For the past several years, the Museum of Russian Art in south Minneapolis has been quietly mounting one extraordinary show after another. Its latest show, The Romanovs: Legacy of an Empire Lost, which opened last weekend, is another stunner. If you’ve never been to TMORA, you owe it to yourself to visit and see what a little artistic vision and curatorial genius can do inside a converted church.
What’s great about TMORA is that in addition to extraordinary art, one inevitably leaves with a much richer understanding of Russian history and culture. But, because Russia has so much history and culture (compared to the United States, for instance), one also leaves with a certain amount of guilt over not reading Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy closely enough back in the day. That impulse doesn’t last long, though, so it’s possible to go, enjoy an exhibit, and not actually follow through on that pledge to re-read Anna Karenina.
The Romanovs, of course, ruled over Russia for more than 300 years (1613-1917), and were the last imperial dynasty to do so before Tsar Nicholas II was deposed in the so-called February Revolution of 1917, ending the Russian Empire. Eight months later, the Bolshevik Revolution upended the country’s entire socio-political structure and paved the way for the U.S.S.R. The tragic coda to the Romanov era came on July 17, 1918, when Tsar Nicholas II and his family were being held under house arrest. On that day, the Romanov family—including four daughters—was led by Bolshevik authorities to the basement of their house under the pretense of taking a family photo to prove to the public that they were still alive. Once the family was arranged for the photo, soldiers came in and riddled them with bullets, giving new meaning to the term “point and shoot.”
The exhibit itself features an extraordinary range of artifacts from the Romanov dynasty, particularly the latter years, when the family began hiding certain items for safe-keeping and, after the Revolution, dynasty artifacts were auctioned off to raise money for the new Soviet government. “The structure of the exhibit reflects this violent rupture,” explains head curator Maria Zavialova.
The first five sections, arranged on the left side of the main level, trace the history of the family through the
period when the monarchy was vital. The artifacts include various ceremonial robes, china, jewelry, medals, books, photographs, paintings, and other memorabilia, all of which culminates in the small Fireside Gallery, where the family’s infamous assassination is chronicled.
On the right side of the main gallery is the other side of the story, a collection of exquisite artifacts—bejeweled chalices, gold-plated flatware, ornate chessboards, a samovar made by the Faberge company (the Romanovs loved stuff by Faberge)—auctioned off to the West in a symbolic rejection and literal dismantling of the Romanovs wealth and influence. A careful reading of the plaques reveals several other layers to the story, including the heavy involvement of American tycoon Armand Hammer in the sale of Russian art to the U.S., and the existence of such curious buyers as the Bob Jones University, which has amassed an enormous collection of European sacred art.
There’s also rare film footage of the Romanov family itself, and, upstairs, an entertaining tangent exploring how the Romanovs have been represented in popular culture—in magazine, books, and movies.
As usual, head curator Dr. Maria Zavialova has done an extraordinary job of organizing the exhibit in a way that also tells a compelling story. Walking through this exhibit is like walking through a novel. A logical narrative runs through each element of the exhibit, and though there are lots of characters and sub-plots to keep track of (as there always are in Russian stories), the end result is a feeling of intelligent coherence—because it’s a tale with a beginning, middle, and (horrific) end.
The Romanovs: Legacy of an Empire Lost is an original exhibition that to TMORA 18 months to assemble, pulling together work from 25 institutions and private collections. Most of them the objects have never been displayed publicly, so this is a rare opportunity indeed. Don’t miss it.
Romanovs: Legacy of an Empire Lost continues at The Museum of Russian Art through Mar. 23, 2014.