St. Petersburg the Great

By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 7, 2003


    Engraving of Palace Square and the Alexander Monument (Hillwood Museum) "Colored Engraving Showing Palace Square and the Alexander Monument," Russia, after 1834, artist unknown. (Hillwood Museum)

 Related Events
Myths of St. Petersburg

An Imperial Collection

The Kennedy Center

Smithsonian Associates

Art of the Ballets Russes

Origins of the Russian Avant Garde

The Faberge Menagerie

Vivat! St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg's tricentennial is marked by a three-week celebration in Baltimore, a catalog of events sponsored by the Smithsonian Associates, as well as special museum exhibits and performances. Read more about Baltimore and Washington events.

However cold the war, however bleak and frumpy our images of Moscow and Siberia, Americans have always loved Russia. Which is to say, we have always cherished St. Petersburg, because it is the white city on the dark Neva that was home to the most romantic of Russian images: "The Nutcracker" and "Dr. Zhivago"; Faberge's imperial eggs; the Winter Palace and the Hermitage; the Versailles-like Summer Palace at Peterhof. The writings of Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky. The music of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Stravinsky. The ballets of Nijinsky and Nureyev, Petipa and Diaghilev, Balanchine and Baryshnikov. White nights and black caviar.

This year marks the tricentennial of its founding by Peter the Great, and the arts communities of Baltimore (which recently arranged a "sister city" relationship with the Russian metropolis) and Washington are collaborating with the great institutions of Russia to offer an unprecedented tour through 300 years of St. Petersburg culture -- visual and dramatic arts, fine crafts, design and music.

This movable feast, especially the "Vivat! St. Petersburg" festival that begins Thursday in Baltimore, is in great part the brainchild of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor and musical director Yuri Temirkanov, who also serves in those roles with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, and whose lengthy re{acute}sume{acute} includes the Leningrad Symphony Orchestra and the Kirov Opera and Ballet. In Washington -- which can boast of being home to one of the most impressive collections of Russian decorative arts in the world, thanks to Marjorie Merriweather Post, and of the Kennedy Center's decade-long association with the Kirov (Marrinsky) Theater -- the celebration is a little less widespread but no less impressive.

Among the major venues participating are the Baltimore Museum of Art; the Walters Art Museum; the Kennedy Center; Hillwood Museum & Gardens and Evergreen House, two of the region's most imposing house museums; and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Over the next several weeks, programs by the Baltimore Symphony and Baltimore Opera Company, the Washington Ballet and the National Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets and members of the Kirov Opera, will spotlight great composers and choreographers.

Even the seemingly more transient arts -- the unbelievably ornate costumes created for the Ballets Russes, which inspired the cult of Russian ballet in Europe and the United States; the whimsical desktop animals of Peter Carl Faberge; the dinner settings of the various royal regiments; the art deco and Native American-inspired fashion textiles of Leon Bakst -- still demonstrate a strong hold on our imaginations.

And for those who insist on considering Baltimore's arts circles as somehow secondary to Washington's, "Vivat! St. Petersburg" slyly reveals some old and impressive connections. Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," which the Baltimore Symphony is performing later this month, had its world premiere in Baltimore in 1934 with Rachmaninoff himself at the piano. Bakst, who made his name designing for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, spent several months in Baltimore as the guest of Alice Warder Garrett at the lavish Evergreen House, where he designed and installed sets for her private theatricals. He even created the elaborate stencils based on Russian and American native folk art symbols -- roosters and birds in particular -- that cover the theater's walls, ceilings and even some furnishings. (Alice Garrett might be considered Baltimore's answer to Marjorie Post: She also collected works by Modigliani, Degas, Picasso, Bonnard and Vuillard; Tiffany lamps, vases and chandeliers; and Chinese porcelains and Japanese netsukes, among other things. The Evergreen collection totals more than 50,000 pieces.)

