Exhibition Hopping – Part II

Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars – Musee de Beaux-Arts de Montreal  

As I mentioned in a previous post this exhibition, which ends October 5, is a marvel on several levels.  The objects – most from the Lillian Thomas Pratt Collection in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts – are remarkable in both imagination, design and workmanship.  And Hubert Le Gall’s exhibition design is an ingenuous, imaginative and witty evocation of the bibelots and kickshaw of Imperial Russia that doesn’t ignore the darker side of history.

The first room reflects the strong Orthodox believes of Russia and her Imperial Family. Traditional Easter eggs are on display, But what Easter eggs: suspended or cupped miniatures made from or encrusted with gemstones from the semiprecious to diamonds. A golden iconostasis-like wall houses icons, precious both for their religious significance and the artistry in their creation.

This miniature Easter egg pendent is only one of a glorious series in the first room of the exhibition. It was created in the Fabergé workrooms around 1900 using enamel with gold accents.

The Iverskaya Mother of God was particularly venerated in Russia and many legends grew up around the healing powers of the icon. The Virgin has a scar on her cheek inflicted by a soldier sent to destroy the original icon. The Fabergé setting for this copy is mounted on silver gilt and accented withe silver, garnets, sapphires, topaz, zircon, diamonds and pearls.

Citrine, gold, silver, enamel and a circle of diamonds create this extraordinary egg pendant from the Fabergé workshop.

The shadows of the second room evokes the symbols and history of the Romanov dynasty. The cases hold personal items that were meant for everyday use but still intended to show the wealth and standing of the Imperial court. Designer Hubert Le Gall’s concept captured many of the contrasting aspects of Fabergé’s relationship with the Imperial Family and the beau monde of the period.

Today Fabergé is chiefly thought of as the maker of the elaborate Easter Eggs that were presented by the Csar to his wife each Easter from 1885 until 1917.  It was a tradition began by Alexander III who presented Maria Feodorovna with the Imperial Hen Egg in 1885.  After his father’s death Nicholas II  continued the custom and every Easter presented one to his wife Alexandra as well as to his mother the Dowager Empress.  Of the fifty-two Imperial Eggs created by the Fabergé workshop five are in the Lillian Thomas Pratt collection.  Each of the exhibition rooms features one of the five; the most elaborate being the Peter the Great that is displayed in the second room.

The Imperial Peter the Great Easter Egg was presented to Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by Czar Nicholas II in 1903. It was created to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Saint Petersburg. Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin used gold, platinum, silver gilt, diamonds, rubies, enamel, watercolour, ivory, rock crystal, gilt bronze and sapphires in its creation.

The Egg features watercolour portraits of Peter the Great and Tzar Nicolas II and of the first wooden structure built in Saint Petersburg and the Hermitage – all surrounded by elaborate (and perhaps subconscious) reminders that the city was built on a swamp. When opened a miniature of Falconet’s The Bronze Horseman raises out of the shell – the Thunder Stone is carved from an unfinished sapphire.

The story of how Lillian Thomas Pratt came to acquire this  treasure has become legend and as with many legends it’s a bit difficult to separate the truth from the elaboration.  The story was that she outbid many richer women and then proceeded to pay for it clandestinely out of her household money so her husband wouldn’t find out is colourful if apocryphal.  Mrs Pratt’s wealth was modest when compared with many of the other collectors but her husband John Lee Pratt  supported her passion for Fabergé and Russian objects.  She did indeed outbid several people for the Egg and paid À la Vieille Russie the $108,534.00 it cost in thirty-three monthly installments.  I’m not sure if – as another version has it – she paid for many of her purchases using her Lord and Taylor’s credit card but it is highly possible.

This attractive hare in silver and gold with garnet eyes is a pitcher created in the Fabergé Moscow workshop sometime before 1899.

These remarkable parasol handles were the work of two of Fabergé’s renowned workmasters: Mikhail Perkhin (left) and Erik Kollin (right).

Many households would display sets of demitasse spoons bearing the hallmark of Fabergé; this set in silver, silver gilt and enamel were made between 1908-1917.

I found the silver and gold Kovsh of the Worthy Knights even more remarkable than the Imperial Easter Eggs. The enormous drinking vessel honoured the bogatyri or mythical medieval warriors who founded the first empire of the Csars.

Though the Imperial Easter Eggs may be the most famous pieces it should not be forgotten that Fabergé created all manner of objects – practical and ornamental.  Many of the pieces that came out of his workshop on Bolshaia Morskaia were available to even people with modest incomes.  And the House was famous for its enamels and silverware as well as its work in precious and semi-precious stones.

Meant to reflect the Faberge workrooms the curved tables – modeled on the worktables at the studio – allowed a closer look at some of the trifles created to amuse and astound the Court and impress visitors. A few of the items are from other jewellers but reflect the influence of Carl Fabergé‘s workshop on the art of jewellry making throughout Europe.

What can I say – even if the Romanov’s sometimes when over the top with blinge they had good taste in dogs.  Many of the little knickknacks created for them and their family indicate that the dachshund was a favoured family animal.

