Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Hermitage Revealed (new documentary by Margy Kinmonth)


 I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend the documentary Hermitage Revealed, which had its UK premiere at the Curzon Soho last night and is showing today (Tuesday 9th September) at Curzon Ripon and Curzon Victoria at 6.30.

It was, director Margy Kinmonth said in a brief Q&A afterwards, made primarily for cinema, and although it will eventually be shown on the Beeb I urge you to catch it on the big screen if you can. We seem to float at will through the Hermitage's many spaces and are even taken backstage to see the Museum director's desk, piled high with papers and books. There is the motif of a little boy walking around the gallery who is at once the current director, Mikhail Piotrovsky - son of a previous director and brought up in the building - and us, the popeyed audience, as we look around at the riches on offer.



The visual quality of the film, the lustre of the paintings captured on screen, really is staggering: apparently Margy Kinmonth reshot and reshot the exhibits, at times working against the dying of the light (not a metaphor but a seasonal reference).

There's no doubt that her efforts have paid off: you are continually gobsmacked by the beauty of painting after painting, aided by the simple device of seeing the whole composition first then cutting to one or two key details, lingering just long enough to feel that you've taken in the essence: a neat balancing trick, given how many artefacts there are to get through. On one notable occasion the formula was reversed and we first saw two shots of paint joyously swirling round before it was revealed we'd had our noses pressed up against a Van Gogh.

That came a little later in the film: at first we were examining all the items bought by Catherine II. They would have been more than enough to constitute a film in themselves, but the documentary gradually revealed itself to be interested in the larger story of the museum's survival over the centuries right up to the present day, taking in such events as the storming of the Winter Palace, the second world war, and more recent attempts to make the Hermitage into a space which reaches out to the whole world. A 2011 project with Anthony Gormley had marble statues taken off their plinths and put on floor level in one room with Gormley's own metal people next door.


And there was one detail related by Pliny the Elder (or Tom Conti, as he's known today) about the admirer of one sculpture who apparently took that admiration a little too far, leaving a permanent indication of his interest on the work. Which is certainly one way of achieving immortality.

More sombrely, we also learnt that many of the museum staff, relatives of the Romanovs, or others who had once held high positions in the Tsar's army, had been sentenced to the Gulags, seen as enemies of the State.

Another detail (the film is packed with them) called to mind the recent fire at Glasgow School of Art, and the efforts of the firefighters at Renfrew Street which helped save most of the building. We were told there was a fire (I can't remember when) at the Hermitage, and the staff immediately poured water down all the walls to preserve the works. And, asked at the end if there was anything she regretted having to leave out, Margy Kinmonth referred to a gallery attendant in the room where Rembrandt's Danae was subjected to an acid attack in 1985. He immediately threw himself in front of the painting, saving what he could of it, injuring himself in the process. Ms Kinmonth wasn't able to track him down, but as she said the man is a hero.

And through it all the museum has survived, though as the above should make clear this is not an empty tribute to a building but a testament to the continuing importance of art and imagination, and the spirit of those entrusted with preserving and publishing the Hermitage's contents ... even when those precious objects weren't actually in situ. One detail which leapt out at me was that soldiers would apparently listen, enthralled, as museum staff, standing by empty frames, talked about the paintings which had been removed for safekeeping in the second world war.

In writing this post I have to declare an interest, acquainted as I am with one of the makers of the film. That said, I know nothing about the making of the documentary beyond what Ms Kinmonth revealed in her Q&A. But as there are so many talking heads wheeled on to deliver a short piece about a specific area of expertise or personal experience, I can only marvel at the hours of footage which must have been whittled down to create such a coherent and satisfying narrative, making such good use of modern technology: I have never seen paintings looking so sumptuous and inviting onscreen. And apparently it's the first time a film maker outside of Russia has been granted such access to every nook and cranny ... including a sort of "Cat World" installation in the cellars.

So - cat lovers and others - do see Hermitage Revealed in a cinema if you can.



More details, including a trailer, can be found on the film's website here.

There's also an interesting piece about the background to the film's being made on the wftv website here.

Update January 4th 2015: If you are in the UK, a one hour version of Hermitage Revaled is about to be broadcast on BBC 4 at 9pm tonight, and you can now buy the DVD of the complete version from Foxtrot Films here.

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