Current Issue #488

Imperial bling at the David Roche Foundation

Private hand seal of Emperor Alexander I, Russia, c.1820, ivory, amethyst and gold, 8.0cm (height)

The opulence and artistry of Russia’s 18th and 19th century dynasties put modern royal excesses to shame – even as they make revolution seem all the more inevitable.

If you are really interested in the fact that the royal rubbish at Buckingham Palace has increased by 23 per cent from last year, or that Meghan and Kate wore the same coloured frock to a function, then you are a royal tragic. But if you are prepared to spend tens of thousands to buy something that once belonged to a member of the nobility then you are in another postcode to those who riff off rumours in New Idea Royal Monthly.

David Roche set a significant part of his collecting coordinates on items that had once graced royal fingers, necks, heads, shoulders, backsides, boudoirs, dining rooms and palaces. Previous Roche Museum exhibitions have showcased the diversity and strengths of Roche’s interests, which spanned the 18th and 19th centuries and included European furniture, ceramics, metal ware, clocks and paintings. In Triumph and Tragedy, the focus shifts to his interest in Russian works of art.

Malachite vase and cover, Russia, c.1890, malachite

This is the first time that all of Roche’s Russian items have been the focus of an exhibition and an extensively researched and illustrated catalogue. The exhibition has been enhanced by borrowings within Australia from public and private collections of other Russian works of art that either strengthen the holdings in Roche’s collection – porcelain, imperial links or Fabergé – or because they illuminate areas that David did not collect, including maps, books, coins, photographs and avant-garde art of the early 20th century. With over 90 items from the David Roche Collection and extensive loans, this exhibition is the most significant record of locally owned Russian art from the period of Catherine II to Nicholas II to be staged in this country.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to visit the major museums in St Petersburg and Moscow, or get a sense of the vastness and richness of their holdings through documentaries, will likely feel overwhelmed by the sheer weight of cultural product – interiors encrusted with every manner of decorative opulence and symbols of power. Triumph and Tragedy offers accessible, mouth-sized morsels to nibble on in a compact but multi-faceted display. Any single item, be it a porcelain plate, a chair, portrait or map, can instantly become a rabbit hole down through which can be found an extraordinary place peopled by exotic creatures, whose lifestyles, power and privilege stagger the imagination. No surprises here for students of 20th century revolutionary politics, just confirmation of the great divide that existed in Russia for centuries between a small, extremely powerful and wealthy elite and the peasantry (around 80 per cent of Russia’s population). It begs the question, what took the revolution so long?

Catherine II

Contemporary audiences perform a balancing act. On the one hand, appreciating the artistry of cultural production and honouring the skills of the sometimes anonymous artisans who fashioned the Fabergé eggs, the intricate ormolu insets, and so on. And on the other, feeling distaste – even repugnance – for a political and social system built on such levels of privilege and repression. Perhaps a close reading of curator Nathan Schroeder’s catalogue essay on the Romanovs will go some way to informing an understanding of the conflicted and complex nature of social and political reform in Russia, particularly in the 19th century, when members of the nobility and Alexander II (who reigned from 1855 to 1881) achieved significant social and political reforms.

Roche’s interest in Russian art can be traced to his visits to Russia during the 1990s. His obsession with royalty, notably the British French Regent (later George IV) and the French Bourbons and Napoleon, extended to the life and times of Catherine II and the Romanovs. Roche and late Roche Museum director Martyn Cook, with the assistance of dealers Carlton Hobbs and Alice Ilich, gradually built a collection of items that reflected the imperial family, which, as Cook said, imparts to visitors “the sheer beauty and grandeur of Russian items”.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: Catherine the Great (beginning with two portraits of the Empress), Princely and Imperial (dominated by a portrait of Emperor Nicholas I and a young aristocrat Anatole Demidoff ), Nicholas II and Fabergé.

Faberge Pale mauve Easter Egg pendant

Many, I suspect, will be attracted by the magic of ‘Fabergé’ and, having realised that not one of the 50 very rare ‘eggs’ is in the display, should nevertheless be well content with a clutch of miniature eggs, fashioned with great skill and artistry in a range of materials including gold, diamonds, enamel, precious hard stones and silver. These items – in addition to a number of Fabergé objects such as a bracelet, cuff links, tie pin, cigarette case and pendant – attest to Fabergé’s adherence to very high standards of craftsmanship and design. The bracelet, for example, is an excellent example of a turn-of-the century fashion taste for paler stones and smaller, lighter jewellery.

The fact that the provenance of some of these items illuminates broader social and political contexts of their owners adds a dimension to their visual presence. Be prepared to take time exploring this collection of decorative and functional objects. The big-ticket items, such as the large cut glass vase on a ‘waterfall’ pedestal, should command attention, but the richness of Triumph and Tragedy is in the detail, where the heart and skill of the artisan, on whom all these high-born lords and ladies so depended, live on.

Until 21 December

Triumph and Tragedy: Catherine, The Romanovs & Fabergé

John Neylon

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John Neylon is an award-winning art critic and the author of several books on South Australian artists including Hans Heysen: Into The Light (2004), Aldo Iacobelli: I love painting (2006), and Robert Hannaford: Natural Eye (2007).

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