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Indepth Arts News:

"Treasures from the Hermitage Museum, Russia: Rubens and His Age"
2001-05-05 until 2001-08-12
Art Gallery of Ontario
Toronto, ON, CA

For more than 200 years, the State Hermitage Museum has survived wars and sieges, conflict and revolution. That the artworks have survived these clashes is even more miraculous; during the Second World War, paintings, porcelains, drawings, gems and fine furniture were subject to conditions that should have spelled the end of the vast collection, yet almost everything survived.

Director Iosif Orbeli ordered the great museum emptied on June 23, 1941, the day after the first invasion by Hitler, starting the Siege of Leningrad. More than 1.5 million works were packed during a six-day marathon by staff and volunteers, which included artists and historians from across Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Masterpieces were removed from their frames, which were left hanging on the walls in the hopes that this would speed reinstallation of the works after the war. Small canvases were packed 20 to 60 to a crate, while large ones were placed up to 15 on a roller, with tissue paper between them, a practice which would never have been condoned were it not a wartime emergency. Porcelain was filled with sand or crumbled cork, and buried, while the wax figure of Peter the Great was dismantled and the wooden body, arms and legs were packed separately from the wax head, feet and hands.

Transported to Sverdlovsk on two trains, some 1,500 miles from Leningrad, the elite of the Hermitage collection spent the next 900 days in the local museum, a church, the Anti-Religious Museum and the house where Nicholas II's family had died, with vigilant museum staff on permanent watch for fire and any other possible dangers.

Despite the dangers faced by the collection - the wartime travel of 1,500 miles and the bombs, shells, ice and flooding the works that remained behind in the Hermitage suffered - the Hermitage opened on November 8, 1944, with an exhibition of the works that had not been evacuated.


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