Filming Canova's The Three Graces. Source: Press photo
“It’s a unique situation,” director Margy Kinmouth said. “There’s nothing like it anywhere in the world.”
The documentary marks the first time that an international filmmaker has been allowed inside the Hermitage, which is housed in the confection-like Winter Palace on the bank of the Neva River. Ms. Kinmouth, whose previous work includes a documentary about the Mariinsky Theatre, came at the invitation of director Mikhail Piotrovsky. She was given complete access to the museum’s 2,000 rooms, including ones that most visitors never see, such as the costume department, where imperial gowns and liveries are repaired, and vast storage areas containing “millions and millions more objects,” she said.
Filming lasted over two years. “It’s such an enormous place, and there’s so much choice in how you show the story,” Ms. Kinmouth added.
The Hermitage collection began under Catherine the Great, who competed with European monarchs to assemble the world’s best art collection. She brought thousands of Old Masters to Russia, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Velazquez, as well as more personal purchases, including engraved gemstones and a porcelain dinner service for her lover Prince Potemkin. Catherine acquired “not only the best names, but also the best things from the best names,” Piotrovsky says in the film.
Piotrovsky’s father Boris served as the Hermitage’s director from 1964 to 1990, and the young Piotrovsky spent much of his childhood there, taking his first steps in the museum. The film recreates how he would wander through the halls at night, going up to the roof and playing in the armoury.
The film’s editor, Gordon Mason, said these nighttime meanderings through the halls are some of his favourite moments in the film. Ms. Kinmouth “always tries to approach the subject from a different point of view,” he said. “It would have been easy to make a staid documentary about the museum, but I think we managed to create something more dynamic.”
The film’s crew became familiar with the ins and outs of daily life at the museum. Every Monday, when the Hermitage is closed, artists come to copy its masterpieces. “With some people, we would go back and after a year they were copying the same Rubens,” Ms. Kinmouth said.
Until the end
In 1917, during the October Revolution, the Hermitage came under attack: viewers see slashed portraits of the tsars and smashed golden carriages that are now relegated to storage. In the 1930s, over the bitter protests of the museum's director, Stalin sold off some of the museum’s most priceless treasures, including Raphael’s Madonna, to fund the Soviet industrialisation drive. The crew traveled to the U.S. to film these artworks where they are now kept, in Washington D.C.’s National Gallery.
“We wanted people to fall in love with the artwork,” Mr. Mason said. “You have to luxuriate in them and feel an emotional attachment to understand the loss that occurred when they were sold.”
The fate of the Hermitage’s staff has always been tied up with the museum: at the height of Stalin’s terror, 45 employees were sent to the Gulag, and over 100 died during the siege of Leningrad (the art, meanwhile, was evacuated to the Urals). Today, this tradition of dedication continues. “There are so many women working there who carry on working there literally until their death,” Ms. Kinmouth said. “They don’t retire, they just carry on. They have such knowledge of the collection.”
She notes that there is a “dynastic quality” to the Hermitage. Most curators are the descendants of previous generations of staff; when they die, their funerals are held in the museum. The crew witnessed one such funeral during filming.
While the Winter Palace’s massive rooms, antique chandeliers and windows overlooking the river are beloved by visitors, they create some difficulties for filming. According to director of photography Maxim Tarasyugin, the main technical challenge of working in the Hermitage is the mixed light. “The light coming through the window has one colour temperature, while that of the lamps in the Hermitage varies from room to room and even within the same hall, where there are different chandeliers,” he said. “It’s a bit of a struggle.”
While the film’s primary focus is historical, viewers get close to some of the finest artworks in the Hermitage’s three million-piece collection. Using LED light that causes no harm to centuries-old surfaces, the camera pans over everything from Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son to Scythian gold from the 7th century BC, acquired by Peter the Great.
“I think what’s amazing about film,” Ms. Kinmouth said, “is that you can take things that don’t leave Russia, and show them to the world.”
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