Aliona van der Horst: Hermitage-niks, A Passion for the Hermitage (Passie Voor De Hermitage, 2003)

reviewed by Terry Smith© 2008

Ghosts in the Museum: Behind the Scenes with the Hermitage-niks

Hermitage-niks, A Passion for the Hermitage, is a five part, quasi-documentary series that focuses on the lives and beliefs of certain “personalities” on the staff of the St. Petersburg museum. It was made for television by Dutch director Aliona van der Horst, known for After the Spring of '68: A Love Story (2000), a Cold War romance set in the Netherlands and Russia that used archival footage, love letters, and contemporary interviews, and Voices of Bam (2006), a moving record of the aftermath of the devastating 2003 earthquake in Iran, told mostly through the voice-over reflections of the survivors. Both won Dutch Academy Awards.

Given that Hermitage-niks was commissioned by the Hermitage itself, in association with the Hermitage Friends Society of the Netherlands, during a period when the Museum sought to survive the post-Soviet turmoil by actively seeking external funding and cultural clout, we cannot expect a “warts and all” exposé of its inner workings. Nor can we anticipate a professional perspective on its ranking as a universal art history museum relative to others. Even less likely would be commentary on local cultural politics—for example, just what kinds of support (financial and oversight) it has recently received from otherwise-occupied state apparatuses. There are no parallels here to the trenchant profiles of cultural institutions as they dig themselves deeper into crisis—caught between rising production costs, the slow implosion of state support, and the uncertainties of private patronage—that we saw in, for example, Michael Waldman's six-part series made for BBC television, The House, a corrosive study of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, aired in 1997. There is, unsurprisingly, a lot about Rembrandt and other Dutch artists in the collection: their works reoccur as the entry points for the highs and lows of what it is to be a Hermitage-dweller.

Overall, what we get is a gentle, episodic profiling of the “inner voices” of a range of engaging museum workers—among them an art handler fresh from the killing fields of Azerbaijan, an attendant who laments her former life as an engineer, a long-serving, indeed ancient icon curator, and a domineering but soft-hearted maintenance supervisor. In style and approach, Hermitage-niks is everything about the great museum that Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (Russkii kovcheg, 2002) was not. But it shares with that cinematic tube shooter a central core fascination with a question of some interest: why does art seem—to so many, so often, and in such implausible circumstances—an answer, sometimes the best answer, to human shortcoming?

The Hermitage Museum might seem a very good place to stage the asking of such a question. In six historic buildings, in 1,000 rooms (350 of which are open to the public), it houses three million works of art, including Fabergé jewelry, unmatched collections of ancient gold, antiquities from throughout the world, Russian Imperial memorabilia (the Winter Palace being the official residence of the Tsars), and above all the Guinness Book of Records amount of paintings in one place, including masterworks by the greatest Western artists from the Renaissance to the early 20 th century modernists. Begun as a private collection by Catherine II (the Great) in 1764, it was opened to the public by Tsar Nikolai I in 1852. After the Revolution, it became the repository of many royal and aristocratic collections, and absorbed perhaps the two outstanding collections of avant-garde art in all Europe, those of the industrialists Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, amassed in the 1910s, before comparable West European and American collections. Always a museum of the world's art, it left collecting and display of Russian art to the nearby State Russian Museum. After undergoing many vicissitudes during the New Economic Policy after the Revolution and during World War II, the Hermitage's struggles during the post-Soviet period have coincided with its becoming one of the must-see stops in world cultural tourism. Like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, it is a “treasure box” of the visual arts and high crafts rather than an art historical survey museum. Multitudes comparable to those attending the Louvre, the Met, and the National Galleries of London and Washington, throng its galleries each day. Echoing the most entrepreneurial visual art enterprise of them all, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it has sought to embrace the flows of cultural globalization by opening branches in Las Vegas (along with the Guggenheim), Amsterdam, Ferrara, and London. These have met with mixed success; the branch in Somerset House recently closing.

Within these great historical tides, Hermitage-niks is a modest offering. The filmmaker was granted access for a year and has come out with a disarmingly straightforward story of some of the 2,000 people whose humble yet proud working lives are devoted to maintaining and displaying great art—or, better, the art of the great. Their investment in the institution and their interrelationships with each other within the framework of this investment is the overt content of the episodes. Seventy-six-year old maintenance supervisor Ol'ga Bogdanova: “If you have worked here for one year, you will not yet be called an Ermitazhnik. Even if you have been here for 10 years, you may not call yourself an Ermitazhnik. Only if you have worked here for over twenty years, you have deserved the name of Ermitazhnik .” Eighty-two-year old icon curator Aleksandra Kostsova: “People of our generation will not survive retirement… they will have to carry me out feet first.” Ol'ga consoles her as she weeps.

