The Room of Contemporary Art at the Hermitage

This excerpt is from the book Bastards of Cultural Relations, published by Garage in Russian as part of the series GARAGE.txt, in which researcher and curator Katarina Lopatkina explores the Soviet Union’s international artistic contacts from the 1920s to the 1950s. 

Based on archival research, the book provides a detailed analysis of art selection and exchange mechanisms in the Soviet Union and beyond and traces the launch of new exhibition spaces for introducing contemporary art to a wide audience. In this chapter, Lopatkina tells the story of the Room of Contemporary Art at the Hermitage, established in the early 1930s to exhibit work by foreign artists.

The Room of Contemporary Art at the Hermitage

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, changes in the Soviet state’s cultural policy led to significant adjustments to the way museums worked. From the late 1920s, museums began to be thought of more often as political-educational institutions and their main aim was seen as exerting ideological influence on visitors and educating them politically. In November 1928, the first All-Union Excursion Conference took place in Moscow. It featured calls for museum work to be politically relevant and defined one of the most important programs: “to organize temporary and permanent exhibitions on contemporary and particularly burning issues, which will give answers to questions of interest and concern to the workers and provide the opportunity to use the exhibition materials for propaganda activities.”

The First All-Russian Museum Congress, which took place in December 1930, reinforced the trends identified earlier. The discussion of the papers among museum staff began before the official opening of the congress. Theses “for the widespread notification of museum workers” were printed and sent out ahead of time. At the congress one of the key papers was that of the director of Moscow’s Historical Museum, Yuri Milonov, entitled “The Aims of Museums of Various Types.” It concerned the definition of the aims and objectives of museum work as a whole and also particular aspects of the work of different types of museum. “All museums, without exception,” Milonov stressed, “regardless of the object of their work, should use their material to reveal to the visitor the laws of dialectics: to demonstrate individual objects at the stages of appearance, development, and destruction; to show the object of their work in all relations, all connections, all mediations.” The main point for historical museums was “showing not so much the history of culture as the dialectics of development of public forms; the appearance, development, and destruction of social formations; and their replacement, taking this development up to the present.”

It was then that the theme of the contemporary became important for the Hermitage. In 1931, the exchange of exhibits between the Hermitage, the Museum of New Western Art, and the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts came to an end, having lasted several years. The Hermitage received works by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso from the Museum of New Western Art. However, this did not look sufficiently “contemporary.” All of the works were from the period 1900–1910 and they did not meet the ideological demands of the 1930s with regard to the content of works of contemporary art. Using such material, it was simply impossible to embody the idea of “directly influencing, particularly using works of contemporary art, the consciousness and will of the working masses, activating them for the struggle of building socialism.” In order to fill these ideological gaps, the Room of Contemporary Art was organized at the Hermitage.

The Room of Contemporary Art was located on the second floor of the Winter Palace in room 415 (now room 318). In the guidebook of 1932, this room was identified as being for “temporary exhibitions” and was, both thematically and chronologically, the last room of the exhibition French Art of the Epoch of Industrial Capitalism.” Immediately before the Room of Contemporary Art, in room 414, there were works of “the art of imperialism” and “the art of the radical petty bourgeoisie, which is close to the proletariat.” Works by Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Van Dongen, Vlaminck, Marquet, Vallotton, and Maillol were defined as the former and the latter comprised prints and drawings by Steinlen and Masereel. From the beginning, the exhibition French Art of the Epoch of Industrial Capitalism was seen by its curator, Valentin Miller, as something that would develop further. One of the arguments for the exhibition’s location on the second floor of the Winter Palace, as stated in the “Short explanatory note on the new arrangement of the collection of the Western [Art] Department,” was the “possibility to foresee the future expansion of the collection into contemporary art.”

According to the Hermitage’s plan of work, toward the end of 1932 artworks by Western European artists, received in exchange for paintings and sculptures by Soviet artists, were to be added to the permanent exhibition in the Room of Contemporary Art. In this regard, the Department of Western European Art planned to carry out research on the theme “Art of Contemporary Europe.” By August 1, staff members Tatyana Lilovaya, Valentin Miller, and Janetta Matsulevich were supposed to have gathered the material and by October 1 they were to have created a plan of the exhibition.

