Tuesday, 11 October 2016




Welcome to the first Musings Abroad blog post! Every month will feature a different museum, historic site or two from my travels in and around Russia this past summer. As I become familiar with North American museological trends, I am always interested in learning what museums are like across the world. It is my hope that this column will shed some insight into some of the unique characteristics of museums abroad!

Outside of the Aivazovsky Picture Gallery, Theodosia, Crimea. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
We begin our journey in the resort & port town of Theodosia (or Feodosia) in the Crimean Peninsula. The ancient Greeks founded this town in the 6th century BCE. Across the rolling hills there remain testaments to Theodosia’s complicated history, as evidenced by its 14th century ruins of Genoese lines of defense, an ancient Turkic Karaites cemetery, and a monument and park dedicated to the victims of Chernobyl. More recently, one can see advertisements everywhere with Putin’s face and “KRIM = RUSSIA” superimposed over a Russian flag.

A tour guide whom I am pretending to understand at the Aivazovsky National Art Gallery. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
Theodosia is known for its beaches of finely-ground seashells, as well as for being the hometown of the renowned 19th-century painter Ivan Aivazovsky (b. 1817- d. 1900). Brush off those pesky seashell bits if you can, because the Aivazosky National Art Gallery is where we will be visiting today. 

Taking in the beauty of Aivazovsky's work: following the states of the sea from lethargic to lethal.
Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
It is important to note that everything worth doing takes time, and this applies to gaining entrance to the Aivazovsky Gallery. Regarding obtaining entry tickets, a set of confusing and illogical steps have been put in place by the Gallery administration. I can only assume that the reason for this is to ensure that none but the most devout can gain access to Aivazovsky’s masterpieces. Lucky, my party was tenacious, and we made it into the Gallery. I was particularly interested in visiting because we were supposed to see a show in Moscow on Aivazovsky’s work at the renowned Tretyakov State Gallery. I had seen the Turner show at the Art Gallery of Ontario and hos sublime seascapes had captured my imagination. I was therefore excited to see the works of one whom could arguably be deemed Turner’s Armenian- Russian counterpart. 

The guide discusses the masterworks of Aivazovsky in the aptly named Red Room. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
The Gallery is in the house Aivazovsky designed and had built for himself in 1845. The house is decorated with sculptures and looks like an Italian villa. It was built to accommodate Aivazovsky’s studios and as such the rooms are large, airy and bright. In 1880, he began to exhibit artworks there, making the ANAG the third oldest museum in the area after the Hermitage Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery. During the Second World War, officials evacuated the entire collection to Russia, and later to Armenia.

Aivazovsky's easel, palette and brush. Behind (left) a glimpse of Battle of Cesme at Night, 1848.
Like most galleries and smaller museums I came to visit in and around Russia, the halls are guarded by little old ladies- the (in)famous babushkas. If you speak Russian, there is no need to pay for a tour or an audio guide; often as not you will be approached by these highly knowledgeable and implacable women anyways. The Gallery does not have interpretive information for English visitors, nor any interpretive panels at all. It provides free tours (in Russian), and audio guides for a price. The halls are hung with a few paintings per wall apiece, not so much in the salon style but that of a traditional gallery. In terms of the feel of the space, it was like that of a large home which someone had just moved out of, leaving only the paintings and chandeliers behind. On the other hand, it was a lovely experience to contemplate the dramatic naval scenes placed as they might have been in Aivazovsky’s home long ago. 

Loud sigh! Where are the babushki when you need them? Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016
Security standards are comparatively relaxed. I was struck in particular by a visitor carrying her Chihuahua in a blanket. I thought at first that it was an unfortunate-looking baby. My party and I were also distressed to see that some visitors had no issue sneaking under the rope barriers to take pictures close to the artworks. It is a miracle they didn’t smash a bust in the process. The collection is mighty, but overall the setting is not capable of complimenting and enhancing the balanced beauty of the artworks. I cannot speak for the safety of the artworks themselves, but they, the furnishings and the historic parquet floor all seemed in fine condition. 

One of the halls in the ANAG. Information such as the date and title of the works are inscribed on
small plaques fitted into the canvas' frames. Photo: Stephanie Read, 2016

A timely article (which you can access here) describes the challenges facing Theodosia’s heritage sites, such as the 14th century Tower of Constantine, which suffered compromising and serious damage to its foundations this summer. It seems that in this time of political unrest in the peninsula, issues of conversation and cultural sustainability have been put to the side. Aivazovsky’s stormy waves perfectly captures the instability and turmoil which simultaneously threaten and shape the future of this ancient city’s cultural treasures.

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