This scene occurs early in the pivotal third episode, in which Ol'ga recounts her experience as a young schoolgirl patrolling the roof of the buildings while the Luftwaffe rained bombs on the besieged city, including the Museum. Meanwhile, most of her starving family die around her, and it takes two weeks for the corpses to be collected. Too weak to evacuate the paintings, museum staff called on stronger passers-by. The director gives us a tour of the air raid shelter, in which curators (including his father, the previous director) hid during the raids, sustained by giving papers to each other on their scholarly research. He assures us that all understood that “the fate of art was worth more than an individual human life.”

Variants of this sentiment abound in each of the episodes, especially the first, where it is set up as the tone for the series. The camera dwells on the glowing face of Valentina Barbashova, who spends much of her time as a gallery attendant gazing in rapturous, motherly devotion at Jan Sweert's Portrait of a Young Man who, it is presumed, lost his fortune at cards or in chasing women, his fallen state reflecting her own decline from proud service as an atomic engineer under the old regime. Juna Zek, curator of decorative arts, loves the objects under her care as if they were her children, while at the same time delighting in their origins as gifts from one generous aristocrat to another, and contrasting that to the treatment accorded her own family who, themselves minor aristocrats, disappeared in Stalin's purges. “There is no murder, no viciousness here,” she says. “Viciousness means someone whispering, ‘Your father is an enemy of the people, you cannot work here.'” Ex-soldier Vadim Kuptsov, a young punk whose job is to move art objects safely from storage to exhibition and back again, describes his fellow workers as motivated above all by the desire to “make a beautiful object even more beautiful.” He is unwilling to speak of the “things” he saw while serving in Azerbaijan, but in front of Rembrandt's The Prodigal Son he is as eloquent as anyone—from Mother Teresa and Robert Hughes to Seymour Slive and Simon Schama. He offers intensely personal comments on how the painted father reminds him of his grandfather, draws out a narrative of the depicted son who is welcomed home despite “making nothing of his life,” comments on the artist's color harmonies, the rhythm of the painting's internal passages, and concludes with the acute meta-comment that “A painting like this is like the sea, it carries you away on itself.”

The second episode recounts stories of threats to this kind of experience. Curator Kostsova tells of rescuing icons from destruction wrought by the anti-religious campaigns of the 1930s. This is paralleled by a study of the response of the staff to a single act of vandalism: the throwing of acid onto Rembrandt's Danae in 1985. Curator Zek is John Berger-like in describing the artist's ability to depict the sensuality of a woman waiting for her lover; restorer Gerasimov, who worked on the ravaged painting for ten years, sees it now as “a tormented patient,” “a burnt body with new skin.” This identification with the depicted figures as if they were fellow Hermitage-niks is typical of the films' affect.

Where do sentiments such as this come from? Pierre Bourdieu and Alain Darbel have given a definitive account of the sociological dynamics of what they call “the love of art.” A number of statistical surveys of European museum-goers, conducted during the early and mid 1960s, led them to note the centrality of social practices of inclusion and exclusion that are acquired through inculcation, education, and imitation. These give rise, they argued, to a set of attitudes and behaviors (a “form of life”) that is distinguished by a quality—distinction (“taste” is a more common term in English)—that marks the cultured out from the uncultured. The circularity of this acculturation is no accident. It is directed toward securing the acceptance of “an arbitrary” (a designated set of learned attitudes towards a designated set of artworks) that becomes, in time, as “natural” to the cultured as it is incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Art-lovers become emotional receptacles, open to receive any libation that the priests of art pour into their orifices. Bourdieu offers a trenchant critical description of museums as processors of this “arbitrary” value, as machines for successfully confirming the values of the dominant culture that at the same time, and through the same processes, generate a consensual recognition of these values on the part of those who are actually excluded from participating fully in them. His word picture anticipates van der Horst's camera movements as she links each scene with a set up or a dolly:

