The Art of Russia (2009) s01e02 Episode Script

Roads to Revolution

Imagine a shimmering city conjured out of thin air, rising in just a few decades where once there had been a wilderness of barren marshes.
A place to rival the beauties of Venice and Paris St Petersburg.
St Petersburg was founded at the start of the 18th century in imitation of the great western European cities.
Russia had never seen a place like this, with its elegant classical facades.
It was part of a great cultural project to end centuries of isolation.
But when Russia opened its doors to Europe, it didn't just let in new ideas about art and architecture, it let in a host of other, even more dangerous ideas.
Ideas that would lead to bloodshed and, eventually, revolution.
For the next two centuries, art was to be a battlefield, pitting the glories of the court .
against the anguish of its peasants.
Showing the beauty of the landscape .
and the demons of the mind.
From a crushing symbol of tyranny to an art that would devour Russia itself.
This is the story of Russia's journey from royal excess to mass rebellion, and of how art went from being the servant of the state to an agent of its destruction.
For centuries, Russia had been cut off from the culture and ideas of the West.
But in St Petersburg, you see a whole nation making up for lost time.
Peter the Great began the immense project of Europeanising Russia by founding the city in 1703.
But he never lived to see the imperial splendour of its architecture.
Its brightly coloured palaces were created in the decades after Peter's death by his daughter.
She would dress St Petersburg up in the colours of a thousand ball gowns.
Her name was Tsarina Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth's been rather written out of Russian history.
Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, never Elizabeth the Great, but she was great in her own way, and she certainly left her mark on Russian culture.
what we're really admiring is her taste.
Peter might've got St Petersburg built, but it was Elizabeth who really decided what it would look like.
Elizabeth was positively bacchanalian in her pursuit of pleasure.
She loved parties and masquerades and she was drawn to the grandiose European style of the baroque.
In the 1740s, she employed an architect with Italian blood, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, but their buildings have a distinctly Russian feeling of excess.
The Catherine Palace was Elizabeth's own Versailles, but on an even grander scale.
The facade's nearly a quarter of a mile across.
And this, the Smolny, was Elizabeth and Rastrelli's version of a convent.
Their take on the baroque was an exotic hybrid.
Painted in bright colours, like the churches of old Russia, and topped with glittering onion domes.
Now, Elizabeth was no mere follower of fashion.
She was one of the most dynamic and progressive patrons of art and architecture of the entire 18th century.
And when you look at this wonderful wedding cake of a building, what you realise is that she brought into the world of Russian art a new spirit of panache and theatricality.
And nowhere else in Europe was the baroque style pushed to this extreme level of fantasy.
The most magnificent of all these creations is on the coastal fringes of St Petersburg, Peterhof.
It was begun by Peter the Great as a modest affair, but in the 1740s, Elizabeth and Rastrelli waved their magic wands over it.
With its grand staircases and its gilded water-pumping statues, Peterhof's a wonder of architecture and engineering, but it's also a miraculous survival.
The Nazis tried to blow the palace up during the Second World War, and reduced large parts of it to a shell.
It's taken more than 60 years to return Peterhof to its former glory, and the work still continues.
This is Elizabeth's chapel, the very last section to be restored.
A mind-boggling 200 pounds in weight of gold leaf will be needed to complete the job.
Here, the finishing touches are being applied by an army of blue-suited architectural make-up artists.
TRANSLATED FROM RUSSIAN: Don't you ever sometimes sort of look around and think to yourself, "Isn't it a little bit over the top? So is your house at home like this? HE CHUCKLES Thank you very much.
I got the joke, even with my terrible Russian.
If you want to experience the full baroque blast of Peterhof, you have to go to the grand state rooms of the main palace.
It's almost as if Elizabeth had a Midas complex.
She wanted everything she touched to turn to gold.
This is Tsarina Elizabeth's ballroom, and it's the great set piece demonstration of the baroque style as SHE wanted it reincarnated in Russia.
Absolutely dripping with giltwood decoration.
You've got wonderful candelabra, you've got giltwood Cupids, you've got sexy mythological scenes set into little roundels.
There's not a square inch of this room that isn't decorated.
Now, the art history term for it is "Russian baroque", but I think of it as the baroque of bling.
It's just fantastically excessive.
And you have to also imagine that in Elizabeth's day, these rather ugly light bulbs wouldn't have been there, there would've been actual candles with flames.
And then, if you imagine this whole space full of people dancing, the effect must've been positively hallucinogenic.
Now above, as if to underscore her role as the great founder of Russian visual culture, Russian art and decoration and architecture, Elizabeth had herself painted as almost as the patron saint of Russian art.
There she is, hovering in the sky, holding aloft a sceptre of enlightenment.
And she's above Mount Parnassus of classical legend, where Apollo and the muses - those who inspire artistic creativity - are to be found.
There's the muse of music, the muse of theatre and there, with her compass, the muse of art and architecture.
But for all the lofty myth-making, there's also a kind of mania to prove that Russians could do European culture even better than Europeans themselves.
And nowhere more so than the portrait gallery .
a breathtakingly overloaded version of the galleries in grand European houses, with walls like pages of a stamp album.
Like Rastrelli, the artist responsible was of Italian descent - Pietro Rotari.
It's said that Elizabeth paid Rotari the sum of 1,000 gold roubles to come to Russia - a world record transfer fee for a portrait painter.