Much of the art and music on display during the celebration hearkens back to St. Petersburg's most glittering epochs, the 18th and 19th centuries, implicitly linking it to the czars. Nevertheless, the parade of culture does not stop with the Bolshevik Revolution and the execution of the Romanovs. Carrying the story well into the 20th century are the Walters Art Museum's exhibit on the avant-garde movement of the early 20th century; the American Visionary Art Museum's Joy America Cafe exhibit on the art of Pavel Leonov, a Russian "outsider" not previously exhibited in the United States; School 33 Art Center's exhibit on the contemporary Baltimore-St. Petersburg art exchange; the exhibition by Yuri Gorbachev, who created the original artwork for "Vivat!" (and who is represented in the Louvre, Kremlin and White House but who is probably best known for his annual Christmas Stolichnaya ads), at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel; as well as exhibits of contemporary Russian ceramics, jewelry and photography at various Baltimore galleries.

The Baltimore Opera is staging the U.S. debut of Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" in a production created at the Dresden State Opera (and featuring some members of the Kirov Opera) that updates the story from the mid-19th century to the 1930s, reflecting a crucial point in the composer's career: Though praised when it was first performed in 1934, both the opera and Shostakovich himself were publicly vilified by Stalin two years later, which marked the beginning of the composer's lifelong battle for artistic freedom and economic survival.

At Baltimore's Center Stage, two prominent actresses, Regina Taylor and Olympia Dukakis, will read updated versions of Chekhov's "The Seagull" (titled "Drowning Crow") and Gorky's "A Mother." Many other museums, musical venues, religious and educational institutions and even restaurants in Baltimore are also mounting shows (or menus) or offering lectures related to "Vivat! St. Petersburg," and a daylong bus tour on weekends covers several of the major exhibits. A complete and frequently updated list is posted at


Russia's artistic capital, and for two centuries its actual capital as well, St. Petersburg was never truly "of" Russia -- something like the way New Orleans, with its indelible Euro-creole stamp, is distinct from the rest of the South. (In fact, despite being laid out in 1703 and named the capital in 1712, the land on which the city was constructed was not ceded to Russia by Sweden until 1721.)

Its separateness was part of Peter's plan: Where Moscow was Asiatic, onion-domed and its boyars long of beard and gown, St. Petersburg was emphatically European, modern and classical but enlightened (and the courtiers clean-shaven). And it was clearly an imperial city. The czars, particularly the military-minded, physically imposing (nearly 7 feet tall), politically ambitious and personally ruthless Peter, considered themselves the heirs and successors of the emperors of classical Rome. ("Czar" itself is a derivative of "Caesar.") One of Hillwood's treasures is a late 18th-century enameled gold box portraying the Empress Catherine as Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, the sort of elaborate metaphor all the Romanovs were prone to.

Designed by Italian and French architects, St. Petersburg's buildings were baroque (the Alexander Nevsky monastery, the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the Winter Palace) and neoclassical (the Marble Palace, the Academy of Arts, the Taurida Palace, the Exchange, the Cathedral of the Virgin of Kazan). Palace Square, with its half-circular wings and huge triumphal arches topped by winged Victorys, rivals the Louvre. St. Petersburg was Peter's window on the West, both culturally and politically, and his challenge to the established courts of Europe. It was a strategic port, a fortress, an intellectual mecca and a showplace all at once.

It was always as much a woman's capital as a man's, as the Europeanization of Russia and the shift of its social center to St. Petersburg brought with it the relative emancipation of women, who proceeded to exercise considerable, if behind-the-scenes, political influence through their salons. So considerable was their influence, in fact, that several of the empresses took power by dispensing with their male predecessors: Empress Elizabeth, Peter's daughter, was elevated to the throne with the help of the Imperial Guard -- a very Caesar-like tactic. Catherine the Great, preparing to follow Elizabeth's example only a few months into her own husband's reign, corresponded with Voltaire and Montesquieu and began her 34-year rule, as many Caesars claimed to, with major reforms. Despite her German blood, she became Peter's most important disciple: From the court at St. Petersburg, she waged war and negotiated treaties that extended Russia's borders through the Crimea to the Black Sea, the Baltic, across Alaska and well into Poland.