…in the tiniest details of their morphology and their organization, museums betray their true function, which is to increase the feeling of belonging for some and of exclusion for others. In these sacred places of art such as the ancient palaces or large historic residences, to which the nineteenth century added imposing facades, often in the Greco-Roman style of civic sanctuaries, where bourgeois society deposits relics inherited from a past which is not its own, everything leads to the conclusion that the world of art opposes itself to the world of everyday life just as the sacred does to the profane: the untouchability of objects, the religious silence which imposes itself on visitors, the puritan asceticism of the amenities, always sparse and rather uncomfortable, the quasi-systematic absence of any information, the grandiose solemnity of décor and decorum, colonnades, huge galleries, painted ceilings, monumental stairways, all seem to serve as reminders that the transition from the profane to the sacred world implies, as Durkheim says, “A veritable metamorphosis,” a radical transformation of the mind, that the establishment of relations between the two worlds “is always a delicate operation in itself, demanding great precautions and more or less complicated initiation.” (Bourdieu and Darbel 112; citing Durkheim 39-40)

The crucial factor that connects the passage from the profane to the sacred, described here, to the “arbitrary” contentlessness of the “love of art” experience is that this experience acquires “content” as an endless repetition of the experience of initiation. What is experienced as a direct and unmediated response to the work of art before one is, on this analysis, a repetition of one's passage into and through the museum itself. The circularity of Bourdieu's analysis is thus shown to be a feature of the phenomenon he is analyzing. The analysis is itself a repetition of the experience of the early bourgeoisie as they confronted exclusion and then conditional inclusion within a high culture, the control of which remained always in the hands of the aristocracy. Nevertheless, surely the nature of this control has been changed somewhat by two centuries of capitalist growth, democratic politics, radical protest, mass media expose, and consumerist spectacle—not least, by the dense crowds who now fill the major museums of the world. Hasn't it?

From the viewpoint of the Hermitage hierarchy—not really. Aristocratic constancy is what the Museum, as a treasure house, embodies. It trades on the fact that many among the multitudes passing through the galleries are fascinated by the enactments of aristocratic privilege, power, and prodigality carried out at a comfortable historical distance (but, who knows, might reappear at any time, perhaps in the guise of another Peter the Great?). For now, it is embodied in objects, still and silent, that seem to exist solely in order to be presented to the visitor's appreciative gaze. Yet the opening episodes show us that the workers at the Museum, while they express themselves and act out their “love of art” in the manner that Bourdieu has identified, and which the priests of art would approve, have actually filled its arbitrary emptiness with content based on their own life experiences. Art, to them, is grounded in experiences like those that they have had. At the same time, its example invites them to transcend the harshness, the cruelty, the human shortfall that has marked their lives by enabling them to identify, however tentatively, the qualities of persistence, mutuality, perhaps even heroism that they have themselves evinced. Who would gainsay them this measure of modest self-regard? That the net result of their efforts, these days, is the provision of yet another attraction within the cultural industries of spectacle society does not, in itself, invalidate the ways they have lived their lives.

Reinforcing this is the fact that these workers get to handle works of art as part of their daily activity. For them, no admonishing attendants, buzzing alarms, respectful distance, take-out reproductions, glossy substitutes, herds pushing for a quick glimpse, headset instructions on what and how to see. The films make much of this mutuality; dwelling lovingly on the sense of body-to-body familiarity that evidently exists between these workers and these artworks, on what might be called the tactility of the gaze permitted them. The implication is that this is the real reward for those who dedicate themselves to art. It is something that they might feel themselves sharing—virtually, perhaps, but often, with those who made these works, and those who owned them.

As it moves through its episodes, however, Hermitage-niks is gradually overtaken by a viewpoint that moves up the Museum's hierarchy. The human face provided by the staff is contrasted more and more to the totalitarian inhumanity of everything that even smells “Soviet.” As noted, the third episode turns on the threat to the collection during the war years and to the defense offered from the lowest to the highest member of staff, including their families. The fourth episode highlights the selling off, by the Soviet regime during the late 1920s and 1930s, of over 2,000 works in order to finance industrialization. Key works such as Raphael's Alba Madonna found their way to collectors such as Andrew Mellon and, thus, into museums such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington. A disgruntled, disgusted curator leafs through a catalog from Washington, noting one painting after another as having come from the Hermitage. Director Piotrovskii shows cables from the KGB ordering the sale of Van Eycks and evidence of efforts by the museum staff to deflect these orders. The other main story in this episode concerns the antipathy of the Stalinist regime to “decadent, bourgeois” art such as Impressionism, Postimpressionism, and the early 20 th century avant-gardes. These were shown only in the 1960s and then tentatively, against opposition as the post-Stalin thaw iced over. A bold curator used a letter from Lenin to keep key works by Matisse and others from the Shchukin and Morozov collections on the walls. Outside the rooms housing these works, the camera keeps returning to the May Day celebrations of 2002, in which thousands of nostalgic Communists seem to be calling for a return to the rule of the philistines. The upper-level curators emerge as the real saviors of the Museum.

