Museum of Private Collections

Building: Golitsyn Mansion
Location: 14 Volkhonka Street, Moscow
Contact information:
Tel: (095) 203-1546
Nearest underground stations: Kropotkinskaya, Borovitskaya

The Museum of Private Collections is one of the youngest and most unusual in Russia. The history of this institution dates back to 1985, when the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts decided to create a Department of Private Collections. On 24 January 1994, the Museum of Private Collections opened its doors to the public at 14 Volkhonka Street, in the former Golitsyn Mansion.

The permanent exhibition is laid out over two floors and consists of collections of works donated to the Pushkin Museum by private collectors or artists and their relatives. The artwork is laid out in such a way as to retain the integrity of the different collections, demonstrating the original concepts of those who put them together over the years. The attempt has also been made to reflect the personalities, tastes and individual passions of the various collectors.

Until quite recently, private collecting was frowned upon in Russia. At best, it was regarded as a somewhat dubious occupation. Private collecting was classified as amassing personal wealth, contradicting the Soviet way of life. Things have now changed, however, and private collecting today plays an important role in helping to preserve the national cultural heritage.

The collections of many leading international museums are based on private (including royal) collections. Some famous examples are the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the National Gallery in London, the Louvre in Paris and the Prado in Madrid. The largest and most important Russian collections are indelibly linked to such leading historical figures as eighteenth-century statesmen (Prince Nikolai Yussupov, Count Sergei Stroganov and Count Ivan Shuvalov), nineteenth-century merchants and industrialists (Pavel Tretyakov, Sergei Schukin, Ivan Morozov, Nikolai Ryabushinsky and Vladimir Girshman) and nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists (Alexei Bogolyubov, Ilya Ostroukhov, Sergei Botkin, Dmitry Rovinsky and Sergei Kitayev). All of these people were enlightened connoisseurs of art. Many of them played an important role in discovering exciting new names.

In keeping with international practice, private collections are broken up when they are acquired by museums. The works are divided between the different museum departments, depending on the form or medium. The integral nature of the collection is thus lost. The personality of the collector recedes into the background, remaining only of interest to historians.

The Museum of Private Collections applies a different approach. From the very outset, the museum has attempted to resolve two main tasks. The first is to show the unique and specific nature of a series of Private Collections, transformed from private into public ownership by way of gift or donation. The second is to encourage other collectors to follow suit and donate their own collections to the museum. This approach allows the museum to demonstrate the services of each individual collector and the idiosyncrasies of their collections.

Prince Sergei Scherbatov (1875–1962) was one of the first to highlight the need for a Museum of Private Collections in Russia. He believed that such an institution would help to preserve the “spiritual link” between the collection and its former owners, while remaining accessible to all.

In 1972, Ilya Silberstein proposed founding a Department of Private Collections at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. A leading collector, art and literary historian and public figure, Silberstein set a personal example by presenting the museum with his own collection – the result of almost sixty years spent collecting and collaborating with many national museums.

Although this revolutionary move and exciting new proposal was supported by the museum director Irina Antonova, several years had to pass before they could overcome the opposition of conservatives. In 1987, work began on the architectural restoration of the former Golitsyn Mansion – the future home of the new museum. In parallel, the Pushkin Museum set about creating the Department of Private Collections, seeking and acquiring collections, restoring works and preparing them for exhibition.

Most private collections in Russia were nationalised and broken up after 1917. The names of many collectors disappeared from the history books. During the Soviet period, the traditions of private collecting nevertheless survived. The decision to open a Museum of Private Collections provided a fresh impetus for the development of private collecting in Russia. The permanent exhibition also addresses the history of private collecting from 1917 to the present day.

Since its foundation, the Museum of Private Collections has acquired some thirty new collections. It currently owns more than six thousand works of Russian and West European art dating from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries, including painting, graphic art, sculpture, applied art and photography.

The various collections are structurally and stylistically diverse. They embrace different forms of art, including monographic and thematic sections. Pride of place goes to the unique collection once belonging to the founder of the museum – Ilya Silberstein. Numbering more than two thousand works of painting and graphic art, the Silberstein collection occupies four rooms. The exhibits cover a wide range of media and genres, showcasing many famous masters and artistic societies. Such collections are themselves minor museums.

Many collections still manage to retain their sense of integrity and the original concept of the former owner. An excellent example is the collection of Russian Realist painting (mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries) once belonging to Sergei Solovyov. A professional carver of metal, Solovyov was inspired by the personal example of Pavel Tretyakov. Two other examples are the collection of fin-de-siècle and modern Russian painting of Professor Alexander Ramm from Leningrad and the collection of nineteenth-century bronze animal sculptures by foreign and Russian masters of veterinary colonel Yevgeny Stepanov.