The idea was clear. Works by Soviet artists could be purchased for rubles or received as gifts, which removed the need for the state’s hard currency reserves to be spent on works by Western artists. Exchange was nothing new. Beginning in the early 1920s, the staff of Moscow’s Museum of New Western Art had supplemented the collection through gifts and exchange. On December 27, 1922, the artist David Shterenberg, who was bound for Paris, was given a mandate to “gather for museum collections works by those contemporary French artists who are prepared make donations to the Museum of New Western Art.” This first attempt was unsuccessful, but in the late 1920s, in exchange for works by Tatyana Alexandrova, Konstantin Bogaevsky, Georgy Vereisky, Vsevolod Voinov, Lev Zhegin, Boris Zenkevich, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Alexander Kuprin, Sergei Lobanov, Yulia Obolenskaya, Vera Pestel, Mikhail Rodionov, Alexander Tyshler, and David Shterenberg, the Museum of New Western Art supplemented its Italian collection with drawings by Arturo Tosi, Alberto Salietti, Felice Casorati, Felice Carena, Giorgio de Chirico, Achille Funi, and others. In 1932, the museum’s director, Boris Ternovets, reacted enthusiastically to Igor Grabar’s proposal to exchange a number of icons from the stores of the Tretyakov Gallery for “several works of new German painting, which cannot be found in the Soviet Union.”

For unknown reasons, the Hermitage was unable to purchase works by Soviet artists and by early 1932 it was obvious that the organization of the permanent exhibition in the Room of Contemporary Art was under threat. At that point the decision was reached to organize a series of temporary exhibitions instead. They would be focused on Western European art, “while paying particular attention to proletarian art and related movements.” A document preserved in the Hermitage archive allows us to assign an exact date to this initiative. The memorandum of May 23, 1932 from the Head of the Department of Western European Art, Tatyana Lilovaya, to Boris Legran, director of the museum, reads:

To the Director of the State Hermitage

In view of the absence of works of contemporary art in the State Hermitage, the Western Department considers it advisable to designate the Room of Contemporary Art for temporary contemporary exhibitions, mainly of proletarian art, using for their organization part of the sum assigned to the Room of Contemporary Art. At the present time, the State Hermitage can count on receiving three exhibitions from Moscow:

– an exhibition of proletarian Dutch artists

– an exhibition of photomontage by John Heartfield

– an exhibition from the John Reed Club

The cost of organizing each exhibition will be around 300 rubles, based on the following budget:

1 – visit by a State Hermitage employee to Moscow – 140 rubles

2 – transport in both directions – 60 rubles

3 – packing – 50 rubles

4 – contingencies – 50 rubles

Total – 300 rubles

Head of Department T. Lilovaya
May 23, 1932

View of the Room of Contemporary Art in the Hermitage during the Exhibition of Revolutionary Dutch Artists, 1932–1933.
State Hermitage Archive

To all appearances, the director’s reaction was positive. In a message dated May 24, the Hermitage requested the All-Union Society for Cultural Relations (VOKS) to agree to hand over the exhibitions, which were at the Museum of New Western Art.

In June 1932, the Hermitage also sent a request for an exhibition of works by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz. However, the exhibition organizer, the All-Russia Cooperative Union of Artists (Vsekokhudozhnik), had already agreed with VOKS to show it in Leningrad at the Lenizo exhibition hall, which belonged to the cooperative. Documents indicate that the works had been located there since the beginning of June 1932. VOKS suggested that the Hermitage show an exhibition of German architecture, which was due to take place in Moscow from September 15 to October 6 and could then be dispatched to Leningrad. However, the exhibition required at least 400m2 of “usable exhibition space,” meaning the Room of Contemporary Art was too small. As a result of the negotiations, the first exhibition in the Room of Contemporary Art was the Exhibition of Revolutionary Dutch Artists (October 1932–May 1933). 

Painting and works on paper at the Exhibition of Revolutionary Dutch Artists, State Museum of New Western Art, Moscow, 1932.
Archive of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

The Dutch were responsible for this initiative. At the beginning of 1931, Adriaan Pieter Prins, organizer of the Netherlands – New Russia society, contacted VOKS and suggested that he could organize an exhibition of contemporary graphic art, sculpture, and architecture. A committee was formed, which was made up of the artist and director of the Socialist Artists’

Circle (SKK) Peter Alma, the sculptor Hildo Krop, and the designer Gerrit Rietveld. VOKS asked the committee to select left-wing and revolutionary themes among the applications to participate, so that “the viewer would receive a correct and comprehensive idea of left-wing tendencies in Netherlandish art.” In the Soviet Union the host was VOKS and as a result the exhibition was shown in Moscow, Leningrad, and Kharkov.

