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Published: December 12th 2019
The Hunter's Punishment
by Paulus Potter (detail)
I didn't come to Russia to go surfing.
As Westly one of our Aussie mariners penned it, "Time slips past like the Svir under our river boat. However, I am still remembering the early mornings, the mist and upcoming sun as we quietly made our way up stream back in September and of course an enthusiastic photographer not wanting to miss a moment !"
The Neva, Svir and Volga Rivers leading us 29 Aussies smoothly along...through sunrises, forests, frescoes, adornment everywhere.
I didn't expect to go surfing...especially not in the Hermitage in St Petersburg...filled with three million works including thousands of paintings collected by Catherine the Great.
I went in search of the Hunters Punishment by Paulus Potter and was caught in a tsunami...a tide swell of humanity that had me lost, battered and confused.
I didn't come to Russia to go surfing...but go crowd surfing I did.
The bus shivers in the early morn as we set off...Putin's needle skyscraper across the water...vertebrae and rib bones of the bridge as we cross the Neva... into a carpark...cube buildings with catacomb corridors and six inch thick steel doors.
Leonardo da Vinci 1452 - 1519
"The Litta Madonna" - Florentine school
vaults of the Hermitage where the balance of the three million works of art of the Hermitage Museum are housed...the Fort Knox of the Art World...and this dancer is getting excited.
Shiny corridors...heavy steel doors...security cameras everywhere.
NO PHOTOS ALLOWED.
Sorry...can't share what is within...'cept maybe that I saw Peter the Great's shoes and an evening gown made for Michelle Obama...oh my...many, many surprises inside!
Massive Palace Square...centipede buildings circling...bronze horses on the roof frozen in a gallop as if ready to rain down...a pumpkin coach with some in medieval dress..."avoid them"
I hear whispering...the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great...the Hermitage...facade stretching so long I'm spinning around.
I've travelled half the World to be here...and it looks like the other half of the World is here also.
Gotta hurry...gotta beat them inside...a massive wave is coming...and I ain't getting washed aside. Gluttony
I can feel the presence of powerful women looking down.
There's Elizabeth, Peter the Great's daughter who was ordered to a nunnery but refused, deposed Ivan VI and took the throne herself
In 1752 not content with just ordering the construction
Leonardo da Vinci 1452 - 1519
"The Benois Madonna" - Florentine
of a Summer Palace on Tsarkoye Selo, Empress Elizabeth orders architect Rastelli to build her a Winter Palace which was nearly finished when she dies.
Six months later her successor Peter III is murdered and his wife Catherine II takes over..
Having more wealth than the average Russian oligarch, Catherine started collecting some paintings to brighten the walls of her Winter Palace...her "Hermitage"
...paintings so numerous she had to be called "the Great."
But the purchase of paintings did not start there.
Even before the Hermitage, European paintings in particular by the Dutch, graced the walls of imperial Russian residences, many of which entered the Hermitage over time.
On his trip to the Netherlands in 1716 & 1717 Peter the Great acquired Dutch paintings for himself and in 1745 in Bohemia for Elizabeth. These included Rembrandt's "David Parting from Jonathan"
Yet it was Catherine the Great's envoys, agents or marchands who bought not just individual paintings but whole collections for the Hermitage.
It was her idea to create "a vast palace pinacotheca"
Pinacotheca is the name for the building containing pictures which formed the left wing of the Propylaea on the Acropolis at
Not one to add "the Humble"
to her name, Catherine was also known as "the Northern Semiramis"
, after the queen who restored ancient Babylon.
In 1764 she purchased 337 paintings by European artists from the merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowski...100 of which were Dutch and 45 Flemish.
So began her penchant for collecting that she herself described as "gluttony".
She delighted in out-bidding that well known connoisseur of the arts, Frederick II of Prussia, who after the Seven Years War (1756 -1763) was suffering financial difficulties.
In 15 years she purchased the whole of six of Europe's most famous collections.
In 1772 she caused outrage in Paris when she purchased 415 paintings from the collection of the late Baron de Thiers, thus avoiding a public auction.
If an enemy of the Empress was bidding, she was known to fork out fantastical prices to outbid.
But passion can lead to tragedy.
In 1771 the ship Vrouw Maria sank in the Gulf of Finland on route to St Petersburg carrying a precious cargo of Dutch art of the collection of Gerrit Braamcamp including admired works "Triptych with an allegory of
Correggio 1489 - 1534
"Portrait of a Woman" - Parmesan school
instruction" by Gerard Dou and "Bulls by a Path"
by Paulus Potter.
In 1768 her agent Prince Golitsyn acquired 4,030 Old Master drawings.
Catherine's acquisitions became so plentiful that in 1771-1787 she built the Large Hermitage to house them.
