A visit to St. Petersburg was a long held ambition that was every bit as dream like and wonderful as was anticipated. There for the annual CINOA (Confederation international des Negociants en Oeuvres d’Art) conference I was treated to what is likely the greatest repository of first class western art in the world at the Hermitage along with the startlingly great Russian Museum and the great Russian palaces of Tsarkoe Seloe, Pavlovsk, Yussopof and Peterhof.
Our Russian hosts were a small but dedicated group intent on opening up the art and antiques trade to the outside world. The Russian contemporary art world is active, the antiques world not as much. As much as Russia has become a capitalist society, there are still controls of trade in what is considered the fabric of Russian history, be it a painting by Picasso or a desk by David Roentgen.
The perception that history is tied to art and antiques, and hence should be restricted by the state, is not unique to Russia. What it clearly reveals is the refutation of revolutionary fervor that precipitated the loss of any of those self same art and antiques in periods of either unrest or dire need. It also reveals why conquerors do their best to eradicate cultural objects in order to dominate territory, although the wrong headedness of this approach cannot be overstated.
But what was so clear to me in this visit, and the same thing happened when I saw the University of Virginia campus designed by Thomas Jefferson and countless other historical venues, is that history is a living, tangible concept. In Tsarkoe Seloe, which has been completely re-fabricated on the interior, I, along with my colleagues Leon Dalva and Jim McConnaughy of New York, could see immediately that the work was contemporary–replaced because of Nazi vandalism. It was glamorous but felt wrong.
Is history well served by being re-constructed in this manner? This is a great question. Conservative ideologues believe they have the inside track on the Constitution and liberal ideologues feel that such an interpretation can only be flawed. The massive wood carving project at Tsarkoe Seloe is flawed, but it also, in a strange way, works. Who has the right answer? Maybe, in the end, it is about the debate. For the Russians, at least as far as the tangible history of the past is concerned, it is about putting on a show. What a great show it is.