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October 30th, 2010

Art is a funny thing.

Whenever one applies the creativity of human intellect to the task of illuminating the human condition, one can reasonably expect to get some hits and some misses. And on top of that, what constitutes a "hit" or a "miss" is often a matter of who you ask. (I find both Picasso and Dali to be dreadfully boring and trite, for example, though I know there are a lot of folks who'd be appalled by that opinion.)

When Catherine the Great moved into the palace built by Anna, one of the first things she did was to start collecting works of art, so it's perhaps inevitable that the palace eventually became a museum.

The collection at the Hermitage is mind-boggling, both in terms of its sheer scope and in terms of its diversity. It's certainly reasonable to call much of the place "tacky," and it's the tacky bits I'm mostly talking about here, but it also has a lot of the things you'd expect from a world-class art collection anywhere--several Da Vinci sketches, a huge collection of both Renaissance and Impressionist paintings, and some bits of art that are just plain breathtaking.



This is an incredibly crappy photo of one of the most interesting things I saw. The photo is so crappy that I considered not posting it at all, in fact. What you're looking at is one small part of the top of a round table, divided into wedges with an alternating jade (edit: malachite?) and marble motif, which contained a number of scenes of ordinary street life. (This and some of the other photos you're going to see are crappy in part because much of the artwork can not be photographed with a flash, as flash photography can damage the originals; I took this picture by hand-holding the camera above the surface and doing a two-second exposure.)

Now, it's a beautiful table, which I can't even begin to give justice to in this picture. But what's most amazing about it is that the surface of the table isn't painted. Every bit of the table, including what looks like a jade or malachite or marble background, is actually a tile mosaic--using tiles that are 1/200th of an inch square, and all hand-placed on glass. According to our tour guide of the unknowable name, a skilled artist could produce about one such work every five years. The combination of artistic skill and raw technique that goes into this kind of art is just amazing.

Some of the rest of the Hermitage's collection, or perhaps I should say some of the rest of the tiny sliver of the Hermitage's collection that occupied the two floors of the one small part of the one building we saw, is also amazing, in an entirely different way. Parts of the collection push the line between "artistic" and "tacky;" other parts of the collection nuke the line into glass by heavy orbital bombardment, then come back after the radiation level has dropped, plow it under with heavy construction equipment, and build a McDonald's and a Thomas Kinkade gallery on the spot where the line once stood.

Take this table, for instance.



I've faded out the background to help you get the full impact of this object, God forgive me. Yes, that's real gold.

I want to do...things on this table. Obscene things. To a woman who's tied to it. I won't disturb you with the details. Suffice it to say the things I want to do are illegal in twenty-two states and the District of Columbia, and probably contravene parts of the Geneva Convention.

The table is in one of the central halls of the center part of the frontmost building of the palace. The hallway is generously illuminated by enormous arched skylights. In the classic over-the-top style of the time, the edges of the skylights and every inch of the trim along the top of the wall are generously decorated.



The figure here is a bizarre cross between an angel, a Greek god, and some sort of Hentai tentacle monster. I don't quite know what the artist was attempting to convey with this rather confused bit of art, but it seems to be something like "I have flown from the heights of Mount Olympus in search of nubile Japanese schoolgirls hungry for a taste of some tentacle lovin'. Now watch, as I discourse on the nature of Fate and the roles of mortals in the affairs of the gods, while my tentacles invade soft, nubile flesh!" Or, err, something.

The paroxysms of artistic excess didn't extend just to the decoration of the walls, but sometimes permeated into the very fabric of the architecture itself, kind of how tomato juice gets into clothes and you can't seem to get it out. This is one of the halls where Catherine would address her subjects and, I don't know, issue royal decrees or do whatever the hell it is that absolute monarchs with unquenchable lust for power do.



I post this picture mainly because I really, really dig the design of this stairway.



Some day, when I am wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of avarice, I will have a house. In that house will be a balcony. Rising up to that balcony will be a staircase that's designed just like this.

Not too far from this hall are the royal throne rooms.

You see what I did there? I used the plural. You might infer from this that there are more than one throne room, and in fact you'd be exactly right. This is the monarchy that's just like Texas, remember? All things to excess, and they execute a lot of people. This building has two throne rooms. I don't know if there are additional throne rooms in the rest of the palace complex; we only hit just this one building.

The Royal Architect may have designed the entire palace with knobs that go to eleven, but he saved the most excited expressions of his particular art for the throne rooms, which take "over the top" and go just a little bit beyond.



This is the larger of the two. Yes, the ceiling is decorated in gold. It's a motif that by this point had actually become somewhat tiresome. The floor is done in fifty-three bajillion different kinds of exotic hardwoods, each bit of wood coming no doubt from a magical faraway forest where each tree was felled by the hand of a virginal maiden who...never mind. Suffice to say that this throne room is the reason unicorns became extinct; the entire Enchanted Forest was felled just to make this floor. When you walk across it, you can still hear the sighs of the souls of the dryads forever pressed into its foundation. Catherine liked the sighs of the souls of the dryads. They lulled her to sleep at night.

