S. D. Chrostowska

Rubens in Furs

In a collection of objects of art, the contiguity of beauty sets off the beautiful and that of inferiority detracts from it. A judge who is wearied, is incapable of judging: ennui renders him unjust and severe.
—Astolphe de Custine, Letters from Russia*

walking through the zones of heat and cold, across creaking floorboards—as in a rural museum opened just for you if a custodian with the key can be found, or in a mountain chalet when all the guests are out pursuing winter sports and only you, having been excused, wander looking at old photographs, natural artifacts, and undusted bits of folklore, or, again, in a European temple of art at whose grand doors a shivering trail of people awaits admission, thinking not of Rembrandt but of samovars.

The austerity of the display inside does a disservice to the museum’s collection. Old Masters hide in poor light, and plump Rubenses have long since turned with age. Everything here finds its antithesis in the vivacity of the wintertime queue. This takes on the habit of an autonomous entity, which snakes outside, its cheeks full of colour and body clad in fur, pooling together scarce resources (drink, warmth, humour) as in the days of the Siege of Leningrad. The Russian state, making no provision for these avid culture-seekers, prefers to see in them the contiguity of need and inferiority. And in this condition they must suffer to gain entrance to the visions of beauty.

Inside, the ghost of Empress Catherine still hovers in the atmosphere, waving her despotic finger, humbling visitors even further:

  • 1. All ranks shall be left outside the doors, similarly hats, and particularly swords.
  • 2. Orders of precedence and haughtiness, and anything of such like which might result from them, shall be left at the doors.
  • 3. Be merry, but neither spoil nor break anything, nor indeed gnaw at anything.
  • 4. Be seated, stand or walk as it best pleases you, regardless of others.
  • 5. Speak with moderation and not too loudly, so that others present have not an earache or headache.
  • 6. Argue without anger or passion.
  • 7. Do not sigh or yawn, neither bore nor fatigue others.
  • 9. Eat well of good things, but drink with moderation so that each should be able always to find his legs on leaving these doors.

Look closer at this common humanity lined up before the State Hermitage in January snow. Do you not yourself prefer them to the contiguity of Dutch and Flemish masters on which restorers have not performed their sorely needed tasks? The picture of health and animal spirits takes here pride of place. Thus it is that near certain museums nature’s beauty can sometimes spring up.

* Astolphe de Custine, Letters from Russia, ed. Anka Muhlstein, 1843 trans. uncredited (1839; New York: NYRB, 2002), letter 19, p. 350.

† These were Catherine the Great’s “Rules for the Behaviour of All Those Entering These Doors.” Quoted in James Steward, The Collections of the Romanovs: European Art from the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (London: Merrell, 2005), 24.