St. Petersburg takes on Amsterdam

AMSTERDAM — Over 300 years ago, Czar Peter the Great returned home with an armful of Dutch old masters that would lay the foundation of one of the world’s greatest art collections. Now the Russians are returning the favor.

St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage museum has just opened a branch in Amsterdam, creating a cultural sensation in the city where Czar Peter traveled incognito in the 17th century to observe Western ways.

The Hermitage Amsterdam offers the Russian museum a window to the West in a riverside nursing home that was newly built when Peter was in town. Converted at the cost of 40 million euros into a major new artistic attraction, it will present rotating exhibitions from the St. Petersburg treasure trove. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev travelled to Amsterdam in June for the grand opening, joining Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who is herself a descendant of Peter the Great.

That opening was sorely welcome in a city that has two of its great art collections — the Rembrandt-packed Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk modern art gallery — undergoing lengthy and disruptive refurbishing.

The Amsterdam offshoot is a showcase for the St. Petersburg museum to advertise its spectacular collection of over 3 million art works in Western Europe. “It’s part of a global strategy of the Hermitage to make our collections available in the world,” declared Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Russian museum.

The original Hermitage receives 1 euro for every visitor paying the 15-euro entry price into its Amsterdam satellite.

Entitled “At the Russian Court,” the opening exhibition brings an array of 1,800 artifacts from the lives of Russia’s privileged 19th-century elite to Western audiences for the first time. The show drew over 100,000 visitors its first month, said press officer Pom Verhoeff.

Those crowds could be just a taste of the hordes expected in the spring, when Amsterdam will display a sampling of the Hermitage’s superlative collection of works by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Relics from the age of Alexander the Great will form the third exhibition, in the autumn of 2010.

This artistic outreach project is the latest step in an emerging trend toward globalization in the museum world. The Louvre is due to open a spectacular satellite in Abu Dhabi by 2012 and its Parisian neighbor the Centre Pompidou is holding talks with Chinese authorities on a Shanghai branch.

The idea was pioneered by the Guggenheim Foundation, which from its base in New York has set up annexes in Venice, Berlin and Bilbao. It has major new branches in Abu Dhabi and Guadalajara in the pipeline. In 2011, the Hermitage and the Guggenheim are planning a major new museum in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, following a temporary joint-venture in Las Vegas.

Not everybody is happy with museum multinationals. Leading figures in the Paris art world have raged against the Middle Eastern Louvre as a sign of crass commercialism undermining French cultural values.

“The commercial exploitation of masterpieces of our national heritage, which the Republic should be preserving for future generations, can only be shocking on a moral level,” a group of professors and curators wrote in Le Monde when the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi plans were announced in 2006. The Russians, on the other hand, see the Amsterdam branch as an opportunity to promote their nation’s culture. The new site beside the Amstel River is holding concerts with Cossack choirs; showing open-air movies based on the works of Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky; and serving vodka-infused chocolate cake in the museum cafe.

Taking up almost a whole city block, the old Amstelhof nursing home has a sober brick facade and a cool minimalist interior that contrasts with the Czarist opulence on display inside.

One of the central halls of the new museum evokes a St. Petersburg ball, complete with pearl-encrusted silk gowns and dashing hussars’ tunics. In another wing, a more formal display recreates a Winter Palace audience with the Czar, dominated by a great golden throne of the Romanov dynasty.

The exhibition is a celebration of Czarist grandeur. There’s little mention of the dark side of the period, with its uprisings, pogroms and famines. The shoes and parasols of aristocratic ladies receive more space than the Napoleonic Wars or emancipation of the serfs.

Ignoring politics, the show focuses on the private and public lives of the Romanovs and their entourage. Objects range from the miniature rifles of the young Nicholas II to Faberge jewelry, mustachioed military portraits and the oriental costumes used in the court’s Chinese masquerades.

The driving force behind the Amsterdam Hermitage is Ernst Veen, who began organizing exchanges between the Russian museum and Amsterdam artistic institutions two decades ago and helped raise funds to support the Hermitage during the post-Soviet economic chaos in the 1990s.

Veen’s friendship with Piotrovsky, together with the cities’ historical ties, made Amsterdam the natural choice when the Hermitage began looking for a foreign partner.

“Peter the great would be happy with this,” Piotrovsky said at the opening.

The exhibition “At the Russian Court” runs at the Amsterdam Hermitage until Jan. 31, 2009.