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March 2020

No. 1404 – Vol 162

Peter the Great: Collector, Scholar, Artist. Moscow Kremlin Museums

Exhibition Review

Peter the Great: Collector, Scholar, Artist. Moscow Kremlin Museums

29th November 2019–8th March

by Kamila Kociałkowska

This exhibition, commemorating the 350th anniversary of Peter the Great’s birth, presents the ambitious argument that he was Russia’s first Enlightenment monarch.(1) This is quite the rebrand. Peter is known, among other things, for being an amateur dentist and a deckhand on Deptford’s dockyards. Conventional wisdom claims that Russia’s age of Enlightenment did not arrive until several decades after his death, ushered in by Catherine the Great. The curator, Olga Dmitrieva, is making a bold claim here, especially as she makes it entirely through material culture.

The show, which spills over two buildings and draws on the collections of twelve international museums, presents a history of Peter’s world in over two hundred objects. They make a fascinating cabinet of curiosities, ranging from ancient Scythian archaeology and Qing-dynasty clockwork to arcane astrolabes. Peter’s proposed Enlightenment credentials are evinced, in part, through the objects themselves, which offer a vivid inventory of his intellectual curiosity. But the thread running through this exhibition concerns more than the pure fact of their possession. Uniting its assembled items is a coherent argument about cultural policy. Peter was progressive, it is claimed, because unlike rulers before him he appreciated that power was a performance that could be enacted through objects and was therefore personally invested in their context, curation and creation.

The exhibition opens with a display of the Tsarist treasury, a dazzling selection of high-wattage dynastic regalia showcased to snowblinding effect: shining crowns trimmed with fox fur, ceremonial silver maces studded with turquoise (cat.no.59; Fig.21) and gilded sabres with golden hilts. This is the aesthetics of power and, more than merely showing Peter as a collector, it emphasises his involvement as a curator. We learn that he was the first Tsar to transform the Royal treasury into a proto-museum. Under previous rulers, the Russian crown jewels were in storage when not in use, but Peter – inspired by his ‘Grand Embassy’ tour of Europe – ordered them to be placed permanently on view for his court and its visitors.

This intuition for publicising power through permanent display extended to his treatment of his diplomatic gifts, which were exhibited in Peter’s court. The Tsar received many precious objects from envoys travelling between monarchs, amassing a trove of gilded glassware with mythological scenes and Ming-era carved jade. Realising that this ambassadorial exchange was evidence of international allegiance and intellectual networking, Peter understood that it was essential these objects be kept on view. A snapshot of his international relations is conveyed through a large brass ewer and basin given by Charles II of Great Britain in 1664 and several showcases of Chinese porcelain, silk tapestries and lacquered tableware. More than merely a trove of antiques, this collection is a masterclass in early modern marketing, proclaiming Russia as a rapidly modernising state with a diplomatic mission that extended eastwards to the Orient and westwards to Europe.

The second part of the exhibition concerns Peter as a scholar. His academic interactions include a letter from Isaac Newton and a report by Gottfried Leibniz, both regarding the development of the sciences in Russia. As it is conventionally Catherine who is famed for her correspondence with major Enlightenment thinkers, it is illuminating to see that the paper trail in fact goes back to Peter. The curators further claim that Peter preceded Catherine in launching Russia’s first cultural policies. This point is made through a case study of his collection of Scythian gold. An array of ornamental objects belonging to Eurasian nomadic nobility and dating as far back as the fifth century BC are on display. These constituted the country’s first archaeological collection and include gold belt plates (no.182; Fig.22), spiral bracelets and torqs, carved with mythological creatures and animalistic motifs and all believed by their makers to be possessed of talismanic properties. Peter was made aware of the value of Scythian gold only when touring the Netherlands. Here, he learnt that the mayor of Amsterdam, Nicolaes Witsen, was collecting and trading in the ancient treasures of the Russian steppe. Realising that his national heritage was being stolen before his eyes (as well as acquisition by European intellectuals, widespread looting throughout Siberia was threatening to disperse the remaining Scythian artefacts), Peter introduced a set of laws in 1717–18 demanding that these ancient works were safeguarded. These were the first decrees ever issued in Russia regarding the preservation of national heritage, leading the curators of the present exhibition to conclude that the concept of cultural legacy itself originated with Peter. 

Perhaps the most surprising part of Peter’s personality revealed through this exhibition, however, is its final category: artist. It is a littleknown fact that as well as collecting and curating works of art, Peter also created them. On show is a drypoint etching that he made in 1698, showing an allegorical winged figure holding aloft a cross while standing on architectural ruins (no.79). He was artistically gifted; the drawings reveal Peter’s accomplished, if unrefined, skill in handling the human form and in its high-contrast cross-hatching. His commitment to craftsmanship meant that he ‘maintained an interest in technological innovations and equipped his workshops to the highest contemporary standards’, as the catalogue notes (p.147). To demonstrate this, the exhibition includes his Florentine turning lathe, a huge machine standing over two metres tall. The objects Peter created on it are also shown, including a handmade compass encased in an ivory box (no.97; Fig.20). The accomplishment involved in its creation, with skilled details which include a screw cap topped with a medallion embossed with a portrait of a wreathed Tsar, is startling since it reveals that this larger-than-life figure was, in his free time, a hobbyist.

A potential criticism of this exhibition is that the Kremlin is predictably selective in its praise of Peter as a creative ‘titan’ and a cultural ‘trailblazer’, while omitting reference to his many flaws (no mention is made of his forays into filicide). The catalogue essays somewhat compensate for this, complicating the picture by acknowledging that Peter was a ‘destroyer as much as a creator’ (p.12). Yet one could argue that this whitewashing is in itself a conceptual continuation of the exhibition’s main premise. This show is about the skilful use of art as propaganda, about how material culture can be used to brand national identity. This was as true in Peter’s lifetime as it is in his legacy. That the contemporary Kremlin continues to use its collection for the same purpose only proves the power of these objects and confirms their enduring ability to rebrand Russian rulers as enlightened individuals.

1. Catalogue: Petr Pervyii: Kollektsioner, issledovatel’, khudozhnik [Peter the Great: Collector, scholar, artist]. Edited by Olga Dmitrieva and Vasily Novoselov. 335 pp. incl. 232 col. ills. (Moscow Kremlin Museums, Moscow, 2019), 2000 rb. ISBN 978–5–88678–363–6.