (1890), are considered to be anti-impressionism in approach. Here you can see Cézanne’s very tangible method of constructing the figures compared to the impressionists’ approach of capturing a fleeting moment. No matter the subject – figurative, still life or landscape – Cézanne was always constructing form with paint. We can certainly see where the cubists learned their structural approach to art from looking at this body of work by Cézanne.
Out of the thirty years that Gauguin painted, the last twelve years when he painted in Tahiti produced what is considered his best work. There were six paintings from his first trip to Tahiti (1891-1893) and seven paintings from his second trip (1895-1903) on display. Gauguin wanted to go to Tahiti to develop a body of work that had a primitive and savage look. During his first trip to Tahiti he produced sixty-six paintings, of which Russia has about one-third. His production during his first two years back from Tahiti, were considered brilliant. The largest of these paintings, Rupe Rupe (1899), considered his greatest masterpiece, was purchased by Shchukin and is at the Pushkin Museum today. His body of work from this period really shows a mature approach to synthetism. Visually, Gauguin was flattening the two-dimensionality of his work, moving away from a plein-air approach to painting and instead synthesizing images from memory. Former curator at the Hermitage, Albert Kostenevich states, “What was important for Gauguin, was not how to simplify nature, but how to enable every form to ‘emerge’ from the consciousness’ of the creator.” Even though Gauguin’s work is called synthetism it by no means is it devoid of symbols! It is just that Gauguin did not want his work to be a slave to symbolism, but for all form to be a unified whole. I often refer to his work of this period as being interlocking puzzle pieces of color and form. A good example of this is Pastorales Tahitiennes (1892) where one can see how Gauguin constructed his painting with the use of flat shapes that interlock.
The Renoir collection chronicles the artist's entire career, showing his four distinct stages. In his earliest stage (1864-1874) are party scenes from his friend Jules Le Coeur’s estate. This includes his famous painting Bathing on the Seine (1869). After a falling-out with Le Coeur, Renoir searched for new subject matter. During this time he began a relationship with the actress Jeanne Samary and on display is his formal portrait of her: Jeanne Samary (1878). This charming portrait marks the changing times in artists' approach to a portrait. Traditionally a salon portrait would focus only on the individual, leaving the background empty. The impressionists were looking to create a unified canvas where all parts contributed to the whole. In this portrait Renoir has placed Jeanne Samary in a luxurious bourgeois drawing room, with an ornate vase and Japanese screen. The carpet has a staccato design that is mirrored in her dress. All these elements are equally as important as the smiling face of the actress.
The third stage of Renoir's work starts in 1880 when he meets his future wife, Aline Charigot. Now we see paintings of domestic bliss and portraits of children. One such portrait on display is Boy with a Whip (1885), which is a great example of his “hard” or “Ingres” style. This painting was done at a time when he was looking closely at the art of Ingres and Raphael, seeking to revive purity in his work. This painting reflects the crisis that all of the impressionists were experiencing during this time period.
The collection of van Gogh’s work on display chronicles the end of the painter’s life. Van Gogh’s work of this period contains a symbolic subtext, always reflecting his state of mind. The Hermitage collection includes the artist’s last painting, White House at Night (June 1890). In May of 1890 van Gogh came to Auvers-sur-Oise, one of the suburbs of Paris, where he painted a series of houses. This was a period that began with hope of a new life and the recovery of his health. He said, “In my opinion, the most marvelous of all that I know in the sphere of architecture are the huts with their roofs of moss-grown straw and smoky hearths.” The artist used the windows as a symbol for the “eyes” of a home. The red splashes of paint in the windows of White House at Night are meant to be alarming. He painted a star in the sky right above these windows, which was a sign of fate, a moment of great anguish. White House at Night expresses the great psychological tension under which van Gogh found himself. Like other paintings of this period you can see his dependence on line to create movement through the picture plane. The road and bushes in front of the house employ the use of rhythmic lines that lead the viewer to the red eyes of anguish. The sky uses the same rhythmic line, but this time it floats our eye up to the star that is created with circular lines. Perhaps van Gogh was communicating a struggle between his emotions contained in the symbol of the home and his higher power shown in the symbol of the star.
The collections at both the Pushkin and the Hermitage museums display key paintings marking landmarks in the world of art history. The Pushkin Museum, though a much smaller space, always delivers the most amazing exhibitions. I would guess that the curators over at the Hermitage have only filled about half of the new eight hundred rooms. I was told that only seven percent of the Hermitage’s collection is on display. It makes one wonder what is in store for 2016!
- French Art Treasures at the Hermitage by Albert Kostenevich, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999
- Munkácsy Foundation http://munkacsyalapitvany.hu/en/the-life-and-work-of-mihaly-munkacsy
- Moscow's Museums Host Donald Duck's Skeleton, Poussin and Bruegel, by Andrei Muchnik, Moscow Times, 26 2015 http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/522406.html
- An innocent young painter his ambitious wife and the greedy art dealer https://hungarianarthist.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/an-innocent-young-pain...