Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Art History the Easy Way

Everyone to whom I have ever spoken who has visited the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) has spoken of it in the most glowing terms. I don’t expect that I will ever get there. So I was drawn to The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean as a way to visit vicariously.

The main character Marina was a docent at the Hermitage in 1941. In anticipation of an attack by the Germans, the museum director ordered that the paintings be removed from their frames and stored or shipped out of town for safekeeping. It is now decades later and Marina and her husband Dmitri are preparing for the wedding of their granddaughter in Washington State. The novel alternates between the two times and places. The current situation is complicated by Marina’s struggle with Alzheimer’s but her memory of the paintings and life in the shelter during the siege is unimpaired.

It’s one thing to read a description of the Leningrad blockade in Wikipedia: “The Siege of Leningrad was one of the longest and most destructive sieges of major cities in modern history and it was the most lethal.” It lasted 872 days. But the true horror is conveyed in passages from the novel like this: “They were able to save their ration coupons for the rest of the month. Then two weeks ago, when there was nothing left, when Marina had begun fainting at the slightest exertion, a group of sailors on the Palace Embankment presented her with an armful of pine branches. She ate the entire branch on the way back to the shelter, gnawing on the bark. It tasted wonderful, sharp and spicy, like eating the forest.” There is an equally powerful description of melting down the joiner’s glue that was used to glue the picture frames together to make a jelly: the glue was made from sinews of beef.

I intentionally did most of the reading at home so that I could have a copy of Paintings in the Hermitage by Colin Eisler close by. It slows down the reading considerably to stop and look up the paintings mentioned but it is a painless way of getting acquainted with some of the world’s most well-regarded works of art. For some of the paintings there is a more detailed description of the history, the artist, the symbolism. The best part is knowing that there won’t be a quiz at the end…just the satisfaction of having spent some time with the Masters and learning a little bit of history as well.

PS: For those of us in our 6th and 7th decades (and beyond) we can lose no time in building our own “memory palaces” (page 68).

Interview with Debra Dean

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