It was Catherine who had the Winter Palace -- the most famous architectural silhouette in the city -- rebuilt and redecorated, and had the Hermitage Pavilion transformed into the art gallery it is today. The Hermitage, now the State Hermitage Museum, was created around a collection she purchased in 1764 as a signal of her intention to establish St. Petersburg as the undisputed arts capital of her empire. She was a prodigious, and prodigal, collector, and by the time of her death, the inventory included approximately 4,000 Old Masters paintings, 10,000 drawings, an equal number of engraved gems and thousands of decorative objects such as snuffboxes, watches, furnishings and porcelain.

One might even say it was women who gave St. Petersburg its human face as well. During the 18th century, Russian aristocrats started to populate their homes and then the palaces with formal portraits and their intricate records of fashion and jewelry. (Indeed, until Peter the Great began commissioning paintings of his courtiers, real portraits, as opposed to the stylized representations derived from Orthodox iconic traditions, were considered improper, and the picturing of women positively shocking.) Many of these court portraits were executed by female artists such as Marie Antoinette's former protege Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun; the Berlin-born Anna Dorothea Therbusch- Lisiewska, whom Catherine commissioned to paint eight Prussian royals; and later the Scottish painter Christina Robertson, whose society portraits, reproduced throughout Europe in fashion magazines, were brought back to St. Petersburg by Russian noblewomen sojourning in Paris. She was commissioned to paint the women of Czar Nicholas I's family.

It was a woman, Marie-Anne Collot, who sculpted the head that adorns the equestrian statue of Peter the Great, the so-called "Bronze Horseman" that is the visual signature and mythical guardian of the city. (Vigee-Lebrun, Therbusch-Lisiewska, Robertson and Collot are all represented in the exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, as is the empress in Collot's bust.)

An American woman -- cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, who at one point was married to Ambassador to the Soviet Union Joseph E. Davies -- helped preserve many of Russia's pre-Revolutionary treasures through her shrewd acquisitions (and her inner-circle contacts). Post's Hillwood Museum & Gardens, whose permanent collection of imperial Russian art, porcelain and silver is thought to be the most comprehensive outside Russia, is assembling 55 of its most stunning objects into a single exhibit called "The Myths of St. Petersburg: Impressions of the City From the Hillwood Collection." The exhibit is being mounted in the dacha, the one-room log cabin inspired by Russian summer houses, in a way that provides a clearer historical flow than the mansion's room displays, and will remain throughout 2003. Among the highlights are the Minerva box and an 1896 stikhar, or deacon's robe, of gold-wrapped silk thread that was woven for the coronation of Nicholas II. Although Post's two imperial Faberge eggs will remain in the house, two other Faberge pieces, a tiny gold and emerald statuette of Peter the Great and an early 20th century gold, pearl, ivory and enamel desk clock, will be exhibited in the dacha.

Along with the exhibit, Hillwood will offer special audio tours for children, add weekend hours (one Sunday a month) and co-sponsor a symposium with Georgetown University focusing on three centuries of art and architecture in St. Petersburg and Washington. And June 24-28, Hillwood will present a St. Petersburg-style "White Nights Festival," with evenings of music, dance and theater.


Faberge being such an icon of Russian decorative arts, one of the most popular of the "Vivat!" exhibits is likely to be the latest in a decade-long series of Faberge showcases, but one with a little more kids' appeal than most. While the name immediately evokes the ornate eggs produced for the czars' Easter presents, the House of Faberge also produced whimsical animal sculptures nearly as rich: rock crystal polar bears with ruby eyes; amethyst rabbits and bulldogs; a quartz squirrel and pink quartz piglets; a citrine and diamond mouse; a nephrite and diamond hippo; a jasper rhino; an obsidian and ruby elephant; parakeets made of topaz, ivory, peridots, sapphires and gold; a jade and ruby frog; an agate camel; and a duck of nephrite, chalcedony, lapis, diamonds and gold.

Henry Walters first discovered the Faberge creatures when he visited Faberge's St. Petersburg studios in 1900 and purchased several pieces, including a jasper anteater and an agate chimp. His mini-zoo, along with more than 60 other animals borrowed for the exhibit, parasol handles, bell pulls, boxes, match holders, bowls and basins, seals and other decorative accessories, are among the 123 objects in "The Faberge Menagerie," one of two exhibits opening next week at the Walters.

