This month the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow should see the opening of a new permanent exhibition in a new building - the Museum of Private Collections.
For the Western museum-goer there is nothing exceptional in this. A diversity of private collections formed by remarkable individuals who collected exceptional objects, such as The Wallace Collection in London, are a normal feature of life. In post-1917 Russia, however, the revolutionary enthusiasm for destruction in the name of creation devoured not only collections, but also collectors. Many endured ruin, repression and criminal persecution. Despite this, the passion for collecting was not destroyed but lived on, virtually underground. Following a lengthy void, Russian society is now reviving and turning back to pre-revolution traditions. The collection has once again come to be seen as a portrait, or rather a self-portrait, of the spirit of the collector and his inner world. It is this spirit in which the Museum of Private Collections has been formed, paying maximum attention to the characteristics of each collection and the personality of the collector.
The Museum of Private Collections was created as a department of the Pushkin Museum in 1985 when Ilya Samoilovich Zilbershtein, an art historian and a well-known writer, donated his collection to the museum. The collection gives a survey of the history of Russian graphic art from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Particularly well represented are works by the masters of the World of Art, the leading movement in Russian twentieth-century art, such as Alexander Benois, Leon Bakst, Konstantin Somov, Mikhail Vrubel, Natalya Goncharova, and Mikhail Larionov.
One of the greatest treasures is the seventy-six watercolour portraits which the Decembrist Nikolai Bestuzhev executed in the 1840s, when he was in prison and exiled following the Decembrists' banishment to Siberia, which disappeared after the Revolution.
In the Western part of the collection is Rembrandt's drawing "Abraham and Isaac on their way to the place of sacrifice" (1643) and drawings by European architects and artists who worked in Russia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries such as Francesco Bibiena, Giuseppe Valeriani, Pietro Gonzaga, Giacomo Quarenghi and Thomas de Thomon, who have left us with some brilliant views of St Petersburg and fascinating architectural fantasies. In addition to the Zilbershtein Collection, those of more than ten collectors will be exhibited in twenty-five rooms at the new museum. Each collection is allocated its own separate rooms. There are seventy-five icons of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries donated by Mikhail Chuvanov; Yevgeny Stepanov's collection of thirty bronze equestrian statuettes and works which Alexander Ramm collected by artists whom the Soviet establishment rejected, such as N. Goncharova, R. Falk, N. Altman, V. Lebedev.
The descendants of famous artists, including those of the constructivists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, David Shterenberg, and Alexander Tyshler, have donated works to the museum. Family relics have been received from the descendants of Leonid and Boris Pasternak and the museum has been given the collection of the world-famous pianist Svyatoslav Richter. From Great Britain, Nikita and Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky have donated some eighty works for the theatre by Nikolai Benois and Alexandra Ekster. Twenty-five of Alexandre Benois' works have been given by Semyon Papkov in San Francisco, and a donation of forty-five of his parents' paintings has been made by the Swiss citizen Georgy Shapshal.
The writer is the senior curator, Department of Private Collections
State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘It was all a terrible mistake: we love collectors really'