As previously mentioned, the threat of returning to England in mere days has made me realise how much I have yet to see in St Petersburg. Though I have not been inactive, seeing at least one or two new buildings/churches or exhibitions each week, there is an exorbitant amount to see in St Petersburg. Thus the last few weeks have involved hours of strolling through the endless palaces and galleries that St Petersburg houses.
The galleries of St Petersburg are truly an enigma. They house some of the most beautiful and iconic artwork that I have ever seen in my life. However, the galleries here are incredibly strange. Let’s start with the most famous, the Hermitage. This iconic gallery is quite mysterious. The name Hermitage, in itself, is a little misleading as it encompasses several buildings under its banner. The main building of the Hermitage, which appears in Google Images if you search it, is the Winter Palace. The stunning green and gold building has been built and rebuilt over the years and was originally the home of the royal family in Russia. Since the demise Russia’s Autocracy and the subsequent revolution, the Winter Palace has been subject to a series of transformations and it is now home to some of the most revered paintings that the Hermitage has to offer. Next, to this central building, three extensions have been built to accommodate the vast art collections of Catherine the Great, who in order to prove both her intellect and might as a ruler invested much time and money into the expansion of her art collection. Initially, she built the original Hermitage which was to be the cultural and artistic centre of her St Petersburg residence. This has since become the Small Hermitage, as two other wings of it have been built. These are now known as the Old and New Hermitage, and further down the embankment lies the Hermitage Theatre.
Once you have grasped this rather complicated series of buildings, you then have to try and navigate them. This is easier said than done. The entire complex contains about 3 million pieces of art and artefacts, most of which you find on the front of books about art in a space of about 66,842 sq. metres. And that is just Exhibition space, that does not include entrances, staircases or absurdly long corridors that transport you between rooms. This absurdly large number of artefacts means that it takes multiple trips and endless hours to just try and see everything. It is not even as if you can skip certain things that aren’t as extraordinary because quite literally everything in the Hermitage would have its own designated exhibition room in another museum. Wandering the halls of a museum or gallery is by no means a trying task, however, Russian museums and galleries tend to lack both signage and common sense in their layout. You walk for 20 minutes up a corridor looking at significant renaissance paintings only to realise that the only way to progress from there is to walk directly back down that corridor and up another one next door to it. Not only that, but there tend to be random exits in many of the rooms that are not signposted, leaving you wondering if it is worth leaving your current path, as the door may well hold a Rembrandt or other such prestigious piece of art, or may just take you to a cordoned off staircase. I have so far spent about 4 hours in the Hermitage and have needed to take a breather before my next venture.
The Strange placement of famous works of art and works of art by famous painters is also a common theme among the museums and galleries of St Petersburg. Opposite the Hermitage, and technically a part of the museum’s complex lies the General Staff building, which housed ministers and advisors to the Tsar. The massive semi-circular building is now home to some of the most prestigious modern art in the world. However, the building does its best to disguise this. You are led through hundreds of rooms containing memorial coins and military and court dress before modern art is even hinted at. When you finally find yourself in the modern art section, around every corner is an unexplained surprise. Wandering down a poorly lit corridor that quite literally not another soul was in (on a Saturday afternoon), we chanced upon a rather delightful room that was home to two Renoir’s and a Degas. Similarly, as we strolled through the French Impressionist section, we saw a little door off to the side and, being curious, went through it, only to discover we appeared to have found the Picasso exhibit. We were then treated to roughly 46 of Picasso’s works in complete solitude, as no one else appeared to realise that the rooms in which his pieces were housed existed. Having recovered from the shock of so much Picasso we then rounded another corner only to be greeted by a room full of Matisse at the centre of which was La Danse, which I hadn’t even realised was in Russia, let alone the General Staff building.
Despite the intense confusion I often feel in Russian museums that tell you neither where to go, or what art to expect, there is still something undeniably breathtaking about a room full of Picasso’s for you, alone, to enjoy. And while you may continuously question whether you are actually allowed to be in any one place in each museum, I recommend boldly continuing regardless, as you may find some well-hidden but beautiful pieces of art. I also recommend allowing yourself to get lost, which will undeniably happen as all the museums are built like mazes because somehow you can always find the cloakroom again, but trying to keep a grasp on which direction you’re travelling or where you are in the building is hopeless. So, my advice for those of you planning on visiting one of St Petersburg’s museums is: allow a LOT of time, get lost, go through all the weird side doors and leave your coat and bag in the cloakroom, unless you want to die of heat exhaustion.