The smaller, cozier throne room, where Catherine could sit before a select, private audience of only five or six thousand of her subjects, looks like this:



Here, the ceiling is lower, and the rich fabric coverings on the walls helps to give a more softer, more intimate character to the sighs of the tortured dryads as you walk upon the magical woods forever trapping them here in this plane of existence. The painting above the throne, whose frame bears the shape of a crown which echoes the crown wrought into the back of the throne itself, suggests to you that the person who's sitting there is a monarch. You know, just in case you were unclear on that point.

On the way out of the throne room to head upstairs, we passed this thing.



Again, it's a crappy picture, but it's basically a gigantic statue of a pheasant in a tree, done (of course) in gold, and enclosed in a huge glass case.

It is also...

A cuckoo clock.

Pause for a moment, and let the horror sink in. This huge mechanical monstrosity is...a cuckoo clock. Periodically, when it was working, it would move and squawk and make all manner of noise.

Now, I am something of a skeptic, it must be said, of the notion of capital punishment. I don't think its value as a deterrent has ever been satisfactorily demonstrated, for example, and I have certain misgivings about the arbitrary and capricious manner in which it is handed out, particularly by monarchs of unlimited power.

In this case, however, its utility as a means of making sure the person responsible for this thing never again commits so grave a sin against humanity is above reproach.


The Hermitage houses a very large collection of Renaissance-era and Impressionist paintings, mostly located in long halls above the throne rooms that occupy much of the ground floor of the main building in the palace complex.

At some point, were I to live forever, I would dearly love to take the seven-year tour of the Hermitage. Even then, I suspect I wouldn't be able to fully appreciate everything it has to offer, but I bet there are quite a few real treasures hidden in amongst the tacky bits and the bits that have gold all over them--but I repeat myself.

The main floor also houses the only Michelangelo in the Hermitage's collection, this unfinished statue that had been commissioned by some church dude or other and then left half-completed when said church dude changed his mind and decided he wanted something else entirely. (I've had clients do that to me, and it's enough to provoke a murderous rage even when I haven't invested hundreds of man-hours into chipping away at gigantic blocks of stone with tiny hand tools.)



After being bitten and infected with the stone virus, he waits. Quietly, day after day, year after year, he waits. When the stars are right, and the hold of the virus weakens, he will drag himself free of his marble prison. Then he will shamble across the great halls of the museum at night, needing only the blood of the living to remove the curse and fuel his unholy desire for vengeance. On that day, they will pay, the ones who kept him caged here behind ropes of red velvet, a curiosity to attract the throngs of tourists. Oh, yes. They will pay.

This next sculpture has an interesting tale behind it, which lives on as a warning to artists of all stripes.



It was intended to illustrate a popular story about a dolphin who befrended a boy. Every day, so the story goes, the dolphin and the boy would play together in the water, venturing farther and farther away from shore as they frolicked in the salt spray beneath the warm sun.

Inevitably, of course, the dolphin's knowledge of human physiology failed him, and he misjudged the length of time the boy could hold his breath, with the predictable result that the boy drowned. The dolphin was so devastated by this that he bore the boy away on his back until he, too, died, of loneliness or grief or syphilis or something.

Now, the first thing the astute visitor might notice upon seeing this sculpture is that there is no dolphin in it. The thing carrying the boy here looks like nothing so much as Daffy Duck suffering from 'roid rage, with his body replaced by that of some horrifying half-fish abomination from the depths of the sunken city of R'lyeh.

This is because, apparently, the artist who carved this sculpture had never heard of a "dolphin" before, and knew nothing about them save for the fact that they were big and lived in the ocean, and they fed on the souls of mortal men whenever the planets aligned themselves properly in the night sky.

I seriously don't know how the human race accomplished anything before Google and Wikipedia. Where did people go if they needed to know what a dolphin looked like, or who that really hot guest star was in that one episode of Star Trek: Voyager when they thought they had found their way back to the Alpha Quadrant, and then at the last minute it turned out they didn't?

Strange Daffy Duck/fish-thing hybrid properly admired, we headed upstairs to the galleries above. Even the stairways in the place are richly decorated. No, scratch that. Even the minor secondary stairways are decorated with the most ostentatious, gaudy, over-the-top kind of junk you can possibly imagine. Like this statue in the stairway up to the second-floor exhibit halls, for example.



At least I hope that's a statue. Don't blink! They are fast, faster than you could believe. And they can throw a mean laurel wreath.

I found an open window on the top floor that looked out into the courtyard of the palace complex and some of the buildings behind. And I thought Portland was gray and rainy...



That huge, sprawling, elongated building I posted a picture of earlier? Yeah, that was only one building in the complex. Catherine actually lived here.

