As the centenary of the October Revolution draws closer, Saint Petersburg is a city that invites the visitor to think about how events in the past carry forward into the present and shape the future. Visiting the Hermitage museum last week I couldn’t help but recall the ‘footage’ of the Winter Palace being stormed in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 film October – in which a crowd of ‘extras’ made up, in some cases, of actual revolutionaries from a decade earlier, ‘re-enacted’ the process of breaking into the home of the Provisional Government and seizing it for the Bolshevik cause. The knowledge that more damage was done to the Palace in this 10th anniversary celebration than in the actual event reminds us that ‘history’ is always in the process of being edited in line with the requirements of the present. For the record, we managed to avoid the queues snaking around Palace Square by making use of a strangely under-employed automated ticket machine and entering by the side door.
Navigating this immense museum is a challenge, not least because in many rooms it’s not clear whether your focus should be the Old Masters on the walls or the rooms themselves. The Hermitage is not a ‘neutral’ gallery space, but a gallery inside a palace, and your attention is always demanded by something in the decor. This task made more challenging as the never-ending stream of guided tour groups floods into its rooms, positioning anywhere up to fifty people in front of a single painting, straining to get a good angle for the selfie that they all aspire to get in front of a 60cm high Leonardo or something similar.
At the top of the grand staircase – used so effectively in October – there is a temporary exhibition in the Nicholas Hall of Anselm Kiefer’s monumental paintings. The first solo show that Kiefer has been given in Russia, ‘For Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations’ allows his immense canvases to fill the Hermitage’s dauntingly large rooms. From Rembrandts and Van Dycks the visitor is taken into Keifer’s mysterious landscapes, dark and muddy, framed by reeds or trees, often receding towards an unstable vanishing point. With the paint applied so thickly that it stands out from the canvas (if you can, stand as close to side-on to a Keifer painting and you’ll know what I mean here) they have a sculpted quality, as though the layers of paint were themselves the layers of history through which the painter tries to probe. In these works, as in many that featured in his recent show at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Keifer makes use of a model boat or submarine, rusted and cut in half so as to be affixed to the canvas, navigating its uncertain world.
The presence of History in Kiefer’s work has long been a critical talking point, and for a German artist born in 1945 the past is often inescapable. In these works, though, the invocation in the titles of many paintings of Khlebnikov, a leading figure in Russia’s early-20th century avant-garde, draws the viewer back to the Saint Petersburg setting, and the intersection between art and history, between the ideals of the poet and the realities of how era-defining changes occur on the streets. Khlebnikov saw the turmoil around him as part of a still-larger process of historical flux, with states rising and falling at each other’s expense but without a final resolution. Like many of the artists and writers who saw the early Soviet period he died (in 1922, aged 36) before the outcome of its upheaval was fully clear. In a new century, Kiefer’s work reminds us that the past casts a long shadow, and it is as hard for us to escape its influence as it is for the model boats in his works to free themselves from the swathes of paint around them. In 2017 his work can, perhaps, have no better home than the top of the staircase that revolutionaries ‘stormed’ a century ago and have been re-imagining ever since.
‘Anselm Kiefer – For Velimir Khlebnikov: Fates of Nations’ is at the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, until 3rd September 2017. For more information see: