Culture : Painting an End to Russian Epic : Moscow's prized Tretyakov Gallery is reopening after 10 years of renovation.


Imagine France shutting down the Louvre for a decade while political cataclysm visited chaos and poverty upon Paris. Such was the fate of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Russia's premier art museum, which will reopen April 5 after being closed for a renovation that has lasted an epic 10 years.

"It began before Gorbachev, and it ends with Yeltsin," said Lidia I. Ioleva, the deputy museum director, who strolled through the clean, airy, masterpiece-studded halls wearing a beatific expression of the sort rarely seen in Russia these days.

"This is a symbol of Russia's rebirth," she said. "It instills pride and hope that we're not so poor and miserable after all."

The Tretyakov, which President Boris N. Yeltsin called "our national treasure," holds the country's richest collection of Russian art, about 100,000 works ranging from the legendary 12th-Century icon "Our Lady of Vladimir" to 19th-Century classics by Ilya Repin.

But the gallery and its staff have suffered through a tortuous renovation that has been delayed by every problem known to Russia since former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev launched perestroika.

Chronic funding problems became acute when the collapse of the ruble made it impossible to pay the Western contractors who were doing much of the work. The breakdown of trade ties among the former Soviet republics halted the gallery's supply of Georgian marble and Belarussian woodwork in mid-project.

Hyperinflation has made it hard for museum officials even to calculate what the 10-year job has cost in real terms, though last year alone they spent the rough equivalent of $9 million.

A final blow came last autumn. The directors of the world's 50 leading museums had been invited to a gala December opening. But a heavy snowfall hit Moscow, and the new roof began to leak. The opening was abruptly canceled.

As late as last week, museum officials were struggling with a mysterious damp spot on one wall--but vowed to open on schedule this time, come what may.

The new Tretyakov was worth waiting for; it is arguably the most enjoyable museum in Russia.

By roofing over the courtyard around the old home of merchant and art collector Pavel M. Tretyakov, the gallery he founded 125 years ago has acquired 11 new exhibition rooms. Several were specially designed to exhibit huge paintings that had been gathering dust for decades because there was nowhere to hang them.

The Tretyakov now boasts a world-class climate-control system, sophisticated lighting that adds only the artificial candlepower required to augment the natural glow emanating from skylights, and a desperately needed security system. Such innovations have yet to come to the glorious but decrepit Hermitage in St. Petersburg, where Old Masters are exposed to direct sunlight and art thieves have pulled off some stunning heists.

The new Tretyakov also has a modern computer center, lecture hall and children's studio.

The museum management is changing too. Though it remains a national gallery, the post-Soviet Tretyakov is turning to Russia's emerging business community for more financial help.

A "Friends of the Tretyakov" fund-raising society is being formed, said the museum director, Valentin A. Rodyonov. And the gallery is organizing its first charity auction, to be conducted by Christie's, of artworks donated by collectors.

A private philanthropist--a species made extinct in Soviet society--has pledged to raise $1.9 million to help kick off the renovation of the Tretyakov's other gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art, a Soviet architectural monstrosity on the edge of Gorky Park that houses a 20th-Century art collection. It has been beset by moisture from the nearby Moscow River.

Enter Rashit Akhounov, president of the Multinational Commercial Cartel, a private company that puts together development projects in the autonomous republic of Tatarstan. Akhounov is a former poet and current trade representative for Tatarstan, who says he commutes between homes in Kazan, Moscow, Kiev and Paris. In Moscow, he is founding the "Club of Respectable People"--elite entrepreneurs.

Earlier this month, he sponsored a private exhibition of the works of Russian artist Alexei Begov in one building of the newly renovated Tretyakov. Akhounov said it will not be difficult to raise $1.9 million from the Respectable People for the Tretyakov. In fact, he said he expects to deliver the money within three months.

Meanwhile, Russian art lovers will be feasting on treasures locked up so long that a generation of schoolchildren has never seen them.

Before the maze of old buildings on Lavrushin Lane closed for renovation in 1985, Muscovites used to line up for hours to get in. The lines may be even worse now, but those who make it inside will a get a far better view of the classics, which used to be hung three or four vertically on every wall. Now the stack is usually just two.

For the first time, the Tretyakov will display Mikhail Vrubel's 19-by-42-foot masterwork "Princess Gryoza," which because of its size has rarely seen daylight. A special pavilion was built to show the "Princess" at its debut in Nizhny Novgorod in 1896; critics panned it as too modern. The Bolshoi Theater used it as a backdrop for a time. Then it lay neglected for years in the theater's attic.

"People worked on top of it, they sat on it, they forgot it was there," Ioleva said. "In the early 1960s, somebody remembered that it still existed and suggested the Tretyakov take it."

Vrubel's chef d'oeuvre was unrolled for a quick look--then rolled up and never shown again, Ioleva said. Now, at last, the restored "Princess" hangs in the glass-roofed inner courtyard.

Several newly renovated historic buildings around the gallery will show other facets of the Tretyakov collection. They include an early 19th-Century building that has been converted into a House of Drawing, a 17th-Century period house that will exhibit sculpture, metal works and icons of the same era and a Golden Storehouse that will show Russian gold and silver jewelry, Tretyakov spokesman and art historian Oleg T. Ivanov said.

In addition, the adjacent 17th-Century Church of Nikolai Tolmachev, which also belongs to the Tretyakov, has been restored and will be a functioning church and a museum displaying religious icons. The church was closed by the Bolsheviks in 1931, its golden domes and 19th-Century bell tower ignominiously pulled down, Ioleva said. But the church has been rebuilt.

Ioleva is waiting for opening day with a decade's worth of impatience.

"People are always talking about how terrible everything is these days, how everything is falling apart," she said. "Prices rise, our salaries don't, ties break down, production drops, but we are opening a bright, clean, beautiful new gallery."

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