Yet her Greatness had to "show off"
her purchases to be truly Great.
What better way than during her "Conversations"
held at 7pm each Thursday for her inner circle, where her guests could choose their own programs...reading verses, guessing games, charades, skipping, hide & seek and dancing...as the subjects in the paintings smiled in admiration upon their merriment and folly.
But all good things come to an end they say.
204 works from the English Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole...119 works from Silvain-Raphael Baudouin...from 1773 to 1785 her catalogue included 2,658 entries of which Dutch & Flemish paintings were 60 percent of the group...whole rooms attributed to Rembrandt, Nicolaes Berchern, Bartholomeus van der Helst and Philips Wouwerman.
And then in the mid 1780s Catherine said "Enough is enough"
and quit collecting.
Her "Age of Enlightenment"
came to an end.
Fortunately her legacy was continued by her successors but at reduced pace.
In 1815 Alexander I acquired three animal paintings by Paulus Potter, "The Farm", "The Wolfhound"
and "The Hunter's Punishment"
, the latter containing 14 images of hunting with the animals ultimately seeking and obtaining retribution...causing a sensation in Russia.
And it is the latter that has drawn a 21st Century dancer to Russia...yes..t'is yours truly's quest to see the Hunter's Punishment...to master the art of:
"The Now of Looking that morphs into the Then of the Painting."
And thanks to Nicholas I who opened the Hermitage as a museum in 1852...and thanks to the Bolsheviks who preserved them and the Russians that saved these works from the Nazis...this dancer is ascending the Ambassadors Staircase of opulence and gilding ...to surf the tide swell of tourists...to sup and surmise with the Tsars...to look into the eyes of their subjects...hoping they will smile back.
****** Seeking audience with the Tsars
We begin our tour up the Ambassadors Staircase where foreign delegates ascend for an audience with the Tsar.
If ever there is a case for a wider camera lens it is here.
Following the 1837 fire, Vasily Stasov restored the staircase in the original Rastrelli Baroque style...flanked by balustrades of Carrara marble, statues in niches, mirrors
reflecting gold gilding, space and light. I turn admiring the view, entering the Mt Olympus ceiling painting bordered by the nymphs that inhabit that space.
Into the Great Enfilade of State Rooms where 29 Aussies roam in the Field Marshalls' Room...then enter the Hall of Peter the Great or Small Throne Room with emblazoned ceilings and a niche with a throne of bog oak and gilded silver.
His Greatness surveys us bemused as he poses in a magnificent painting with Minerva...behind his not so humble throne.
We emerge into a 1,000 sq m hall intended for magnificent balls and receptions...the Armorial Hall with fluted Corinthian columns and groups of Russian Warriors with banners, weapons and the ever present crests of the double-headed eagle.
Taking the door to the left into Hall 197. The Gallery of 1812 with 332 portraits of heroes of the 1812 Napoleonic war. Most are looking as if to afar...but some lock eyes and say "отлично сработано otlichno srabotano...Well done."
33 blank canvases...I guess they were killed or didn't make the portrait sessions...others still remembering them...my favourite room as I'm in Portrait Heaven.
Left again into the St George Hall or
Large Throne room...800 sq m lined with fluted columns and an innovative ceiling of copper sheets...the throne created at the behest of Empress Anna Ioannovna in 1731-32.
The tide has passed us by so some rest while we prepare to enter the West Wing and get into viewing some paintings.
It's as if entering a time warp...marble & 15th & 16th Century medieval paintings on wood...metal & wooden artefacts in cabinets...the tide carrying us into the Pavilion Hall where the waves convert to a mass of people around the Peacock Clock made by the Englishman James Cox. When it strikes the hour the peacock spreads its tail...the owl turns its head and the rooster crows. The figures are shown in a golden mushroom.
I look up...ceiling spinning...28 chandeliers throwing light like a discotheque...marble inlaid floor...arches and columns everywhere...an ocean of people gasping and pressing...down a short narrow passage into Italian Paintings of the 13th to 16th Centuries...getting downright giddy.
And then I see a Botticini...frantically reaching to tell others in our group...but stop. Botticini or Bottacelli...Bottacelli did the Venus pics did he not? Check it's Raffaello Botticini 1470...do I know him? Del
Guido Reni 1575-1642
'Repentance of St Peter"
Robbia, Bartolomeo, Albertinelli...religious Renaissance masters and I have not heard of any of them.
There's a name I know...Leonardo da Vinci in Hall 216..."Madonna and Child (The Benois Madonna)"
and "Madonna and Child (The Litta Madonna)"
...now giddy becomes spinning...a metal crucifix from 1270 AD.
Displays of Venetian Art...now floating in Hall 227...Hall 229 Raphael Hall...not sure where but I saw some Titians.
And before I know it I stumble on the others around a crouching figure by Michelangelo...surely I am now in heaven.
Carried on the swell into Halls 239 & 240 Spanish Painting of the 15th & 16th Centuries...Velasquez...El Greco.
And then I'm in more familiar territory Flemish & Dutch Painting of the 17th Century...Rubens...a Hall full of Rembrandts.
I'm down the back with Simon (my mate from the back of the bus) when Denise comes calling,
"David, Alexander says come quick. He's found your painting."
Oh man...I'm running...around a partition...Alexander grinning..."The Hunter's Punishment"
by Paulus Potter...so this is it...thank you...left to ponder...the now of looking that morphs into the then of the painting.
I was expecting it on a large wooden panel but it is smaller and has a gold frame.
14 images of men
with horses and dogs hunting with spears and muskets (of deer, rabbits, leopard, wolf, ox, lion, boar, monkeys, bear and goat) surrounding two long rectangles of animals leading the hunter to judgment by the Lion King.
The other animals observing or dancing and rejoicing around open fires while lynching the hunting dogs on nooses strung over the branches of trees.
This is so bizarre...animals imbued with human emotions...joy and malice with revenge and retribution on the palette.
The painting is reputedly a pointed political allegory that was relevant and meaningful at the time...in the then...how the animals take revenge on the hunter, warning that harsh rulers will inevitably get their just deserts.
Research by Amy Walsh & Edwin Buijsen and a hypothosis by Klara Semyonova, a curator of the Hermitage indicates a link to a complex political situation in the Netherlands in about 1650 when William II strongly resisted attempts to reduce the army after 80 years of war and the dilemma of who should lead the country following his death pending coming of age of William III.
It is suggested by those researchers that the painting demonstrates how a harsh and cunning hunter becomes
the victim of those he had terrorised, maybe a call to the prince's wisdom and reason.
My mind boggles at the now of the looking and I'm morphing into the then of the painting. Lost in the Surf and Bending the Knee
On our cruise we not only had Alexander our guide constantly counting to 29...but we had a Quite Vox voice system with headphones so Alexander could explain this and that without yelling and so we would remain in contact.
But as I found out, it does not work in sea water either figuratively or ethereally.
Near the "Hunter's Punishment"
was Paulus Potter's "Wolfhound"
, some small exquisite pieces by Gerard Dou, Frans Hals with his 40 shades of black, Alexander van del Tempel, Ferdinand Bol and other Dutch Masters.
I follow the stream...some heads of our group ahead...then my headphones went blank...stopping and adjusting...I now can see no one I know...walk fast...Alexander's voice is back...gotta be near...enter a parallel passage...yes I think this is the way.
Then a wave of Chinese coming at me led by a flag...numbers totally filling the corridor...dive left into a small gap...wave surging...dive down...dumper
Dirck Jacobsz 1497-1567
"Amstrdam Arquebusier's Guild"
breaking over me...gasp a breath...another wave as large and powerful hitting me...swimming forward against the current...calmer water ahead...walking faster as the crowd thins...our group gotta be just ahead...little realising that they had turned right at the moment I had dipped my head and dived to the left of the surging wave.
They may have also have gone down a level down the Council Staircase which was near the Rembrant Hall.
Eventually the surf spits me out on foreign shores...Vox silent or dead...retrace my steps as my sense of direction is usually sound and frantically found Alexander or he found me. "Come with me"
he is saying, "the others are on a lower floor"
...leads me to a lift...yes they have one in this place.
And as the lift doors closes behind us...I bend the knee.
Onto one knee hands clasped as if in prayer...begging forgiveness.
He smiles benevolently, "It is OK David."
He is not annoyed at all.
Then we are in another section of Dutch Masters...he points and disappears ahead..."We'll meet at the main stairs at ("x") o'clock"
...and he is gone. "Alexander our Guide"
thereafter was elevated to "Alexander the Great"
that was adopted by the other Aussie mariners as our Russian tour progressed.
The hall was close to empty of swimmers...I am now where I am supposed to be...the eyes in the paintings locking on mine...that look of understanding and recognition...the art of now of the looking morphing me into the then of the paintings.
And as is my way I had the most marvellous time alone with the Dutch Masters...skipping stones...collecting sea shells...surf smooth and laughter bright as the tide ebbs out.
Even spent some time with fellow mariner Jan in some of the Royal halls that were now empty of people.
Was at the Ambassadors Staircase 10 minutes early...joining those who always arrive 15 minutes early to catch the bus back, which is not an always for me.
I don't mind being last back on the bus...but as I am the hunter...I always ensure I am never late!.
Relax & Enjoy,
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