As I rush inside from the chill and darkness of this late November afternoon that I’m getting scarily used to, I get the sense that this momentous gallery has been a similar reprieve for scores of people like me on many a cold and rainy day. Moving through the main galleries, I find myself taken by the great beauty and variety of styles, time periods, and talent present - particularly as someone who has to pull teeth to draw decent stick figures. Familiar figures of royalty and places of interest or sentimental value to me line the halls. On many occasions, I find myself thinking back to Russian Studies 250 and the various pieces we learned to identify during second semester of my freshman year. And perhaps none makes as much of an impression in the flesh for the first time as Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan on November 16, 1581.
Seeing such objects of cultural richness and personal interest for the first time in person, even after lengthy familiarity, never ceases to be surreal. I take in its great size that I did not expect for some reason, and the look of visibly mounting remorse and horror in the tsar’s eyes following this particularly fateful and bloody manifestation of his barely contained rage that cost him his son’s live almost exactly 436 years ago. Observing passers-by on a bench located conveniently right in front of it (and taking a moment to rest my overworked feet), it becomes clear to me very quickly that my wonder and bafflement seeing this painting in person is shared by many around me. In other halls, people tend to pay attention more sparringly to works that for personal or simple aesthetic reasons happen to capture their attention. More so than perhaps any other work I’ve seen this afternoon, the portrait of Ivan almost universally commands the attention of anyone who strolls through the hall. In my fifteen or so mintutes of observation, not a single person passes it by. The ubiquitous clicks of smartphone cameras reverberate off of the crimson walls as people immortalize the famed and gruesome work for themselves. I find myself wondering inwardly whether the work features as part of art classes or field trips (as the gallery is packed with little crowds of elementary school-aged children) that instill a sense of familiarity and wonder within Russians for this work comparable to the one I did in RUST 250, and much earlier in life to boot.
The paintings I would list as runners-up are, for the most part, not so famous and universally recognized as the former. A number of lesser-known but beautiful works stand out to me for various reasons. Towards the end of my exploration of the gallery, I find a temporary exhibition of works by Armenian-Russian artist Martiros Saryan. Not noticing the translation on the opposite wall, my first triumph here is being able to read his posted biography and make sense of around 90% of it. But I soon find myself drawn to the locations of his paintings, many of them inspired by Middle Eastern localities I’ve lived in, such as Egypt or Turkey, and his colorful aesthetic. Fruit Shop in Constantinople winds up becoming a favorite, as it embodies a delightfully ordinary aspect of life in my favorite city on Earth with a flourish of golds, pinks, and reds.
Then comes The Black Sea by Aivazovsky. The ill-lit water jostling and forming mountainous waves gives a sense of true foreboding. But the reason that this work sticks in my mind is because of a conversation it inspires. A woman who looks to be in her mid-thirties, leading her boisterous and inquisitive trio of sons on an intellectual family outing, makes a point of stopping and pointing out this painting to her children. I catch her specifying that this artist is one of her favorites, and asking her sons to observe the masterful and delicate work Aivazovsky dedicated to this storm somewhere between Sevastopol, Istanbul, and Batumi. My comprehension of this exchange leaves me with a warm feeling, having observed a shared sense of pride in a talented artist’s work, and its significance to Russia’s artistic heritage, now instilled in the younger generation.
Then comes Matveev’s View of Rome: Colosseum. Even with my somewhat limited knowledge of art history, I’m familiar with the idea that due to the prestige of many institutions and styles of art present on the Italian Peninsula, the nebulous hodgepodge of city-states, duchies, and imperial protectorates that would one day become my country held a great amount of influence over the artistic world for a long time, that it was even common for aspiring artists to embark on grand tours of Italy. Even so, the overwhelming prevalence of paintings of innumerable locations all over Italy that line the first few halls I visit leaves me somewhat surprised. It’s a good feeling all the same to see alluring testimonies to lovely places, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to experience first hand, like this one. Observing the distinct distance of the main city from the Colosseum’s ruins in this reproduction, with greenery flanking the ancient arena, I flash back to when I stood on what was left of the benches within full of awe as a twelve-year-old.Finally, Bogolubov’s Sledding on the Neva also leaves a distinct impression. Though I love Moscow dearly, Saint Petersburg firmly established its place as one of my very favorite cities I’ve ever been to, and seeing this vast, sweeping panoramic imagining of the city brings a twinge of nostalgia. Its lovely winter landscape and movement of people moving across its solidily frozen surface as though it’s become a naturally formed land bridge connecting the two halves of the city seems to create a sense of community and union. People move across for pure convenience, pass through by happenstance, or simply embrace the seemingly bitter cold and stop to play in the snow. It’s like an aerial view of a gregarious winter outing, involving a whole, beautiful city.