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New exhibit offers dazzling glimpses of life in Russia's royal court

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Saturday, Oct 13, 2012 06:00 am

NOW SHOWING –Linda Tzang, curator of cultural communities at the Royal Alberta Museum, stands behind a collection of porcelain figurines that are part of the museum's new exhibit called The Tsar's Cabinet. The dazzling porcelains and superb decorative arts in this exhibition reflect the private and public splendour of the life of the Russian royal court.
NOW SHOWING –Linda Tzang, curator of cultural communities at the Royal Alberta Museum, stands behind a collection of porcelain figurines that are part of the museum's new exhibit called The Tsar's Cabinet. The dazzling porcelains and superb decorative arts in this exhibition reflect the private and public splendour of the life of the Russian royal court.
APRIL BARTLETT/St. Albert Gazette

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The Tsar’s Cabinet
Exhibiting until January 2, 2013
Royal Alberta Museum
12845 – 102 Ave.
Admission: $11/adult; $8/senior; $7/student; $5/youth, 7 to 17 years.

Try to imagine having the Amber Room of the Tsars, once dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World, as your private living space.

Crafted entirely from amber, precious stones and gold, this cavernous bubble was a masterpiece of baroque art and a favourite of Catherine the Great of Imperial Russia.

It is no wonder. When its 565 candles were lit, the walls sheathed in six tons of amber gave a glow of fiery gold, creating the perfect meditation space for a monarch with unconditional power and unlimited wealth. In today’s dollars the Amber Room alone was estimated to be worth about $142 million.

For the average person living a much more pedestrian life, this opulent lifestyle is difficult to comprehend. Yet the Russian Tsars, who were absolute monarchs and controlled vast tracts of resource-rich land, considered their wealth a right rather than a privilege.

The 400th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty is just one year away. To commemorate the event, the Royal Alberta Museum is offering a magnificent exhibition of the Imperial Russian Court’s hidden treasures.

The Tsar’s Cabinet, a showcase of dazzling porcelains and superb decorative arts, is an extraordinary peek at a court that was famous for its excess. The artifacts – porcelain dinner services and portrait plates, glassware, enamel, silver gilt and decorated eggs – demonstrate the ultimate majesty and luxury of the Romanov reign.

Spanning about 200 years from Peter the Great to the doomed Nicholas II, the exhibit is a lavish collection of over 200 fragile items from the 18th and 19th centuries. They range from porcelain tableware used at state banquets to personal items such as a cloisonné enamel cigar case and delicate hand-painted porcelain eggs often given as gifts.

“This is the kind of thing normal people wouldn’t have had access to. It’s a glimpse into a kind of life that for us is unimaginable. They had so much at their disposal that what they wanted they got. And this is only a portion,” said Linda Tzang, curator of cultural communities for the museum.

Here through Wednesday, Jan. 2, the travelling exhibit was organized by the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William and Mary in cooperation with the Washington, D.C.-based International Arts & Artists.

Many of the items are grouped with a replica Tsar’s portrait, a logical progression in chronological order that helps to illustrate major cultural, social and political trends of each succeeding reign.

Starting with Peter the Great (1689-1725), the Tsar imported all porcelain from China. The first porcelain was produced in Tang Dynasty (618-906 BCE) and remained a closely guarded secret in China. People were executed for trying to sneak the secret out.

The prohibitively high cost of manufacture and transportation meant only sovereigns could afford this remarkably expensive product. Referred to as “white gold,” porcelain dinnerware was the ultimate expression of luxury, used only for state banquets. Royals used the downgraded gold and silver tableware for daily meals.

The Tsarina Elizabeth (1741-1762), daughter of Peter the Great, leading one of the most extravagant and welcoming courts in Europe, created the first Russian porcelain at the Imperial Porcelain Factory in 1744. Located in Lomonosov, it made porcelain exclusively for the royal family and court.

Initially, the factory produced small items: snuffboxes and teapots. However, under Catherine the Great (1762-1796), a period often described as the ‘Golden Age of the Russian Empire,’ the factory greatly expanded its work.

The Tsarina dedicated herself to the ideals of Enlightenment. Under her reign, the factory produced the first great ceremonial service. The Arabesque Service, illustrating a classical motif with garlands of foliage and flowers and a double-headed eagle clutching a laurel wreath, contained 973 items.

“Catherine was originally from Germany and she was trying to bring Enlightenment. She admired the French and she wanted to be equal to the French. She was trying to bring civilization to Russia and her pieces were more restrained.”

The Tsarina and other Tsars spent lavishly to demonstrate their authority. But for all their showy grandeur, their European cousins tended to look down on them. The Russians were thought of as being less cultivated and at times brutish.

In the age of Enlightenment, “the wealth of the Tsar was based on people and it was seen as backwards. Serfs were used to create the wealth and at the time serfdom was seen as a form of slavery,” explains Tzang.

To counter an inferiority complex, the Tsars spent lavishly and many of the plates in the exhibition were used at sumptuous banquets hosted by the Romanovs and their nobles.

Dinners with more than 30 dishes were a regular part of Russian noble life, and in the tradition each course was served with a new dish. Russians loved the exotic and a banquet could just as easily feature caviar as pheasant tongues, boiled bear paws or moose lips in sour cream.

“If you grew up leading this life, presumably you would learn to pace yourself,” Tzang explained. But sometimes this display of wealth backfired as visiting dignitaries complained about the excess food.

Dessert, the most lavish course, was often featured in a separate room with a rich centrepiece. And Catherine, a savvy politician, had exotic porcelain figurines of Russian ethnic peoples – Cossacks, Finns and Tartars, to name a few – included on banquet tables to remind dignitaries of the extent of her empire.

The exhibit also features part of the Kremlin Service commissioned by Nicholas I in 1837. One of the largest commissions, it consisted of 2000 plates, 1000 soup plates and 1000 dessert plates to serve at a banquet for 500 guests. The Imperial Porcelain Factory took 10 years to complete it.

Following the Napoleonic invasion of 1812, “It was more robust and colourful. It was an investment to promote Russian military power.”

The 1884 Raphael Dinner Service, commissioned under Alexander III, also known as the Peacemaker, is a stunning example of hand-painted artistry. Each plate is decorated in the centre with a classical figure on a hexagonal background. The plates’ lip is a border of classical-style friezes with a gilt banding. Its beauty is unmatched.

The exhibit also includes a series of personal artifacts such as a richly crafted Fabergé cigarette case, a lapis-lazuli Durnovo jewel casket, a delicate scent bottle, several vases and fragile eggs, signifying the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church.

“This is a glimpse into a lost life. Some people will look at it and say it’s ostentatious,” Tzang says. “Yet for the Tsar, it was part of everyday life.”


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