Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Tretyakov: Worth All The Waiting

It took nine years to renovate the State Tretyakov Gallery, an epic remont by any standard, but when the doors to this treasure house of Russian art reopen later in the year the result will have been worth every minute of such a long wait.

Before the gallery closed in 1985 it was without question the most popular of Russian museums. Art lovers would stand in line for hours to get in, even in the depths of winter. Once inside they found a formidable collection that encapsulated the Russian spirit in art perhaps more effectively than any other.

Yet the paintings were always poorly hung and terribly lit. It was a dreadful gallery in this sense, undeserving of its collection. That is about to change. Even from a brief tour of the renovated building, as some paintings lie on the floor and others are unfurled and carefully framed and rehung, it is clear that the Tretyakov has entered the modern age.

For the first time Russians will be able really to see the classics of their fine-arts heritage. The paintings are now illuminated by graduated, professionally designed lighting. The rooms are sealed, temperature-controlled and stylishly appointed, achieving an uncluttered sense of space. It is a dramatic improvement that should one day be extended to the Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg, which remains as shabby as it is fabulous.

The Tretyakov's rebirth comes not a moment too soon. Russians are at every level struggling with their national identity. Having suddenly lost the title of Soviet citizens most are uncertain as yet of what it means to be a Russian. The country is searching all aspects of its religious, political and cultural inheritance to reconstruct that identity and all sorts of charlatans are trying to get in on the act.

Recently, on Manezh Square, a huge exhibition was staged that claimed to capture the spirit of the nation. The paintings were by Ilya Glazunov and the exhibit was immensely popular, drawing admirers from all walks of Russian society right up to the president. But Glazunov's art, once an expression of dissident courage, has become a warped caricature of the Russian spirit. In his latest paintings the sentimental portraits of innocent Russia's suffering and vicious depictions of Jews and blacks resemble nothing so much as the propaganda of Nazi Germany.

Next to the masterpieces that hang in the Tretyakov, these canvases by Glazunov are as comic books compared to the giants of 19th century Russian literature. Perhaps when the Tretyakov reopens, this art of cheap chauvinism will be revealed as such, to be pushed aside in the popular favor by generations of work that truly do reflect the richness of the Russian spirit.