Compared to the precision with which van der Horst painted the commitments of the lesser members of staff in the first two or three episodes, this is broad-brush stuff. Archival footage does not match the period to which it seems to refer. The fact that the Museum continued to sell off certain items after the Stalin era is not mentioned. The film was complete before it came to light, in July 2006, that one of the curators had been, for at least six years, spiriting items from the collection home for her husband to sell, 221 in all. When the news broke, she was found dead at her desk. This alerts us to something to which the roving camera is a silent witness: the down-home, hands-off style of museum management (criticized by the judge in the case of the missing artworks) and the pervasive atmosphere of dedicated amateurism in the curatorial ranks. The director's desk is piled high with papers in folders, few computers are sighted, storage is primitive, curators and staff handle the works without gloves, installations and repairs are undertaken during visiting hours, etc., etc.

Yet, in the real world, the Museum publishes regularly on its collections and organizes important traveling exhibitions. Middle-rank staff are widely known in the profession as scholarly experts, yet none of them appear in the film. Their absence turns the elderly workers whose lives we come to know into ghosts. The final episode begins to tell us something of the history of the Museum and purposes of the collection, but it leaves its origins in the fabulous clouds of aristocratic origin and is vitiated by sad scenes of St. Petersburgers bringing in their tschockas in the hope, always disappointed, of a sale. The overall narrative is, ironically, an update of the format beloved of Socialist Realist romanticism: the people, and in this case the art they serve, face many external threats and some internal ones, but their spirit triumphs in the end, for the good of all.

Sokurov's Russian Ark consisted of a single 90-minute tracking shot through the Hermitage from inside its dungeons then up through its various rooms and galleries and out again, beginning and ending with unknowing aristocrats arriving and then leaving the grand ball of 1913, the last held in Imperial Russia. Through a series of costume-drama tableaux, employing 2,000 actors, it evoked three centuries of pre-Revolutionary Russia in all its vainglory, arbitrariness, and growing decadence. History was presented as a stunning pageant, with multiple currents flowing through sites of power, a random-seeming set of vignettes performed by historical actors in front of a largely uncomprehending mass audience. In the face of this dazzling meaninglessness, art, represented by the film itself, is the only recourse.

For all its low-key documentarism, Hermitage-niks carries traces of Sokurov's tour de force. Both have engaging mediators: Ol'ga Bogdanova is its Marquis de Custine (a French visitor to Russia in 1839 who wrote a widely-read study of the country as having a European veneer over an Asiatic soul). Both cover some of the same topics: Catherine the Great, painted in one, is a histrionic libertine in the other; the museum director buckling under Stalin; the 900-day siege of Leningrad. Both use internal tracking shots as the glue that binds their sequences together, Sokurov with consummate skill, while for van der Horst they tend to invite rather bland voice-overs on the purpose of the museum. Both are drawn to shots of the Hermitage from across the ice-bound Neva as Caspar David Friedrich style landscapes of reflection. In contrast to the symbolism of Friedrich's famous painting Wreck of the Hope , in the final shot of Russian Ark the Hermitage appears, literally, as the ark preserving Russian culture, afloat, like a stage prop, on a sea of uncertainty. This rather pious, if ludicrous, yet better-than-nothing banality is, in the end, also the message of Hermitage-niks .

Terry Smith wishes to thank his fellow members of the film group at the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, Raleigh-Durham for their assistance in developing this review.

Terry Smith
Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory, University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre and Alain Darbel, with Dominique Schnapper. The Love of Art: European Art Museums and Their Public . Trans. Caroline Beattie and Nick Merriman. London: Polity, 1991.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life . Trans. Joseph Ward Swain. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1915.

The Hermitage-niks (Passie Voor De Hermitage), Netherlands, 2003
Betacam, Color and Black-and-White, 5 episodes, 25 minutes each
Director: Aliona van der Horst
Cinematography: Maasja Ooms
Music: Harry de Wit
Production: Viewpoint Productions and AVRO
Producer: Valérie Schuit

VHS Distribution: First Run/Icarus Films. All stills courtesy of First Run/Icarus Films.

Aliona van der Horst: Hermitage-niks, A Passion for the Hermitage (Passie Voor De Hermitage, 2003)

reviewed by Terry Smith© 2008

Updated: 10 Jan 08