If you have spent any amount of time in the world’s most famous art museums (Louvre, Met, Prado, British Museum, Hermitage) you will know that by and large…they’re pretty similar in both intent and content. If you so desired, you could learn all about Dutch art in England, French art in Russia, or Spanish art in France, to the exclusion of the host country’s actual national art. So while visiting that museum may be an overall “cultural experience,” it is not an experience specific to the national culture in which you (hopefully) want to become immersed. This problem is especially noticeable in St. Petersburg, where tourists flock to the Hermitage and usually leave it at that, in the process overlooking Russia’s impressive and multifaceted art history.
Today I visited the Russian Museum, which exclusively displays the arts, crafts, and even architecture of Russia (and some of its former territories). It was much bigger than I expected—I was there for three hours and thought I’d seen everything, when I turned a corner and suddenly realized I’d only been in one half of the building.
While sometimes it’s fun and relaxing to just go to a museum and enjoy the art at face value, I was really glad that I’d read a cultural anthology (“Natasha’s Dance,” by Orlando Figes) before my visit. Knowledge of the paintings’ social and political contexts enriched the experience for me, and helped me to stop and take notice of certain pieces that would otherwise have meant nothing to me, and been passed by.
Since the 19th century, Russian ideas surrounding art and its purpose completely flip-flopped every few decades, and it was interesting to see this play out in the galleries. Art could be a spiritual expression of the individual’s creative genius, or a vehicle for social programs and political ideas. For example, towards the turn of the century, artists saw the concept of “art for art’s sake” as a creative liberation from the rigid dogma of politically-engaged and idea driven art that dominated the mid- to late-19th century. So you have a period of increasingly abstract work, until the Bolsheviks put the kibosh on that with the rise of socialist realism.
Of the things I saw, I recommend the 19th century Slavophile and populist art (noble peasants and rural scenes), the folk art (particularly the intricately carved bone ornaments), the socialist realist art, and the enormous canvases (Nicholas II and the Duma, Alexander Nevsky in battle, etc.) in some of the central halls.
Below are a few of my favorites: