Catherine the Great: Arts for the Empire - Masterpieces from The State Hermitage Museum at the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas West), to January 1, 2006. $18, stu/srs $15. 416-979-6648. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Catherine the Great was one of the great strong women in history. Starting out as a young German countess married to the heir to the Russian throne, she accused her weak and unpopular husband of treason, overthrew him and was made empress. Once on the throne, she consolidated power, expanded Russian territory, instituted modern government reforms and lavished money on the arts.
Her most famous legacy, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, is the source of the AGO 's current show.
Catherine's monumental reign didn't work without a huge publicity engine, and this show demonstrates how ostentation makes great propaganda.
Catherine relied on old-school royal glamour, and the heavily gilded artifacts are ornamented with cherubs, mythical creatures and eagles. The show includes porcelain, china, furniture, dresses and jewellery from her many palaces, each object bearing the weighty and elaborate imprint of her reign.
Presiding over several rooms of this antique froth are portraits of Catherine herself, painted several ways, but mostly as a butch and benignly plump matron sitting astride a horse and looking very contented with herself.
There are some surprises. The empress entertained a lifelong infatuation with Voltaire, with whom she corresponded. She could never get him to visit, however, and so made do with numerous busts, statues and paintings of him. Finally she commissioned an artist to paint a series about Voltaire's typical day, one of the oddest exercises in intellectual hagiography ever created. This, along with some stiff examples of French neoclassicism and royal portraiture, form the bulk of the paintings in the show, with the exception of a lyrical work by Nicolas Poussin and a peasant scene by Jean-Baptiste Greuze . Sadly, much of the Hermitage's inexhaustible painting collection is on tour elsewhere.
Russophiles will find lots to rave about in this rich and well-upholstered show. In light of what the Hermitage has to offer, however, this seems more a historical than an art exhibit.
Many great paintings from the collection are now at the Guggenheim Las Vegas, which would seem a more appropriate destination for the gaudy coronation carriage dominating this show. Perhaps the galleries can arrange a trade.