In the era of the great Russian novels? Everythingís mud-brown, wine-red, heavy like lead. No wonder so many well-off characters in those books tend toward melancholy. If Iíd owned a house like this Iíd have packed up my art collection and moved to Laguna Beach. The owner was, of course, the well-off Kyiv burgher Bohdan Khanenko, who lived here with his wife. He died in 1917, on the cusp of dangerous times, and his wife in 1922. The collection of art he amassed was nationalised in 1919, and still hangs on the premises more or less as it did when he lived in this impressive, drafty heap with the views over winter-scorched Shevchenko Park. Khanenkoís was an impressive art collection, it turns out. Iíd visited the place before, but time intrudes, and you forget. But indeed, at the Khanenko, there are treasures. Like the Venice scenes on the massive, groaning staircase that leads to the museumís second floor. Great Scott Ė it turns out upon inspection that that tender ĎCanal in Veniceí landscape (or is it waterscape?) thatís hanging there is an authentic Francesco Guardi. The
You can love this place and still wish theyíd refurbish it. The art deserves it. The space is also wooden, which gives me the chills
gentleman, I seem to remember, was second only to Canaletto when it came to painting photo-realistic depictions of the Queen of the Adriatic, which collectors who pined for the Grand Tour days of their youths placed on their salon walls in boreal London or Berlin. Other pictures on the staircase walls include a couple of Tiepolos, Celliniís statue of Perseus holding the big, ugly head of the Medusa, and two more Venice paintings. Oneís by a certain Tironi and the other by a certain Marieschi. Are they as famous as Guardi? Who cares? Venice is allright, and I always enjoy looking at pictures of the place.
Can We Go Dutch?
Moving right along, you step off the landing and over a threshold and all at once itís goodbye Italy, hello Holland. (It might even feel a little colder in here.) Check it out Ė right over there, thatís an actual real-life Rubens, all sensual and baroque. And thereís a Van Dyck called ĎPortrait of a Man in Black.í And yonder, thatís a Breughel the Younger: his ĎReturn from Somewhere or Other.í No, thatís not really what itís called, but the place in question was a Ukrainian word that I didnít recognise, and that strangely enough my Ukrainian colleagues didnít either. And right down the way a bit thereís a Hieronymous Bosch triptych featuring the usual Boschian cast of demons, grotesques, crow-beaked humanoids, and wicked freaks, and that might be called something like ĎExpiationí or ĎAtonementí or ĎRedemptioní. Iím not sure, because the Bosch is hung way up on the wall, in the higher of the two horizontal rows of paintings. Thus I couldnít make out many of the details, and could only with difficulty read the paintingís informational plate. Which is a good excuse to discuss one of the peculiarities of this museum: the works are presented here much as Khanenko himself arranged them, in the old-fashioned style of multiple horizontal rows stacked sometimes even up to the very ceiling. This arrangement has a certain period charm, but it can make some of the paintings difficult to see. I donít know Ė you might bring a hatbox to stand on or something. I could have used that box to inspect the museumís Rembrandt, a gorgeous work in typically autumnal Rembrandt tones, the ĎPortrait of an Old Man in Eastern Dress.í Imagine, the great man actually touched the thing with his own hands, his own brush. If you were planning on smoking a hookah or watching a Milla Jovovich movie this weekend or something, reconsider and go look at your cityís very own Rembrandt instead. Itís uplifting to be reminded just what treasures this wee, fine museum contains. In a room tucked in the rear of the second floor, itís a thrill to come across some of Boucherís charming cherubs or Davidís portrait of a sitter whom the Soviet-era documentation describes as a ďleader of the French bourgeois revolution.Ē Thereís even a Claude Lorrain. No, scratch that. Closer inspection betrays that itís a School of Claude Lorrain, but myself, I wouldnít have known the difference had I not been told. In the Spanish hall, meanwhile, behold a big, gorgeous Velazquez. Behold, too, a disturbing picture of St. Francis in ecstasy Ė disturbing because the holy man evinces that sickly moss-colored pallor that practicing certain forms of self-lacerating monasticism probably gets you. Pay your respects to the Spanish Hapsburg ruler in the striking portrait across the room, complete with that royal familyís famous funky chin.
Hey Viktor Pinchuk!
I could continue with this laundry list of this institutionís pleasures (I havenít mentioned the Bellini yet, a gorgeously meditative Madonna with Child, or the room full of early Byzantine icons). But Iíve probably made my point: this is an oasis of radiance and beauty in the steel-gray winter city in which, for the next few months, weíre going to live. Like most Soviet museums Iíve visited itís staffed not by beady-staring students in polyester uniforms who bellow at you if you get within a yard of the canvas, but by kindly old women who drowse in their chairs, wearing on their faces near-smiles of peace. By the way, thereís a little passageway you can slip through on the second floor, like a hobbit down his hole, on the other side of which you find yourself in the museumís big eastern wing. Non- Western artís not my thing, but I got the sense here of collections (Islamic, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) of quality and range. Another thing about the Eastern wing is that the display spaces arenít so anachronistic, and are rendered in mellow oranges and reds. This is an improvement on the atmospheric mushroom-and-barley soup of the Western collection. And about that soup: you can love this place and still wish theyíd refurbish it. The art deserves it. The space is also wooden, which gives me the chills. All it takes is one knucklehead custodian sneaking a cigarette in an unused attic room, and adios. Goodbye Diego and Peter and Rembrandt and Jacques-Louis, et al. What they might do here is turn the place into something like
If you were planning on smoking a hookah this weekend or something, reconsider as it might be much more fulfilling to go look at your cityís very own Rembrandt instead
New Yorkís Frick Collection, also the former home of a rich art collector, who lived at the same time as Khanenko. The Frick maintains its historical integrity even as it offers an airy, uplifting Ė or at least not vaguely oppressive Ė experience. I suspect the government has different needs and priorities, but maybe we can get an art-loving tycoon to step forward and commandeer the place and take it grandly into the radiant future. Mr. Pinchuk, call your office.