Most tourists with only a day or two in Moscow see only the permanent collection at the Tretyakov Gallery, because it’s centrally located near the major hotels and everybody recommends it. It houses Russian Art from the 11th Century to the beginning of the 20th Century, so it has all the gorgeous icons and the kind of 18th & 19th century paintings that most people really like. Of course it’s a must-see, but if you can venture a little further afield, it is well worth going to see the other Tretyakov Gallery as well…
Nobody here has even mentioned the New Tretyakov Gallery which houses the collection of Soviet art, and we would have missed it too if we hadn’t had a copy of Frommer’s Moscow Day-by-Day which showed us that it was nearby. Our hotel (the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy) is in the business district and so for us the New Tretyakov Gallery was just a short taxi ride away. We left the cab by the river at the monument to Peter the Great (which is a most impressive sight, vaguely reminiscent of the Christopher Columbus monument in Lisbon, but (as you’d expect in Russia), much bigger, and then we took a short walk along the waterfront to the gallery.
It’s a big boxy lump of a building, and it’s more than unprepossessing inside, but the ticket seller and the information desk were friendly and helpful although they didn’t have a word of English between them. However there was an information pamphlet in English with a map, and if you do as we did and head straight for the 4th floor, it’s brilliant.
We’ve seen a bit of fascist art in the Museum of Modern Art in Rome, but like most westerners, I suppose, we’ve interpreted it as propaganda. Well, so it is, but if you take the time to look through this marvellous collection, you can also see something else. This kind of art is also an expression of pride in the Soviet accomplishment, a celebration of the remarkably rapid transformation from a backward agrarian economy into an industrialised superpower. There is a painting of the first Soviet airship; and another of two lovely college girls getting an education that was formerly denied them. There is a terrific one of a car race with elegant automobiles, and there are city landscapes showing the building boom and Stalin’s skyscrapers. Yes, because we know our history we know that these examples of economic progress were achieved at enormous personal cost to thousands of people, that some were built using slave labour and that Stalin’s collectivisation meant mass famine, not to mention the loss of personal freedoms, but nonetheless these paintings are not mere propaganda. They show the people’s pride in what has been achieved in a very short time. And while some of the art is not very sophisticated in its execution, some of it is rather beautiful. I think this is one of the most interesting galleries I’ve ever been in because it challenged my preconceived ideas, and I like that.
Tretyakov Gallery (source: Wikipedia)
We had a restorative coffee in the cafe (not recommended, try the one outside instead perhaps?) and then set off for the permanent collection. Although there were no monstrous queues like the Louvre or the Prado, the ‘old’ Tretyakov was bustling with visitors and the occasional tour group, and the atmosphere was quite different. There was a cloakroom, a luggage room (for travellers, what a good idea!), an audioguide desk, three souvenir stalls and two cafés. We sampled one of these for a buffet lunch, and although I left my satay uneaten because I wasn’t prepared to risk my front teeth on it, the steamed rice was quite nice and so was the Greek salad. (Russians do seem to like their meat very well done indeed. And I am looking a bit grim in this photo because the cakes seem to be rather well done too, but I thought you might enjoy seeing the bridal chairs which provide the cafe with sparkle that it otherwise might lack).
Once upstairs in the gallery proper, the curatorial guards (who were all sturdy looking women) were mostly awake, though more than one of them seemed to be more interested in their Sudoku than keeping an eye on any would-be thieves. The casual attitude of European gallery guards never ceases to amaze me because I am used to the ones in the our gallery at home, who pounce immediately on any infraction of the rules, even breathing too close to the pictures earns a rebuke and woe betide anyone who flourishes a camera there!
Lunch over, off we went to look at the pictures. Presumably the Soviets got rid of most of the portraits of aristocratic worthies, but there’s still plenty left to fill half a dozen rooms (see some here) and there’s a couple of royals as well, including a rather nice one of Catherine the Great walking the dog. (It’s a borzoi, not a corgi). But these wear a bit thin after a while, and then there are the usual landscapes, allegories and so forth. Before long it dawns on the (western) visitor that there are no recognisable names – no Titians or Vermeers or Rembrandts, all the artists are Russians that we’ve never heard of. It might be different at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, but here in Moscow that long Cold War seems to have meant that they never got to see any of our art, and we never got to see any of theirs. No cultural interchange. Imagine being just being an ordinary person like me who enjoys art, and never being able to see any of the great European masters! How much more dreadful that would have been for an artist!
What makes the ‘old’ Tretyakov really special is the collection of icons. I find these enchanting. Before we left home I bought a book about them and if you scroll down to the bottom of my review of it on the ANZ LitLovers blog, there’s a link where you can see some of the ones featured in the book. But to see dozens and dozens of the real thing is just fantastic. Some of them date back to the 11th century and even so the colours are still fresh and alive and you can sense the sincere faith of the people who made them. There were also some very old mosaics and a lovely tapestry as well. It was worth getting footsore for this part of the gallery alone.
Eventually it was time to make our way back to the hotel, so we decided to brave the Metro. Everybody raves about how splendid the Moscow Metro is, and certainly it is true that the architecture is magnificent BUT all the station names are in Russian, and it took all my ingenuity to find out (a) which station we were in and (b) which of the two entrances we should take to get to the green line and (c) which of the innumerable platforms was ours and (d) which stop we should alight from because lo! the number of stops did not correspond with the map.
Anyone who tells you that you can get by in Russia without knowing any Russian is pulling your leg, it simply isn’t true (unless you stay in your hotel all the time). If I had not known how to ask где есть? (g’dyeer – yest/where is?) we would still be wandering around underground even now! The taxi drivers don’t speak English either, especially not numbers for telling you how much to pay, and not all of them have meters, so you need to have a list of numbers to point at if like me, you’re not very good at remembering the larger numbers.
Tomorrow we say goodbye to the lovely people here at the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy and join our tour group at the Marriott on the other side of the CBD. Red Square and the Kremlin, here we come!
You will be pleased to hear that I managed to have another Bookish Moment in the restaurant we went to for dinner. I had some more very well cooked meat (allegedly veal) with a Pasternak sauce. It was rather pale, so it did remind me of all that snow in Doctor Zhivago….
Update (now that I’m back home)
I was wrong about there being no big name artists in the Moscow galleries. They’re at the Pushkin.