The Great one: AGO's Catherine exhibition gives a shout out to vanity
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 October 2005)

New York publishers, in their anxiety to find literature that sells, have lately adopted a phrase, "megaphone moment," meaning a climactic scene that stuns the reader with its power and sums up whatever the author and publisher hope the book means. Often it becomes a criticism, as in "We need more megaphone moments in this book." The term refers to September, 2001, when George W. Bush, megaphone in hand, stood at Ground Zero and vowed to destroy the cretins responsible for the 9/11 atrocities. This year, his critics say he's been vainly seeking another megaphone moment among the victims of Katrina.

In that sense, the Romanov Coronation Coach, seven metres long, heavy with gilt paint and crimson cloth, serves as the megaphone moment in Catherine the Great: Art for Empire, which opened on Saturday at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and goes to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in February. As part of a 200-item loan from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, the coach becomes an unignorable centrepiece.

Built in France by craftsmen who wanted to make Russia's leaders think it would add style to their regime, it's a tasteless and over-the-top expression of all that money can buy. But since it went to Russia before Catherine was born, it sits awkwardly in a collection advertised as material she "collected and commissioned." She neither collected nor commissioned it; an earlier generation imported it from the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris. Maybe she used it, but it says nothing about her. It's in the show as a piece of show business, so that people who pay $18 a ticket can stand back and say, 'Well, that sure is one hell of a coach' -- even if they're not enchanted by the rather ordinary paintings or the plenitude of snuff boxes, cameos, porcelain figurines and other tchotchkes.

Art for Empire sees Catherine II as she would wish, a thinker and tastemaker. Those expecting it to deal with her romantic life will be disappointed. This gathering of curiosities has been created by two puritan countries, Russia and Canada, both of them obsessed with propriety, so the subject's flamboyant sex life comes through dimly when it comes through at all. Were the show organized by the French and the Americans, it would probably tell her story through the drama of the bedroom, a drama that, in the case of her favourite lover, Prince Grigory Potemkin, helped determine the course of empire.

The Toronto and Montreal curators fall into line with the Catherine-friendly tendency that developed among historians in the last decades of the 20th century. For nearly two centuries after her death (in 1796), she was regarded as both vicious and ludicrous -- vicious because she seized the throne by ordering or agreeing to the assassination of her husband, Peter III, and ludicrous because she used the royal guards as a pool of potential lovers, some of whom were 40 years younger than she when conscripted for bedroom service. She was considered so depraved that at one point a rumour that she had enjoyed coitus with a horse was whispered across Europe.

Her reputation started changing in 1981, when Isabel de Madariaga brought out Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great, an elaborate, authoritative attempt to rehabilitate Catherine and depict her as a great leader. De Madariaga followed nine years later with Catherine the Great: A Short History, and introduced one of her articles by saying that after studying her for 40 years, she now considered Catherine "someone who has become a close friend." Five years ago, another friend, Simon Sebag Montefiore, brought out Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin, an adoring study of the lover Catherine raised from a junior officer to chief minister and military commander.

Historians now play down her sexual exploits (they insist she had no more than a dozen documented lovers) and emphasize her affection for modern ideas and her expansion of the Russian empire. For some reason, they regard it as admirable that under Potemkin's leadership, Russia annexed big chunks of Poland, the Ottoman Empire, the Crimea and much of Ukraine, Belorussia, Georgia and Armenia. Recent histories also make a great point of her affection for the French Enlightenment, especially Denis Diderot and Voltaire. Diderot functioned as an art advisor, sending her the best paintings from Paris, but she considered Voltaire her hero, the man whose books taught her everything. He was flattered, but it seems unlikely he advised her to murder everyone who threatened to become a rival. Nor can he have suggested that after claiming to abhor slavery, she should nevertheless leave the freeing of the serfs to a future regime.

In the end, her commitment to the Enlightenment proved shaky. After it helped set the stage for the French Revolution, she lost her enthusiasm. Voltaire was fine, but the guillotine didn't sound like a good idea.

Art for Empire comes across as less a display of art than a quasi-literary work, perhaps a novel, biography or a collection of anecdotes. The careful visitor will find pleasure in a dozen stories that emerge through the art objects. One of them lavishly illustrates her desire that the whole world recognize her as exceptional.

In 1764, she decided to attach her reputation to the renown of Peter the Great by building a huge equestrian statue of him in St. Petersburg. She made as much fuss about the project as possible and decided to spare no serfs. Having settled on the sculptor, Etienne-Maurice Falconet (recommended by Diderot), she wanted a gigantic rock to serve as a plinth, and like a queen in a nursery tale, she advertised throughout her realm for a stone grand enough to honour the statue of Peter.

At last someone pointed out a 131-ton granite monolith near the Gulf of Finland, called the Thunder Stone by the locals because lightning supposedly cracked it. An army of serfs dug it out of the ground with great difficulty and slowly pulled it down a specially built road toward a specially built barge, which carried it to St. Petersburg. This two-year-long process became an international legend by the time the stone reached its destination. Illustrated in Art for Empire, it's now a nice little story about vanity and ambition, set in the middle of a florid, bombastic exhibition.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page