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From Russian royalty to Soviet anti-decadence: Inside the State Hermitage Museum
By Lewis Firth | Art | 14 January 2015

Unknown North German artist, active early 15th century, ‘The Last Judgement’ © 2014 the State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

Top image: Unknown North German artist, active early 15th century, ‘The Last Judgement’ © 2014 the State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

It started with an 18th century merchant from Berlin, Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. The collection of works he possessed generated interest with the then Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great. She acquired it all. And so, in 1764, the State Hermitage Museum was born in Saint Petersburg.

Now, the museum is world-renowned. Its unparalleled and expansive collection contains over three million pieces (covering works of art, historical artefacts, arms and armoury and numismatic objects) – a slight improvement to Gotzkowsky’s original hoard. It’s an historical and artistic reservoir that continues to grow.

The Hermitage shares its anniversary with St. Catherine’s Day (7th December), and 2014 was its 250th anniversary. Booth-Clibborn Editions’ 1994 book, The State Hermitage, has been revised with two volumes: an updated examination of the museum’s comprehensive collections.

We spoke to Edward Booth-Clibborn, founder of Booth-Clibborn Editions, about his interest into the State Hermitage and its works as well as the process of creating such a monumental publication.

Lewis Firth: The State Hermitage has an incredibly expansive collection of art: how did you begin choosing what to feature in the book?
Edward Booth-Clibborn: Most of the selection was made by over 100 curators at the museum, who selected the best pieces from their collections. Some additional material was suggested for the revised and expanded edition in meetings with the director, Dr. Piotrovsky, and ourselves. This included revolutionary ceramics from the Lomonosov Porcelain Museum (now under the control of the Hermitage), as well as a number of prints and other works of art. For this edition, the new generation of curators reassessed the original selection, and many things were added or put in as replacements.

Grand Coach, early 1720s. Oak, elm, beech, walnut, lime, iron, steel, copper, bronze, silver, gold, glass, silk and cotton fabric with embroidery, canvas; carved, painted and gilded © 2014 the State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

LF: Was there anything specific that you had to drop from the book?
EBC: No, the size of the book reflects the comprehensive nature of the project. Obviously it would take many tens of volumes to include absolutely everything in the Hermitage, but this is the fullest ‘overview’ of the collection.

LF: The museum has art spanning from the Paleolithic period to the last few centuries: is there a specific collection or piece that you think has had, or still has, the most social, political or artistic influence?
EBC: In social/political terms the Hermitage has had extraordinary influence, particularly during the Soviet period when it was a way for people to experience these treasures from all over the world at a time when travel was restricted and information scarce. It was a kind of cultural encyclopaedia for Russians from all walks of life: from school age onwards. Its artistic influence is also important, and perhaps the collection that best exemplifies this best is that of the Moscow merchants Shchukin and Morozov. They started to collect works by the Impressionists and early 20th-century artists, particularly Matisse and Picasso, well before anyone else.

This remarkable collection was split between the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and much of it was kept hidden during the Soviet period since it was regarded as decadent. So politically and artistically these works have been very important and continue to be so for the Hermitage. The newly renovated General Staff building across Palace Square has just become their permanent home.

Order of Victory, Soviet Union. Platinum, gold, silver, diamonds, enamel, corundum, h 7.1 cm, w 6.8 cm © 2014 the State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘Composition No. 6’ 1913 © 2014 the State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

LF: I think museums have become even more interesting, especially now that people experience historical information through digital spaces. How do you think this will affect the purpose of museums and publications?
EBC: Digital and virtual resources are increasingly important, but I think that nothing can replace the experience of seeing a work of art in reality (better still, if an artefact, actually holding it). And similarly with publications: a well-printed reproduction remains highly desirable and books of this nature – which really tell the whole story as it were – are still significant.

LF: Did you work closely with Professor Mikhail Piotrovsky on the book? How much influence did he have on its content?
EBC: We worked very closely with Professor Piotrovsky. He regarded the book as the main publication marking the 250th anniversary in 2014, and we had several meetings with him to discuss the revisions and additions. It was he who was particularly keen to replicate the malachite effect of the jackets on the slipcase as well.

Swan Pendant, 1590s, The Netherlands. Gold, enamel, pearl, diamonds, rubies © 2014 the State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

Gold Covered Cup. Late 18th century. Gold, silver, diamonds, ruby, enamel (with lid) © 2014 the State Hermitage Museum. Courtesy Booth-Clibborn Editions

LF: Are there any periods within the book that are highlighted specifically?
EBC: No, the book reflects the museum’s holdings, which are remarkably comprehensive, largely because Catherine the Great purchased existing collections in their entirety, and her successors also tried to ‘fill in’ the gaps.

LF: The Hermitage conducts a lot of archaeological digs: do you think there’s more to find? Say, in Siberia’s permafrost where an object can avoid cessation for millennia.
EBC: Yes, archaeological digs continue on an annual basis and this is what makes this aspect of the museum so intriguing. They are constantly finding new artefacts to add to their collections, particularly in the northern, Black Sea coastal region.

The State Hermitage: Treasures from the Museum’s Collections is out now via Booth-Clibborn Editions

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