This was the Soviet viewer’s first experience of the contemporary art of the Netherlands. The exhibition elucidated to varying degrees the development of painting, sculpture, and architecture. “Based on the press of the time and her own memories,” Nina Yavorskaya wrote that the exhibition in Moscow featured artists of “expressionist tendencies.” She highlighted works by Charley Toorop and Hendrik Chabot, which referenced postimpressionism; Johan van Zweden, who was influenced by German expressionism; and the rational compositions of Peter Alma. An examination of the lists of exhibits and photographs of the exhibitions reveals the striking predominance of architecture. There were only twelve paintings (including three works by Peter Alma and three by Wim Bosma), six sculptures, around 40 works on paper, and more than 60 photographs of buildings and architectural designs. While the works on paper reflected the development of a realist tendency in Dutch art, architecture was represented by avant-garde projects of the functionalist school. In both Moscow and Leningrad it was architectural projects and printed materials that evoked most interest. 

Architectural projects at the Exhibition of Revolutionary Dutch Artists, State Museum of New Western Art, Moscow, 1932.
Archive of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

The Dutch functionalists were undoubtedly part of the contemporary avant-garde. They, alongside members of the Bauhaus and individual European architects, created the new architectural language from which the new architecture grew in the 1920s. Furthermore, in the Netherlands socially responsible architecture was an important element of town-planning policy from the outset, with a focus on providing accommodation for vulnerable sections of the community and constructing standard buildings. The Soviet decrees and slogans of the first post-revolutionary decade promised architects a degree of construction experience unprecedented in Europe. Dutch architects enthusiastically took up the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union and take part in the new Soviet construction projects. Young architects such as Johannes van Loghem, Johann Niegeman, Mart Stam, and Lotte Stam-Beese came to Russia, confident that here—in Kemerovo, Magnitogorsk, Orsk, Makeevka, and Kislovodsk—they would witness the emergence of a new world. For their part, the Soviet officials who invited foreign specialists to the Soviet Union were depending on their experience of standardized construction and creating the infrastructure for conveyor belt production.

In the Soviet Union the Dutch architects came up against an underdeveloped construction industry, with a deficit of qualified specialists, the predominance of manual labor, and a preponderance of simple technology. In an ironic twist of fate, the first examples of modern movement architecture, a style which appeared as part of the process of mastering advanced technologies of building with reinforced concrete, were made of wood and brick. Most of the large-scale construction projects, with their diverse and at times unique solutions, were not built. Accordingly, at the 1932 exhibition viewers could see an image of a new world that was supposed to appear in the young republic thanks to progressive architecture, but which was destined to remain a romantic project.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note which projects were brought to the USSR. Among architects working in the Soviet Union at the time, only Johannes van Loghem featured in the exhibition, with his design for a school in Kemerovo and a number of projects that remained on paper: a seaside sanatorium, a house of leisure, a residential complex with a shared garden, a competition design for the Palace of the Soviets, and residential buildings using reinforced concrete constructions. Johann Niegeman, Mart Stam, and other architects who were in sympathy with the Soviet government were not included. Left-wing ideas were represented by projects from Dutch architects, many of whom were skeptical of radical social reforms, while also being uncompromising adepts of the ideas of the modern movement. Meanwhile, the exhibition organizers ignored representatives of the Delft School and traditionalism, even though many of these architects were sympathetic to socialist ideas. 

The exhibition catalogue included the whole of Dutch functionalism (possibly only J.J.P. Oud was missing): Cornelis van Eesteren, Leendert van der Vlugt, Jan Duiker, Willem van Tijen, Willem Dudok, and Jan Wils. The exception was Wils’ design for a stadium in Amsterdam (1926–1928). One of the founders of the De Stijl group, by the time the exhibition opened Wils had already built a number of significant works of functionalist architecture, such as the hotel in Woerden (1918–1919), but the only work shown at the exhibition was the stadium constructed for the summer Olympics of 1928, in which Wils reverted to the methods of the Amsterdam School. The dissemination and popularization of the physical culture movement in the Soviet Union in the first post-revolutionary decades required the construction of sport and recreation complexes, and this example of a world-class contemporary stadium was definitely not out of place in the exhibition. 

