The Hermitage Isn’t for Hermits

Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, but I challenge that adage. Give me a thousand words rather than a picture. Often they will articulate the truth about a place, while a photo can be very selective, focusing on one glorious moment, or one stunning structure, and ignoring everything in-between.

I’m thinking of our recent trip to St. Petersburg. Like many travelers, I had seen the air-dried shots of golden domes and the city’s lights reflected in the Neva River during the white nights. Unfortunately, they didn’t prepare me for the reality. Yes, there are some lovely places to visit in the city, including the many former palaces, and yes the golden domes that top most of the cathedrals are dramatic, and yes the pastel-colored structures look particularly charming from a tour boat. But overall, St. Petersburg is not a beautiful city. Nor would I call it handsome.

Perhaps I was biased because Stockholm was our last stop before we flew into St. Petersburg. Founded in 1200, and an even older city, its structures don’t seem as tired as youthful St. Petersburg, founded in 1703. Like Petersburg, Stockholm also was built along multiple canals. But it has a fresher ambiance, and the buildings seem more varied, not locked into one man’s vision: Czar Peter the Great’s. He specified the heights of buildings and their style, creating a monotonous vista overall.

Moscow in comparison is much more attractive because of the variety of structures, from ancient to new. It first emerged in the 12th Century and has grown organically since then, based on many people’s vision, not just one. Trees line the streets, much like in parts of Manhattan. In fact, it reminds me of New York both visually and in terms of its energy: the city buzzes day and night, its aggressive drivers roaring through the wide boulevards.

But St. Petersburg does have an advantage over Moscow. While the latter has the Kremlin and what’s inside those walls, St. Petersburg has the Hermitage, the most remarkable museum in the world. At last count, there were nearly three million works on exhibit. Its total area covers 418,230 square feet. IMG_0038

The Hermitage’s origins can be traced back to Peter the Great’s private art collection. He purchased numerous works during his travels abroad and later hung them in his residence. Catherine the Great expanded the collection considerably, she and her successors building the Hermitage’s holdings mainly with purchases of the Western European aristocracy and monarchy’s private collections. By the time Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894, he was heir to the greatest compilation of art in Europe. Most impressive is the fact that the museum didn’t lose any of its treasures during the wars. The director managed to move everything to safe locations until after the danger had passed.

The collection includes pictures you won’t see elsewhere. Works by Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael, and many other world famous artists command a central place in the galleries. Our favorites are always the impressionists and post-impressionists, and there are numerous galleries—several city blocks long—containing pieces by Matisse, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Cezanne, and the rest. The exhibition includes many paintings by lesser-known artists from that period whose work is equally impressive. A feast for the eyes.

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People on tours, even if there are only two people and a guide, don’t have to stand in line for tickets or entry, so we were grateful that we had a guide, Gallina, for two of our visits there. We entered by a separate rear entrance. Once inside, Gallina knew all the right moves to avoid the larger tour groups and crowds that usually throng the place. On our own, it would have taken us hours to figure out where everything is. But Gallina knows exactly where the major works are located and how to reach them.

Since the museum is located in the Winter Palace, as we made our way through the rooms, it wasn’t just the artworks that caught our attention. The interiors remind visitors of the Hermitage’s former life. Without our guide’s insight, we wouldn’t have noticed how the floor and ceiling designs mirrored each other in many of the rooms and that we were experiencing the original materials. We passed through one room blazing with chandeliers and another where the Czar’s throne still sits expectantly, waiting for its resident.

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The décor constantly reminded us of the contents’ origins, creating a dramatic backdrop for the treasures. The main entrance has a massive stairway that ascends on both left and right, red carpet marching up the center of the marble stairs. On our ascent, we kept thinking of all the people who had gone before us, including royalty. It put into perspective the importance of what we were seeing.

No air conditioners or other modern devices cool the rooms. Instead, on warm days, the windows are opened so breezes can waft through and cool viewers and artworks. During our visit, several military bands were practicing in the huge square in front of the Hermitage for an annual celebration that would be happening the next day. As we made our way through the structure, Russian marching songs entertained us, and we could imagine similar music playing there in earlier times.

Hungry to see as much of the museum as possible, we visited it on four separate days, two without our guide. Gallina advised us to take advantage of the Wednesday evening hours when the place is open until 9 PM, which we did. The lack of long lines made our entry go quickly, and it was wonderful visiting when the exhibits weren’t overrun with people. We were able to get lost and stumble on treasures we might not have found otherwise. We ended up seeing artifacts on the lower level that date back to the earliest recorded history. Fragments of murals and interior walls are hung so that their textures resemble modern paintings.

During our second visit alone, we went in the mid-afternoon. It took about 30 minutes to reach the cashier where we purchased tickets, and this time we did have to contend with crowds again. But we pretended Gallina was leading us and made our way through the various rooms, constantly amazed by the variety and extent of the holdings.  

IMG_0612I started this rumination by saying that the Hermitage isn’t for Hermits. What do I mean by that? Hermits prefer solitude, but it’s impossible to be alone in the Hermitage. Its vast holdings make visitors participate in a world that we can only access through art and artifacts. I left feeling transformed by the experience of being there, not just taken back to previous eras but also filled with the images of everything I saw there. They reside in me now as well as in the Hermitage, my own private collection.

 

 

 

 

Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.

My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing.  I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all.  I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week.  We are so fortunate here at the Lake now.  The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript.  Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.

Here is a synopsis:

Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.

A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.

Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.

In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.

Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.

But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.

Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.


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