There are four of the fabulous Imperial eggs on display there as well, two belonging to the Walters itself and two borrowed from the Malcolm Forbes collection in New York.

The second Walters show, "Origins of the Russian Avant-Garde," will be less familiar to most visitors, and probably seem less romantic than the Faberge. Indeed, it is almost a class distinction, and a show that poignantly parallels the collapse of the Romanov empire and the rush to revolution. A striking selection of approximately 70 paintings from the State Russian Museum, many of them oversized and emphatic, are being hung alongside examples of folk and religious art, toys, posters and prints, textiles, signboards and everyday graphics from which the avant-gardists drew their images. While the court and aristocracy were still immersed in the European tradition, these artists were looking inward, to Russian traditional arts, for inspiration -- a search for their roots that was associated with a growing nationalist sentiment -- and also keeping a close eye on the development of cubism and futurism.

Among the best-known names in the show are Wassily Kandinsky, whose paintings on glass were references to similar pieces popular at common country fairs, and Natalia Goncharova, who championed folk art as a cultural resource.

Another family-friendly attraction is the BMA's "Art of the Ballets Russes," a dazzling assemblage of more than 100 costumes and stage pieces designed for Sergei Diaghilev's groundbreaking company. Founded in Paris in 1909 as a sort of Kirov-in-exile, and fired by the extravagance of the art scene there, the company was conceived of in much wider artistic terms than its more traditionalist peers: The costumes, stage sets, music -- commissioned from the likes of Debussy, Stravinsky, Ravel and Prokofiev, among others -- choreography and even the performers themselves were expected to be innovative, brilliant and glamorous. Among the artists who helped create these costumes and sets were Miro and Matisse as well as Bakst, and the ornateness, the richness and the obvious actual weight of these outfits, which must have sorely tried their wearers, is remarkable. Mannequins dressed in the costumes are grouped, and in some cases gently posed, by the appropriate ballets; they are footlit as if on stage, and have as backdrops vividly painted panels on which are mounted framed costume and set designs, many fully realized pieces of art in themselves. Selections from famous scores play gently in the background. An interactive section allows visitors to manipulate miniature theaters via movable scenery, lighting and characters in costume.

The Ballets Russes rooms lead almost directly into the second BMA exhibit, which focuses on Bakst's designs in more detail and displays another of his theatrical sets, along with his commercial textile designs and rare examples of the actual printed silks manufactured in the 1920s.

That exhibit in turn ties in with the opening of Bakst's only extant whole theater -- a skylighted, second-story gallery that once was a gymnasium, and which is above another gallery that used to be a bowling alley -- at Evergreen House, the Garrett mansion. The pattern for the rooster stencil that covers the side lounge, along with the stage set, is in the BMA exhibit as a sort of "flip-book" example of multicolored stenciling.

A third BMA exhibit of more specialized interest is a centennial tribute to the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, who was also an art collector; works by Picasso, Klee and other modernists, along with Piatigorsky's Stradivarius, will be on view in the Cone Wing.

Other highlights of the St. Petersburg tricentennial include a gallery exhibit and outdoor installation of contemporary Russian art at the Maryland Institute College of Art and a show of five St. Petersburg artists at the new Maryland Art Place facility.

More than 30 programs, lectures, seminars and special events are being presented by the Smithsonian Associates through March 31. They will cover art, architecture, music, ballet, opera, cuisine, film and literature.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts' exhibit will include 50 sculptures and paintings by 15 women, all on loan from the Russian state collection at the Hermitage; there will be related hands-on children's activities and lectures.

Both the Kennedy Center and, through its venues, the Washington Performing Arts Society, have scheduled musical and ballet performances ranging from the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets, along with international primos and members of the Royal Danish, Miami City and American Ballet Theatre companies, to concerts featuring Russian composers, soloists and conductors, including NSO laureate Mstislav Rostropovich. The Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg debuts its production of "Tchaikovsky: The Mystery of Life and Death" at the Warner Theatre in April. The Washington Ballet also has punctuated its spring and fall seasons with pieces by Russian composers and choreographers.

Eve Zibart covers restaurants for Weekend. Her assignments for The Washington Post have included coverage of the visual arts, music and dance. Caviar is her own idea of a field of study.

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