PC 276 Pictures at an Exhibition

I imagine we’ve all traipsed around art galleries at some point in our lives, whether on a school trip to one’s town or city’s municipal display or to the capital city, as a student of ‘Art’ or as an adult who appreciates drawings, paintings and sculptures. In London this would probably mean visiting the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery around the corner in St Martin’s Place, Tate(s) Modern and Britain, The Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly, The Hayward and The Serpentine. Abroad and you’re also spoilt for choice, with The Louvre in Paris,

…… the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, MoMA and The Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museu de Arte do Rio in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro or the galleries in every state capital in Australia; the list is endless.

My view of Aberystwyth in Wales

Using the verb ‘to traipse’ might give you a clue as to my abiding feeling, ‘To walk or move wearily’; initially I am always enthusiastic but find after two hours I have had enough and need to sit. Sitting in front of an internationally renowned painting doesn’t work, as the crowds of visitors block your view. It’s better to find a less popular artist and a work you can get lost in, if you get my meaning. I visited one gallery every time I went to Copenhagen on business back in the 1980s, just to sit in front of one particular painting, in silence, and get my fix! If you don’t want to wear out your shoe leather you can always look at all the paintings and creations on line, in detail, up close.

Local artists here in Brighton and Hove have a large choice of wall space on which to hang their creations, some obviously for sale but others simply to grow their following. These days they probably do that on Instagram as well.

My latest triptych

At this point you might wonder why I am scribbling about a subject, Pictures at an Exhibition, which is already covered by thousands of books and here’s me trying to be succinct, in a thousand words! The connection is the capital city of Ukraine, one we knew as Kiev and now know as Kyiv.

My knowledge of Russian classical composers only covers four of the main five and probably just their more well-known works. (See PC 109 That Reminds Me (1) November 2017) Think Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Scheherazade and The Flight of the Bumblebee), Alexander Borodin (Prince Igor), Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (the ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, his Symphony no 6 (Pathétique) and the Violin Concerto in D major) (Note 1) and Mussorgsky (Pictures at an Exhibition). What I hadn’t known was that Mussorgsky’s first name was Modest! A quick Google search reveals it’s not unusual in Russia as a male first name and its female version Modesty is tagged internationally to the main character of the comic strip Blaise.

I can’t imagine that the saying ‘Modest by name, modest by nature’ applying to a classical music composer with a big ego but I can’t find the origin of the saying so it may be I dreamt it?

Modest Mussorgsky 1839 – 1881

Mussorgsky had been born in 1839, some five years after the artist, architect and designer Viktor Hartmann had been born in St Petersburg. They probably met in 1868 and quickly became friends, both devoted to the cause of Russian art. Hartmann gave Mussorgsky a couple of paintings; Mussorgsky dedicated a composition to Hartmann. Sadly five years later Hartmann died of a suspected aneurism aged only 39 and Mussorgsky became deeply depressed. Friends of Hartmann organised a memorial exhibition in the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg in February 1874; over 400 paintings were exhibited, including the two that Mussorgsky owned.

Inspired by his friend’s paintings, Mussorgsky composed ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’, a suite of ten piano pieces with a recurring theme, in three weeks in 1874. It was not well received and didn’t get published until five years after Mussorgsky’s early death at the age of 42. I probably have heard the whole suite but it’s the Great Gate of Kiev that is memorable and my ears can recognise it instantly. Hartmann had designed a monumental gate for Tsar Alexander ll (1818 – 1881) to commemorate his escape from an assassination attempt in 1866 – “in the ancient Russian massive style with a cupola shaped like a Slavonic helmet”. The sketch The Bogatyr Gates was included in the exhibition and became the 10th piano piece.

The painting which prompted Mussorgsky’s The Great Gate of Kiev is top left

Other paintings of the ten included a ‘ballet of un-hatched chicks’, two Jewish men, a dark painting of the catacombs and the ‘Hut on Hen’s legs’.  I have this rather romantic notion that all cities had monumental entrance gates; maybe I have watched too many Ben Hur-type movies. Certainly the inner city boundaries have been subsumed by urban sprawl and Kyiv doesn’t have anything resembling Hartmann’s design.

Watching the current wanton destruction of Ukraine’s villages, towns and cities raises many questions; how do people survive, how will they be rebuilt and who will pay for the rebuilding, currently estimated to be $100 billion but this is just a finger in the air figure? But rebuilt they will be and tourists in the future will wander the streets of, for instance, the old port city of Mariupol and marvel at the ancient buildings and narrow streets.

If they have no knowledge of history they will be none the wiser. Take Warsaw, a city flattened by the vengeful Nazis after the 1944 Warsaw Uprising of the Polish resistance. The uprising infuriated German leaders, who decided to destroy the city as retaliation.

The ‘old’ centre of Warsaw today

It was rebuilt brick by brick, stone by stone, to look exactly as it had.

Richard 1st April 2022


Note 1 Possibly Tchaikovsky’s most famous work is his 1812 Overture, composed in 1880 to commemorate the Russian defence of Moscow against Napoleon’s invading armies sixty-eight years previously.

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