Lonely Planet Writer

Russian museum sends rarely loaned portraits to London

The staff of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery is packing up some of Russia’s finest paintings to send to London for a landmark exhibition.

Tretyakov gallery, Moscow.
Tretyakov gallery, Moscow. Image by Andrey / CC BY 2.0

The 26 portraits being sent to the National Portrait Gallery for an exhibition March 17 to June 26 are part of an exchange that also includes major British works loaned to Russia. The Tretyakov portraits going to London show elite artists from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tretyakov director Zelfira Tregulova singles out two – portraits of writer Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov and of composer Modest Mussorgsky by Ilya Repin – for their powerful depiction and “profound analysis”.

The portraits from the Tretyakov are rarely loaned for foreign exhibition. The iconic portrait of Dostoevsky was last seen in Britain in 1959. The 1881 Mussorgsky portrait was completed just before the composer died of alcoholism at the age of 42. The work shows the harsh reality of his condition, but at the same time conveys his energy and spirit.

Ms Tregulova said the show presents a unique insight into a golden age of Russian culture leading up to the 1917 revolution, showing “Russian creativity and the originality of those people with its pluses and minuses”. Ms Tregulova took charge at the country’s premier collection of Russian art a year ago. She had been assistant director of the Kremlin Museums and has curated major exhibitions of Russian art abroad, including the 2005 Guggenheim museum show that was the largest ever of Russian art in the United States.

At the Tretyakov, she has used television and social media to create such buzz for a recently ended show of Valentin Serov’s works that viewers stood in line for hours to get in, at one point even breaking down the door. Nearly a half-million people visited what was reportedly Russia’s most popular show in 50 years.

London's National Portrait Gallery.
London’s National Portrait Gallery. Image by Toby Oxborrow / CC BY-SA 2.0

The traffic is not all one way, and the National Portrait Gallery is lending works of equal stature, including the so-called “Chandos portrait”, believed to depict William Shakespeare, and the “Ditchley portrait,” a depiction of Queen Elizabeth I standing on the globe. These, as well as portraits of Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, will go on show at the Tretyakov in June, playing to a strong and enduring love of British culture among Russians.

Cambridge University’s Rosalind Blakesley, who curated the National Portrait Gallery show, said the early stage of negotiations with the Tretyakov involved first the Russians agreeing to loan so many treasures on her wish list, then issuing their own equally ambitious requests.

Ms Blakesley said it is a fair exchange of works that will resonate with art lovers in London and Moscow alike, hailing what she calls “extraordinary opportunities and collaborations” with Russian museums and galleries that have ambitions for future exchanges with the UK.

(Press Association)