Notwithstanding the short history of the Museum of Private Collections, the department has acquired a large number of new exhibits. It has also established close ties with many remarkable people who have spent their lives collecting, restoring and preserving works of art. There are several good reasons why collectors decide to donate their collections to the museum. This is no easy step for some, bearing in mind the psychological and financial effort involved in putting the body of works together in the first place. The main motive is concern for the fate and integrity of the collection.

In 1996, Fyodor and Ekaterina Lemkul presented the museum with their outstanding collection of glass dating from ancient times to the 1830s. The works on display in Room 208 reflect thirty years of devoted toil and labour. The permanent exhibition also includes photographs of the cupboards in the two-room apartment where the collectors used to keep their unique exhibits.

Before his death in 1990, Mikhail Chuvanov – a book lover and warden of the Preobrazhensky congregation of Old Believers – presented the museum with his collection of seventy-five icons. These works of Old Russian painting date from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

The Museum of Private Collections also acquaints visitors with collections put together by Russian historians, scientists and other scholars over the entire course of their lifetimes. Besides works of art, these bodies also include mementoes of the collectors themselves. One example is the study of Russian art historian Mikhail Alpatov. This unique exhibition consists of a library of more than one thousand books on the history of art and paintings by such famous masters as Pavel Kuznetsov, Robert Falk, David Sterenberg and Alpatov himself.

The artistic environment surrounding creative personalities is recreated in the room exhibiting paintings and graphic art from the collection of famous Russian pianist Svyatoslav Richter. A lifelong friend of the Pushkin Museum, Richter was instrumental in organising the annual December Evenings festival of music held at the museum. He also presented the museum with a unique collection of works by Robert Falk, Vasily Shukhayev, Natalia Goncharova, Dmitry Krasnopevtsev and his own pastels.

The Museum of Private Collections accommodates the creative heritages of such leading twentieth-century artists as Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova, David Sterenberg, Vladimir Weisberg, Alexander Tyshler, Tatyana Mavrina, Dmitry Krasnopevtsev and Georgy and Orest Vereisky. The layout of the exhibition rooms is dictated by the specific nature of each individual collection and the unique personality of the collector. This includes a monographic approach to the oeuvres of Alexander Rodchenko, David Sterenberg and Alexander Tyshler and a memorial exhibition in the Leonid Pasternak Room. Some rooms recreate the world of the artist or collector. The Dmitry Krasnopevtsev Studio brings together the objects of his daily life and those depicted in his paintings. The Svyatoslav Richter and Tatyana Mavrina rooms recreate the artistic environment of these two collectors.

In the first five years of the history of the Museum of Private Collections (1985–90), many works were donated by foreign collectors. Two Russian émigrés, Nikita and Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, donated a collection of early-twentieth-century theatrical designs. Semyon Papkov, a collector from San Francisco, presented landscapes by Alexander Benois. Georgy Yakovlevich, a resident of Switzerland, donated the works of his parents – Jacob Shapshal and Maria Berenhof. Vera Isayeva and Xenia Muratova also presented the museum with works.

The permanent exhibition of the Museum of Private Collections is laid out over two floors. The exhibition rooms are arranged in a specific order of enfilades, allowing visitors to compare and contrast the specifics of each individual collection. Moving from one room to the next, the viewer passes through the private world of each collector. Photographs and documents continue the acquaintance with the personalities of the former owners. In a number of cases, elements of the collector’s own layout are retained. In keeping with normal museum practice, the graphic sections are updated every three to four months.

The Museum of Private Collections regularly holds temporary exhibitions. The themes are extremely diverse, including the history of private collecting in Russia, turn-of-the-century art groups, shows of leading modern collections and the Forgotten Names series of exhibitions and publications. Such shows are a direct result of the close professional ties between the museum curators, collectors and families of artists.

The Museum of Private Collections has also founded a society of friends and collectors. Many famous collectors have joined the society. Members can visit the permanent and temporary exhibitions free of charge. The society hosts meetings with art historians and experts, professional consultations and memorial evenings. Monthly concerts by famous musicians are held in the Svyatoslav Richter Room in collaboration with the Alexander Scriabin Society.

The role of the Museum of Private Collections is multi-functional. It is both a museum of art and a museum of the history of collecting in Russia. Thanks to the diversity of the collections and the unique personalities who put them together, the Museum of Private Collections is able to demonstrate a broad panorama of Russian and West European art, bringing together past, present and future collectors.

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