by Eve Kalyva
1917 is the year of the Revolution. Telling the story from the point of view of the imperial family of Tzar Nicholas II, the Hermitage Amsterdam presents the exhibition 1917. Romanovs & Revolution. The End of Monarchy (4 February – 17 September 2017).
The exhibition is impressive not only because of the variety of items on display, but also in terms of how these are put together. Over 250 items including paintings, photographs, objets d’art and historical documents are carefully arranged throughout the rooms. These narrate key events from the life of the tzar and his choices and decisions in relation to the revolution, which brought an end to the 300-year Romanov monarchy in Russia.
With the main focus being the private lives of the imperial family, the exhibition only scratches the surface of the complexity of events that led to this landmark event and its importance for world history. It intermittently hints at the unfathomable challenges the revolutionaries faced in reconstructing the vast empire of extreme social inequality, serfdom, illiteracy and heterogeneity that was pre-revolutionary Russia. But when it comes to the visitor experience, Hermitage Amsterdam is second to none. The 17th century building, a former Home for Old Women, is beautifully transformed and the exhibition offers an experience that is both immersive and enjoyable.
The main exhibition hall is set up as a shopping arcade. At the bottom end hangs the full body portrait of the tzar by Ilya Repin, the most renowned Russian artist of the 19th century. On the long walls, a series of windows captures the historical background of the revolution. One can see jewels, gowns, historical items and archive images while listening to the story of the Fabergé Imperial Easter eggs that the tzars passed from father to son. Posters illustrate the wars against Japan (1904-05) and Germany, as part of the First World War (1914-18), which the tzar led, and humiliatingly lost, in a desperate attempt to establish his rule; and a vitrine with dolls of different nationalities most aptly shows the extent of the Russian Empire spreading over 10.000 km from east to west.
But change is on its way, and the exhibition articulates this across the arts as well as across different mediums. One can see books by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Marx while listening to Stravinsky’s dynamic score. A screen shows rare footage of the quintessence of ballet performances, Pavlova’s The Dying Swan (1905) and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). The latter was choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, the greatest of all ballet dancers, and was no less avant-garde than Malevich’s Black Square (1915). It broke with tradition to such an extent that it is said that the ballerinas burst into tears when Nijinsky showed them the steps and refused to perform them.
Immersed in this well-balanced plethora of visual, audio and audio-visual material, I was rather taken by surprise when the lights hanging from the high ceiling and fixed above the wall panels turned red. The music became louder and videos projected above the shopping windows marking this turning point in history: Lenin speaking to the people, the workers mobilising and the revolutionaries storming the winter palace. This simple yet affective way sets the tone of the exhibition: the contrast between the life the tzar led and socio-political reality.
For everyone loves a good love story – not the least when it involves blue bloods. Through letters, audio recordings and photographs, we get snippets of the everyday life of Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, and his rise and fall as the tzar. Of particular interest is the illness of the crown prince, then a state secret. Tsarevich Alexei was haemophilic, which resulted in the imperial family leading a very secluded life. For this reason, they relied on their Kodak cameras and the exhibition makes generous use of the Romanovs’ family albums. Photographs are magnified to cover the entire walls, making the exhibition appearing fuller without being heavy. What is more, this setting further supports the contrast between the social and political upheaval of the revolution, bringing the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, and the isolated and introvert lives of the imperial family as they try to photographically capture, and therefore also stabilise, their surroundings in a rapidly transforming modern world.
The Hermitage Amsterdam never fails to engage a diverse range of audiences with carefully planned exhibitions. Digital technologies are incorporated into the experience and the latest addition is MapMyVisit. Widely used by museums in the Netherlands and abroad, this service allows visitors to register for a personalised web profile. This gives you background information of the exhibits you saw in your last museum visit and, most importantly, it indicates what you have missed!