This French bell pull was created in the Cartier studios around 1915; crafted in silver, gold, silver gilt, ivory, smoky quartz, enamel, rubies, garnets and pearls it shows the Fabergé influence at work in France.

Made of smokey agate with ruby eyes this little fellow is said to have graced a mantel in the apartments of the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna in the Antichkov Palace.

Nose to the ground, tracking a prey this little dachshund is crafted in agate again the eyes being inset rubies. The exact provenance is unknown as the object is unmarked. Despite his questionable pedigree he’s still a very attractive little lad.

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The fourth room is the darkest on many levels – it is crowded with memories of the Romanov family: framed portraits, the Red Cross Egg and personal items.  And lurking in the background is the unrest, the poverty, the vast inequalities of life in Csarist Russia.

The Imperial Red Cross Easter Egg was given to the Dowager Empress in 1915 in recognition of her work as president of the Russian Red Cross. It contained portraits of members of her family who served in the Red Cross tending the War wounded and dying in the hospital established by the Empress in the Alexander Palace.

Workmaster Mikhail Perkhin‘s created numerous frames for the Imperial photographs. This star frame in gold, silver, enamel and seed pearls holds a portrait of the second daughter, the Grand Duchess Tatiana. It was taken by the Csar and Empress to Yekaterinburg and is the only thing that is known to have survived the events of 1918.

It has a rather chilling effect after all the light and sparkle of the geegawgery of the previous displays.  However it puts a personal face on the people for who much of these extravagances were created.  It gives the impression of a family that for all their faults and foibles cared for each other.  And it leads to final Fabergé piece in the exhibition: the Star Frame.  This is the only object taken into exile by Nicolas and Alexandra that is known to have survived.

The room in the basement of the Ipatiev House where the Imperial Family was ruthlessly butchered on July 17, 1918. It had become a clandestine pilgrimage site so was demolished in 1977. In July 2003 the Church on the Blood was consecrated on the site.

As you leave the exhibition there is one final image: the room where the family was assassinated in Yekaterinburg. History records that the jewels hidden in the corsets of the Empress and Grand Duchesses acted as body armour with bullets ricocheting but not penetrating; in the end the death squad used bayonets and gun butts.  It is not known as fact but can be assumed that some of the jewellery that prolonged their death agonies came from the workshops of Carl Fabergé.

Many of the photographs I have used in this post come from the catalogue for Fabulous Fabergé, Jeweller to the Czars published by the MBAM and VMFA and from the MBAM members publications.  I suggest looking at their website for more objects and fascinating information on the exhibition.  I am only sorry I wasn’t able to get down for a second look – I know I missed things the first time around.

September 27 – 1777: Lancaster, Pennsylvania is the capital of the United States, for one day.

Reading Romanovs

Or more specifically reading histories of three of the Romanovs as set out by Robert Massie.  I tend to do when heading to a new place of major interest I go on a reading marathon so for the St Petersburg visit I turned to one of the more unorthodox historical writers, Robert K. Massie.  Massie’s style is a trifle baroque and loaded – some have thought overloaded – with details of recorded events, historical documents and often intriguingly gossipy tidbits that make his subjects come alive.

Though the Catherine Palace was named after Peter the Great’s second wife  the stamp of Catherine II is all over it.  This beautifully dressed mannequin in one of the palace rooms is clothed to resemble the Empress as she appears in the painting that dominates the room – the one difference is that the entire ensemble is made of paper!

I sometimes do things a bit backward and it was the case of putting several Imperial carts before a few Regal horses when reading about the Romanov clan. I started with Massie’s most recent book devoted to the Empress Catherine II – or Kate the Great as she was known in private circles. And Massie lets us in on her private circles more than most writers; he reveals the complex character of the Princess from a minor German family who became both famous and infamous in her time and on down to ours.  He dispels many of the myths surrounding her, particularly the stories of her voracious sex drive – stories that may well have been the result of her less than amiable relationship with her son Peter as well as her break with many of the philosophies of the Enlightenment that she had espoused in the initial years of her reign.  One story that is total discredited is the famous Potemkin villages myth – now acknowledged as an attempt to malign her favourite (and possibly her husband) Grigory Potemkin.  Massie sub-titles his book Portrait of a Woman and he gives us exactly that: a complex provocative and captivating woman who still fascinates 300 years after her death.

Dominating the centre of St Petersburg The Bronze Horseman is Catherine the Great’s
homage to her predecessor Peter. A triumph of bronze casting it is a marvellously subtle
piece of propaganda meant to establish her legitimacy as a Romanov.  French sculptor
Etienne Maurice Falconet showed the Tsar as a Roman Emperor – the Great Reformer
fearlessly leading Russia forward.  
This contemporary statue of Peter the Great in the Peter and Paul Fortress
is by the Russian sculptor Mikhail Shemiakin and has caused much
controversy in the past decade. Shemiakin expressed the desire to show
the “alter ego” of a great reformer who was also a cruel and ruthless man.

