Our final day in St Petersburg was to end with a 22:00 train to Moscow meaning a 12:00 checkout. Thankfully we were able to store our luggage though so after breakfast we set out for the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Collection.
While the palace was commissioned by Peter the Great, he died before its completion, and it was Catherine the Great who had its exterior remodelled by Rastrelli – her favourite Italian architect – and linked to a separate annex where she went to escape official duties and entertain private guests – her “Hermitage”. Such was her prominence and the wealth of the Russian empire that over time she filled it with one of the most significant art collections in the world.
I have to be honest here [I generally try to be anyway] – that which I would collectively [and doubtless inaccurately] refer to as “classic” art does nothing for me. I’ve tried, and believe me I tried again, but all I see is a load of dull old oil paintings. I don’t for a second underestimate their skill and talent – I am not, and never will be, a painter, or likely contribute in any other way to the arts but I refuse to be seduced by the notion that I’m supposed to be in awe of the four-hundred and thirty-seventh picture of Jesus and a couple of other blokes doing something or other.
“Neanderthal!” I hear you cry. Well perhaps I am, if that’s what it means to recognise that many – the vast majority I’ve seen – seem to take great pride in being inaccurately proportioned, tick the “must represent something religious” mandate, and show nothing visceral, nothing passionate, no real emotion at all. Bold words from the Neanderthal. To clarify – something I have a tendency to do – it does nothing for me. Should this same subject matter truly stimulate another then wonderful – clearly it does or the collection would neither exist nor be visited by thousands of people every month. Guess it’s just another point on which the masses and I fail to see eye-to-eye.
It’s not like I have no interest in art. I have a lot of time for Dali and the dreamscape imagery of Surrealism, where anything is fair game to collectively represent a concept. Installation art – physical manifestations beyond the canvas that allow you to enter into a piece, touch, become a part of in three dimensions – also works for me. And architecture, from huge bold statements to intricate details. All of these capture my attention and with the recent sea-change in the amount of photography I’ve thrown myself into I’ve noticed that colour, shape, symmetry, beauty and fashion are where my lens is likely to focus.
The above comes together to explain why I appreciated the Palace Interiors for more than the paintings on display within. Other highlights for me included the armour and weapons collection; I shit you not, they had a gun-blade – how much of a dude would that guy have been out on the battlefield?!? The elegance and intricacy of these garbs of defence and instruments of destruction plays such a stark contrast against the brutal truth of their intended function.
There was also a guest exhibition by Anthony Gormley – lifestyle humanoid figures in various different positions / poses conveying human emotions, all built from small blocks of wood that looked very much like off-cuts of fence posts. Probably sounds ridiculous from my description, but I think there are a couple of shots in the galleries that will hopefully do it a little more justice.
We left the hermitage and returned to the pie shop we’d visited the day before, making a series of poor decisions in the “point-at-what-looks-nice-oh-shit-that’s-cabbage-pie” approach resulting in a disappointing lunch. Then we took a long walk across the river, through the Peter & Paul fortress and then spent an age cursing a poorly scaled map until we finally found a Metro station.
We hit a Soviet Cafe for a beer, and listened to musical genius that was “Russian Girls” [surely another Andrew Noble super-group] while proving to ourselves that we had no idea how to play Dominoes. Tea was Yalki Palki!, a chain restaurant of traditional Russian dishes. After another Americano we returned for our bags and then made the short walk to the train station.