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>> Man in the Middle

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German Modernism in the Hermitage

In Man in the Middle, works from German Modernism dating up to contemporary photography are being shown in St. Petersburg's Hermitage for the first time. Arriving for the opening reception, Dr. Ariane Grigoteit and Friedhelm Hütte, directors of Deutsche Bank Kunst, visited their Russian colleague Boris Asvarisch.

Exhibition visitor in front of Ideal by Bernhard Prinz

"Good art can only be made by an artist that has been dead for at least 500 years," Boris Asvarisch remarked during our first meeting in Frankfurt. Asvarisch has been the curator for German art at the Hermitage for almost forty years. Just back from London, he has a meeting now in his office at the Hermitage with the curators from the collection of the Deutsche Bank to discuss the last preparations for the exhibition – Biedermeier furniture upholstered with red velvet, a large ebony desk, plants winding throughout the entire room, a fascinating view of the Neva, and a computer in the corner alleviating the multilingual Asvarisch's many contacts around the world.

Next to a watercolor portrait of Asvarisch hangs Ferdinand Jagemann's oil painting of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 22 x 29 inches in size, who's gently eyeing what we've brought along, the catalogues on the Riepenhausen family, for instance. We're here to discuss the pieces for the exhibition Man in the Middle from the collection of the Deutsche Bank, scheduled to open on September 14 in the Alexander Hall at the Hermitage. Asvarisch kindly offers us Russian candies, vodka, and tiny apples from his wife's datcha. Following his advice, the St. Petersburg exhibition will be concentrating on German art: drawings, paintings, sculptures, and photographs.

Exhibition view Eremitage, St. Petersburg

They will be shown in one of the largest and most magnificent museums around the world. The Winter Palace – the Hermitage's main building – was built between 1754 and 1762 by the architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The most beautiful view is from the roof of the Peter and Paul Fortress on the opposite bank of the Neva: in the foreground, the improbably deep blue of the river; behind it the magnificent palace in white, green, and gold, bathed in a light that only a poet could adequately describe; above it a radiant light blue sky; and at one's feet, the prison in which Fyodor Michailovitch Dostoyevsky awaited his execution in 1849. It's a heart-rending view, the most beautiful location in the world, had Czar Peter I not only conquered the surrounding marshland during the process of building Petersburg, but the mosquitoes, as well.

But the rooms are worth visiting, too, even if one isn't keen on seeing paintings. The Golden Drawing-room alone makes the trip to Petersburg worthwhile. Today, the museum resides in seven buildings: in the Winter Palace, the Small, Great, and New Hermitage, the Theatre, the Menshikov Palace, as well as in a part of the General Staff Building, altogether encompassing 3 million works (The Hermitage's internet address provides an excellent overview of the collection, which not only includes paintings and sculptures, but also weapons, jewelry, and coins.).

Visitor in front of Karl Hofer's painting Arbeitslose

Germany plays no small part in this extraordinary collection. Catherine the Great purchased the Hermitage's first large art collection from the Berlin silk and porcelain manufacturer Johann Gotzkowski, who had originally collected the 225 paintings for Freidrich II. Following the Seven Years' War, however, the Prussian king was so in debt that he was no longer in a position to pay for the collection. Catherine, so the legend goes, was greatly pleased to prove to the world that she had the means to buy it. The second large collection stems from a German, as well: Count Heinrich von Brühl. It comprises an enormous number of prints and drawings, as well as over 600 paintings, among which are Rembrandt's Portrait of a Scholar, Rubens' Perseus and Andromeda, Antoine Watteau's An Embarrassing Proposal, landscapes by Salomon van Ruysdael, and Tiepolo's Maecenas Presenting the Arts to Augustus. Even the Deutsche Bank can congratulate itself on a modest portion of the German/Russian cultural exchange (see Mr. Breuer's speech on 25 years of German/Russian dialogue).

German-Russian encounters at the opening

Contemporary art, however, is faced with considerable difficulties in St. Petersburg. Boris Asvarisch is not alone with his skepticism. In the whole of St. Petersburg, there is hardly any interest worth mentioning for contemporary art; galleries are rare, and even in the more bustling Moscow, only one gallery has made it to the international level. And now this: for the first time, the Hermitage will be presenting an exhibition of German art of the 20th century extending up to the large-scale formats of current photography – and for the first time, an exhibition from the collection of a German corporation, as well.

Dr. Arianne Grigoteit and Michaiel Pietrovski, director of the Eremitage in St. Petersburg, opening the exhibition