An Embarrassment of Riches
Trying to digest all of Western art history as delivered by a single program is akin to taking a sip of water from a fire hose: 3,000 plus years of history is just too much to swallow in a single gulp. But the people who put together the Hermitage Masterpieces series had an advantage: they had a very specific resource to give their program focus, namely, the Hermitage Museum in Russia.
The eight hours of this documentary series are devoted exclusively to this collection, which narrator L. Schwartz maintains is among the best in the world, its only rivals being the Louvre in Paris and, possibly, New York’s Metropolitan. The documentary has no frills, no fancy camerawork or historical re-enactments. Rather, it offers long takes of great art and the sonorous recitation of its history. As a film, it’s spectacularly bland, but as a guided tour of the history of Western art, it is remarkably focused and superbly compiled.
The Hermitage represents the climax of the Russian aristocracy’s longtime fascination with Europe. St. Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, on land won by Sweden during the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. As Peter was fascinated by the West’s relative cultural and technological superiority, the new capital appeared a step toward making Russia more “Western.” The Hermitage was originally situated in the Winter Palace, while the accumulation of art was began by Catharine the Great in 1764.
The museum—both its hoard and its space—has been expanding ever since. Two of the series’ early episodes are devoted to the architecture, decorative art, and history of the Hermitage and the monarchs who oversaw it, showing Peter’s ornately gilded throne room and Catherine’s massive library, featuring dark hardwood paneling, cut in dizzyingly elaborate Gothic style. From here, the series takes up the “history of Western art” (and human civilization), as it begins in Sumeria. The museum displays include Sumerian tablets, Syrian scrolls, and Persian tableaux. The Egyptians are well-represented by a large selection of relics, a reflection of the mania for Egyptian history and archeology that inflamed Europe and the U.S. during the latter part of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum makes provocative feints in the direction of Asian art, with striking, if maddeningly cursory, examples of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian traditions, just enough to illuminate the stylistic connections between the East and the West.
The museum’s major shortcoming—and therefore, the series’—is its lack of indigenous art from, in particular, southern Africa and the Americas. This is easily explained when you consider that the anthropological foresight that created an interest in the art of these regions did not really develop until the early 20th century, when the Hermitage underwent the same tumult as Russia at large (that is, these gaps in the collection reflect gaps in history). Such omissions, however, might also create educational opportunities. Case in point: the museum’s accumulations abruptly ceased in the early 20th century. A gorgeous selection of early works by Picasso and Matisse—purloined from private collections by the Soviet government following the October revolution—is the last augmentation until World War II.
Still, crucial context is left out. For all the great art and history showcased by Hermitage Masterpieces, the program never so much as mentions the Soviet government that oversaw the museum for eight turbulent decades. It offers no examples of the state-directed art of this period, or discussion of the many masterpieces lost when Stalin liquidated portions of the museum, allowing a number of priceless masterpieces to be sold to Western collectors. Filmed in 1992, the documentary was the first opportunity for much of the West to see these artworks in nearly 80 years, but the series seems constrained.
As well, because it’s 12 years old, the program doesn’t cover recent enlargements in the Hermitage’s catalogue. In 1995, the Russian government unveiled a large collection plundered from the Germans during the Second World War, including one of the largest extant accumulations of Trojan gold, looted from Berlin in 1945, and many Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterworks. Russia has declined to return any of these cultural treasures, passing laws forbidding their repatriation and claiming them as compensation for the massive Russian casualties inflicted by Nazi Germany during the war.
Despite Hermitage Masterpieces’ shortcomings, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a more elegant and impressive collection. The camera takes us through rooms and rooms as, from the Gothic claustrophobia of the Middle Ages through the glory of the early and late Renaissance, the Hermitage chronicles the interplay of incremental change and massive paradigm shift that characterizes art history. The High Renaissance gives way to the Northern Renaissance of the Netherlands, Flanders, and Spain. We see work by Velasquez and El Greco, from 17th century France, the Classical period, the Academy, the dawning of the Realists, and the birth of Impressionism. Hermitage Masterpieces, much like the museum itself, represents an embarrassment of riches and an exhilarating education for even the most jaded viewer.