Massie’s earlier work – in both the writing and the ruler viewed – is the story of the equally complex Peter the Great.  Peter was a man and ruler who, perhaps more than anyone of his time, revealed the struggle between the old and the new.  Curious, enlightened, progressive, loyal to his friends and deeply in love with his second wife Catherine, he was also cruel, unbending and confirmed in the belief of the autocracy of the Tsar.  Peter, as revealed by Massie, was a man both fascinating and dangerous to be around. The chapter on the arrest, imprisonment, torture and beating to death of Alexei, his son by his first unloved wife, is particularly chilling and we are spared none of the dreaful details of the fillicide of the gentle Tsarevich.  Though a long haul at over 900 pages Massie’s style and eye for  unusual details make it highly readible and again he is true to his sub-title – we are told the story of the life of  Pyotr Alexeyevich Romanov but also fo the World around him.

As with the stories of the two people most associated with St Petersburg when it came to reading Massie’s two books on the last of the Romanov Tsars and his family I did things the wrong way around and frankly wish I hadn’t.  The Romanovs – the Final Chapter outlines the horrible deaths of Nicholas, Alexandra, their five children and faithful attendants.  Equally as horribly it tells of the in-fighting by both relations and historical anthropologists over what remained of their bodies after shooting, bayonetting, kicking, sulfuric acid, fire and burial in swampy land.  The pure cold-hearted nature of so much of it is almost as stomach turning as their assasination itself.  The in-fighting continued until just recently when the remains of Nicholas, Alexandria, three of the Grand Duchesses, Doctor Botkin and three retainers were finally laid to rest in 1979 in the Peter and Paul Cathedral in the fortress of that name in St Petersburg.  A recent discovery and DNA testing has confirmed the finding of the remains of Tsarvich Alexi and his sister Maria.  There are plans to have them interred with their family in the traditional burial place of the Romanovs within the next year.  In the meantime the entire family has been deemed saints and “passion bearers” by the Orthodox church both inside and outside Russia – though their canonization was hotly debated by many theologians who perhaps with a less than Christ-like forgiveness railed against Nicholas for the fall of the monarchy and the church.  Nevertheless most churches in Russia now have an icon written to depict the family as Saints of the church.  And many of the churches outside Russia have followed suit – the most beautiful I saw was at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallin.  Though I would have very much liked to have a photograph of it, cameras were forbidden in the Cathedral and there were no postcards available as the icon was a recent one.

I find that having read The Final Chapter has coloured my reading of Massie’s first popular history – Nicholas and Alexandra.  When it was  published in 1967 the author was accused of being both a romanticist of and apologist for a weak monarch and his wife; the movie adaptation in 1971 did little to dispell that image. Of course most people picking up the book would have some knowledge of the deaths of the Tsar and his family but having read the full horror has, for me at least, put a slant on things that allows me to give Nicholas and Alexandra, and Massie, some benefit of the doubt.  Born of personal experience Massie writes with  authority on the trials of parents of a hemophiliac – his son Bob Massie, the American priest, politician and social activist was born with severe classic hemophilia.  Does it colour his view of the Tsar and his wife – it could not be otherwise but it also gives their story a more human edge.  They hid the Tsarvich’s condition from the world and you have to wonder how it could have been handled differently – do you tell the people that their future Tsar has a disabilitating and ultimately (at the time) fatal disease?  Along comes a man (Rasputin) who through some power seems to stop the horrible suffering of a child and brings some peace of mind to sleepless nights – do you accept him, warts and all, for the good he can do you and your beloved child or reject him?  All interesting questions which Massie posses and has left at least this reader wondering.  

The Last of the Romanovs – Nicholas and Alexandra (centre) surrounded by their children the Tsarvich Alexis and left to right, Anastasia, Olga, Tatyana and Maria.

In his 1999 introduction to the reissue of Nicholas and Alexandra Massie writes:

Today, at the beginning of a new century, discussion fades away over the institution of autocracy and the political mistakes of the last Tsar, while horror and compassion remain fresh over the manner in which Nicholas and his family were killed.  During the months before they died, this husband, wife and five children behaved with exceptional courage and dignity.  In the end, this is what has redeemed them in national and historical memory.

Robert K. Massie
Nicholas and Alexandra
Ballyntane Books – September 1999

The Last of the Romanovs have finally found rest with their ancestors in the Catherine Chapel of the Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul at the Peter and Paul Fortress.  Buried along with them are Alouzy Tropp, the Tzar’s valet; Eugene Botkin, the royal physician; Ivan Kharitonov, a cook; Anna Demidova, a lady-in-waiting who stayed with the family and were assassinated with them. The chapel has been left unfinished awaiting the internment of the Tsarvich Alexis and his sister Maria the last two family members to be identified.  Buried along with

14 August – 1888: An audio recording of Arthur Sullivan‘s “The Lost Chord“, one of the first recordings of music ever made, is played during a press conference introducing Thomas Edison’s phonograph in London, England.

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