The return of the masterpieces from the Morozov collection, which hung until April 2022 in the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, could mark the beginning of a film about the relationship between art and war. Transporting the works back to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow were a problem, if only because air traffic between Europe and Russia was shut down. And so five convoys of six trucks each filled with early modern masters traveled through Belgium and Germany to the ferry connection between Travemünde and Helsinki and from there to Russia. A legal foothold was that the contents of the trucks on the forms should not be marked as ‘luxury goods’, as this could lead to immediate seizure.
Works of art are not immune to war. Hermitage aan de Amstel severed all ties with its partner in St. Petersburg at the beginning of March. The exhibition Russian avant-garde: revolution in art was cancelled, loan was cancelled. The director of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg Mikhail Piotrovsky initially kept a low profile, but existed in June to characterize the international presentation of Russian heritage as the cultural leg of the “special operation” in which the great Putin leads his country. . Cézannes, Monets, Bonnards, Picassos and Bracques also became the toys of the powers that be in a world that previously liked to use pious words about the unifying power of art. For us, Russian art and heritage came to the bottom of our priority list.
And it also blocked the view of the book that New York-based Dutch photographer Wijnanda Deroo was making about one of the greatest art museums in the world, which suddenly found itself in enemy territory. Behind the walls is the culmination of four trips she made in 2018 and 2019 to Saint Petersburg to photograph what goes on in the Hermitage’s storage room. “I want the people who look at this book to share in my amazement at what is to be seen behind the walls of this museum,” she writes in her introduction.
And she does. This book, which itself was almost buried before it was finally published, is a treasure trove of treasure troves. Room after room filled with statues, traditional costumes, decorated weapons and valuables, stored under tissue paper and bubble wrap in rooms lit by 1970s fluorescent tubes. We also get occasional glimpses of the official side of the museum, with kitchenware and hunting scenes, frame by frame over tightly arranged red damask chairs. The windows there are covered with sheer curtains pleated from top to bottom.
Old palaces, attics, dressing rooms, waiting rooms, abandoned hotels have been the subject of Deroo for about forty years. People pass very sporadically in her pictures, like random shadows among the furniture that seem to have been left behind in a vanished world. Sometimes time has fulfilled this suggestion. In the eighties, for example, she photographed the now hip New York neighborhood of Brooklyn, as it no longer exists, a ghost town of abandoned factories, weeds and viaducts. Memorial sites was the name of the series she created in 2015. Our brains are wired to always look for meaning, even where there is none.
Behind the walls of the Hermitage, through Deroo’s camera, there is also such a world that is actually history. Blotting paper, cracks and damp spots in the ceilings, marble caryatids that invisibly keep watch over the printing room. Sleeping Beauty’s palace, sunk in a thousand year sleep.
In reality, of course, this is not the case. Russians still visit the Hermitage, and the works of art are nicely preserved and restored. But that world is closed to us for now.