The selection of exhibits was based on showing the largest variety of types of building: residential, industrial, educational, and recreational. The most notable name at the exhibition was that of Cornelis van Eesteren, chairman of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne) and the main adept of functional town planning in the Netherlands. Van Eesteren’s experiments in developing new standards for housing, cultural buildings (an agricultural institute theater), and industrial constructions (a water tower) were shown in the Soviet Union. The exhibition also included works by the architectural practice of Leendert van der Vlugt and Johannes Brinkman, who designed a key work of Dutch functionalism, the Van Nelle Tobacco Factory in Rotterdam (1925–1931). Soviet viewers also got to see a cottage with a roof terrace and a bank building. Alongside these works were shown variations on standard residential buildings by Charles Karsten and Ben Merkelbach, Piet Elling, and Albert Boeken. The only large-scale fantasy on the theme of high-rise construction at the exhibition was Boeken’s project for building multi-story apartment blocks in the historic quarter. A number of photographs demonstrated the achievements of industrial architecture: Johannes van den Broek and Willem van Tijen’s warehouses and Jan Emmen’s sluice.

Among the recreational and educational institutions (as well as van Loghem’s school) there was a Montessori school built to a project by Johan Groenewegen in Bloemendaal (1930). This alternative educational system became extremely popular in the Netherlands in the 1930s (Maria Montessori read her first lecture in Amsterdam in 1917). By the middle of the decade there were already more than 200 Montessori schools in the country. This specific pedagogical method required space to be organized in a particular way and as a result the new typology of school buildings became fertile ground for architectural experiments. 

Another important project was the Open-Air School for the Healthy Child in Amsterdam (1930). Jan Duiker’s project emerged on a wave of interest in the idea of organizing school classes in the open air. This new concept was particularly in demand as a result of the mass campaign against tuberculosis, which was intended to stop the spread of the disease and was launched in Europe in the interwar period. For Russia this issue was no less acute, but the solutions proposed by colleagues were not particularly economical for a standard project designed for mass construction on the scale of the Soviet Union. In addition, they were not suitable for all of the country’s climatic regions. Nevertheless, Duiker’s unusually futuristic project, with a picturesque composition of transparent blocks floating on reinforced concrete supports, would undoubtedly have made an impression on professionals and on ordinary visitors to the exhibition. Another of Duiker’s projects which was included in the exhibition—the Zonnestraal sanatorium in Hilversum—was built as part of the anti-tuberculosis campaign. Its construction, which was completed in 1928, was a major event in Dutch architecture. It was the most contemporary medical and recreational institution in the country.

Other well-known modern movement buildings in the Netherlands that can be seen on the photographs of the exhibition include Willem Dudok’s De Bijenkorf department store in Rotterdam (built in 1929–1930 and destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing on May 14, 1940). An enormous palace of trade and the first building in the Netherlands with escalators, the store was filled with incredible innovations (including an electric carpet for cleaning shoes) and represented an architecture cleansed of any traces of historical style and orders. It was a sign of the new era of which many visionaries dreamed, including in the Soviet Union.

The year in which the exhibition took place—1932—saw a decisive break with the avant-garde architectural experiment. Dutch architects continued to work in the Soviet Union, but by the mid-1930s their hopes were dashed. Some architects left, realizing that the bureaucracy and the specific nature of the infrastructure meant that their concepts could never be brought to life. Others were compelled to leave the country because of the increasingly closed nature of Soviet society and the negative reaction to the experimental trends of the first post-revolutionary decade. From 1932, after the summing up of the results of the competition for the Palace of the Soviets and the issuing of the decree “On the Restructuring of Literary and Artistic Organizations,” the official course in architecture focused on the assimilation of classical heritage. The fact that an exhibition of “revolutionary Dutch architecture” took place in 1932, a year which is considered to mark the beginning of the struggle with formalism in Russian architecture, underlines the inexact nature of accepted historical boundaries. The avant-garde did not disappear immediately after 1932, in the same way that retrospective tendencies did not disappear in the 1920s. But the optics of its perception changed.

The management of the Department of Western European Art saw the exhibition of works from the Netherlands as the beginning of an important stage of its work, but also as a half measure: “[. . .] the task of incorporating contemporary art, and particularly contemporary proletarian art, into the collection of the Hermitage is one of the most pressing tasks for the department in the next few years and is deserving of the most serious attention. The organization of separate exhibitions, which show the material in a fragmentary and non-sequential manner, is only a partial solution to the task of establishing a permanent exhibition, the existence of which would significantly increase the interest in temporary exhibitions. Based on the fact that the exchange of works of art is the only means of creating this department in the Hermitage, it is necessary to attract the attention of broad social circles and especially artistic organizations.” Regardless of bold announcements, the permanent exhibition of contemporary art at the Hermitage as initially conceived—comprising works by proletarian artists—was not created in the 1930s or later. Exhibitions of contemporary were not part of the State Hermitage’s plans for long. In 1940, the Room of Contemporary Art ceased to exist.