Our tour guide whose Name Can Not Be Uttered abandoned us to wander the artwork in the halls, partly so she could take a phone call. From a lover, I suspect, judging from her body language and the huge grin on her face when her phone rang. I don't speak a word of Russian, but just her expressions alone suggest to me that she may have been having phone sex with whoever was on the other side. But I digress.

One of the first bits of artwork in the upper halls is this Rembrandt, showing an angel stopping Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac. He actually painted two versions of this piece (and several sketches and at least one etching), one of which hangs at the Hermitage.



This story has always disturbed me, even back in the days when I was actually Christian. Seriously, what kind of god tests a person's faith by telling that person to murder his son? Surely an omniscient god already knows what the outcome will be, so the test itself seems like an exercise in petty cruelty.

But more to the point, what kind of person hears voices saying "sacrifice your son" and actually does it? Nowadays, we lock people like that up, and rightly so. Leaving aside for a moment how profoundly fucked up it is to murder your children because the voices in your head tell you to, and even going with the notion that the voice telling you to do this profoundly fucked-up thing is in fact the voice of god or some god-like supernatural entity, the cold and inescapable fact is that any god that tells you to murder your kids is not a god worth worshipping. Not at any price.

Even if he says "Haha! Just kidding!" when you actually go to do the deed.

A lot of artists of the time painted with religious themes. In some ways, artists have it easier than writers. Language is a living, breathing thing, and changes all the time; William Shakespeare is one of the very few people who I can truly say really is as brilliant as everyone says he is, in spite of the number of folks who tell you that he really is brilliant.

But Shakespeare gets a bit of a bad rap in part because the language makes him less accessible to modern readers. He really was the Quentin Tarantino of his day--witty, vulgar, more than a little bit crass, given to bad puns, and obsessed with Uma Thurman--but he seems very stuffy and highbrow to modern high-school students because time has weathered his words and made his particular brand of humor less visible.

Artists don't have to deal with that. They paint a picture and it's done. No matter what language the audience speaks, a picture is a picture.

At least to a certain extent. The visual language of art changes, true. But more importantly, the social context changes. Artists tell a story, and that story assumes a cultural framework understood by both the painter and the audience.

With religious themes, it's a gimme. Someone can paint a picture of Moses coming down off the mountain and two thousand years later people will still understand the reference, because religious memes tend to stick like glue. But sometimes, even the cultural references change, and that's a dangerous thing. When the cultural framework changes, and the audience becomes disconnected from the artist, the audience may tend to invent their own story.

And when that happens, things can get weird.



The story I put to this picture probably isn't what the artist intended at all. I'm sure this refers to some kind of myth or fable or something that all the people he was painting for immediately understood, but me? I got nothin'. The story I put on this painting goes something like this:

Dude with wings: Look! I have wings. Let me fondle your breast.
Blonde chick in the dress: My, you do have wings! And what long and...feathery wings they are. I hear that big wings means a big...why yes, of course you may fondle my breast!
Cherub-looking thing: Ooh, look! Someone left a bow just lying around down here.
Effeminate-looking dude in the robe: Look at my fine wares! They are fine and...um, wares. I, too, wish to fondle your breast.
Cherub-looking thing: Dude, seriously, free bow! Just lying on the ground! It's a bit too big for me, but still.
Blonde chick in the dress: Do you have a big...toga?
Effeminate-looking dude in the robe: Alas, my toga is of undistinguished size. Dare I say, pedestrian, even.
Cherub-looking thing: Of course, this bow has no bowstring...
Blonde chick in the dress: Then you may not fondle my breast. Girl's gotta have her standards.
Dude with wings: Sorry, dude. Playaz play, losers lose.
Blonde chick in the dress: Come, fly me to the top of that building back there and I will give myself to you in ways that will make Abraham kick a hole in a cinder-block wall.
Cherub-looking thing: Forget the breasts for a minute. Free bow down here. Right down here!

This next painting...well, I've had weekends that look like this.



Of course, the weekends I've had like this, the people up for auction were there 'cause they wanted to be. Take out that element and it gets pretty messed up, you know what I mean?

And speaking of messed up, the Hermitage is home to a Rembrandt which, try as I might, I could not get a good picture of to save my life. This pic is taken from Wikipedia:



Back in 1985, a guy came into the Hermitage and threw acid all over this painting, doing so much damage that it took restorers eleven years to fix it. When asked why he'd done it, he explained that public depictions of nudity were obscene and pornographic, and he wanted to help purify the world or make it safe for children or some such thing.

Which is pretty messed up, in my book. I'm not quite sure how we go about making people so ashamed of their own bodies that they feel that level of disgust at the human form. That mindset utterly baffles me, to the point where I feel unable to connect even intellectually with it.

That's not the only interesting thing about this painting, though. The other interesting thing about this painting is that Rembrandt used his wife as the model for the woman you see here, but put his mistress's head on her.

Dude had it goin' on, yo!