And what she got in return, were some of the very first pictures of Russians seen through a European lens.
Now, in this room there are 367 altogether and they're all in a well-established European tradition of painting so-called beauties.
Innocent, rather coquettish young ladies.
But the twist here is that each one of these individual girls is meant to represent a different region of Russia.
You can tell by the different costumes and headdresses.
So what this amounts to is a kind of ideal catalogue of Russian womanhood.
But there's more to it than that too, because Rotari employed an army of Russian apprentices, and many of these pictures were painted by them.
So what we've got here is a kind of extraordinary capsule of a particular moment.
We've got Russians painted by a European but we've also got Russians painting in a European style.
In the new St Petersburg, portraiture flourished.
Russian artists became expert at capturing the glamour of an aristocracy in love with its own, fashionably European image.
The city's elite made a cult of luxury, so even eating could become a kind of artistic performance.
Consuming caviar became the ultimate symbol of one's nobility .
but one that might leave a bitter aftertaste.
For all its glittering social rituals, Russia was essentially a feudal society.
You have to remember that the aristocracy was a tiny elite, supported by a mountain of human misery.
Their lifestyle were sustained by the existence of the serf class.
Serfs were owned peasants, effectively slaves, and they made up half of the country's population.
Among them, poverty was rife.
They lived a hand-to-mouth existence.
The treatment of the serfs might've improved when Catherine the Great came to the throne in 1762.
Schooled by the European Enlightenment, a patron of both Diderot and Voltaire, she boasted of her benevolent treatment of Russia's peasants.
And in the art created during her reign, the Russian peasant suddenly moved centre stage.
Whether it's Shibanov's Peasant Wedding - a heart-warming celebration of rural life - or Argunov's Peasant Woman, beaming health and happiness with her smooth skin and perfectly plucked eyebrows.
But such pictures were really just propaganda - the lot of the poor had worsened under Catherine's reign.
And one truly monumental work of art shows the brutal reality behind the myth of Catherine's Enlightenment.
In the 1760s, she commissioned a statue of Peter the Great, now known as "the Bronze Horseman".
It shows the tsar as a dynamic Caesar.
This was Catherine's way of claiming Peter's power as her own.
She too would master the Russian people as Peter masters his horse.
But for me, the most fascinating thing about the monument is not the statue itself, but the enormous plinth on which it stands, the so-called thunder rock.
According to legend, it's the stone from the top of which Peter first surveyed the site of St Petersburg.
Now, at Catherine's insistence, this enormous piece of granite - it weights 1,800 tonnes - was transported to this site several miles.
It took hundreds of men nearly two years.
No beasts of burden were used.
It's quite possibly the single largest piece of stone ever moved by human force alone.
Now, it's a crushingly powerful, overbearing symbol of the real relationship between ruler and ruled in Tsarist Russia.
This was Catherine's way of saying to her people, "No matter how difficult it might seem, "no matter how mad it might appear, "whatever I tell you to do, you do it.
" And artists too had to endure their own form of servitude.
The St Petersburg Academy was built as a Roman temple.
It rigidly controlled the training of artists in the European classical tradition emphasising the study of Greek and Roman art.
This depiction of the studio of Venetsianov - the leading Russian artist of the early 19th century - is dutifully filled with casts of classical statues.
In the Russian Museum, you can see how this overwhelmingly academic approach was to keep a tight leash on the development of the nation's art.
Now, if you want to experience the Russian tradition of European style art, 100 years of art history, squeezed into just a few rooms, this is the best place to do it.
Here, you might be in an English style portrait gallery, look at those two pictures of a young girl and young boy, like mannequins in the airless interior of some palace.
They were determined to have everything in their palaces that you'd find in any of the great European palaces.
Tapestries made at the newly founded in St Petersburg tapestry factory, great monumental bronzes - this time it's Empress Anna, attended by an Arab boy.
They also quickly developed their own traditions of classically inspired art - heroic nudes, or scenes from Homer, designed for the moral contemplation of the Russian aristocracy.
Now by the time you get to the end of the 18th century, Russian artists have really mastered most of the major European genres.
And this room is devoted to the work of Dmitri Levitsky, who's the giant of late 18th century Russian portraiture.
He's Russia's answer to Sir Joshua Reynolds.
This great picture here, a wonderfully theatrical portrait of Catherine the Great, could almost have been painted by Reynolds himself.
It's an utterly competent, completely derivative work of art.
But that's the point, they didn't want originality.
They wanted EXACTLY what the Europeans had.
And Russia's tradition of grand, academic copycat painting would come to a wild crescendo with THIS picture.
It's my favourite picture in the museum.
It's not so bad it's good it's so bad it's fantastic.
It's Karl Bryullov's The Last Day of Pompeii.
Bryullov's painting gleefully captures the destruction of the ancient Roman city, but it's really an excuse to show off his mastery of European style and subject matter.
Almost everything in the picture is second-hand.
It's a wonderful collage of borrowings.
The dead mother with her baby in the foreground is taken from a classical source.
Those figures masked with the cloak are from the Italian Raphael.
If you look up at the back the man on the rearing horse, he's nicked from Delacroix, the French Romantic painter.
But the picture's more than the sum of its parts and once all of these elements have been whirled around in Bryullov's magic liquidiser, the result is an extraordinarily, theatrical, mad vision of apocalypse.
And what it makes me think of, more than anything else, is the great Russian genius for theatre, for opera.
In fact, I think it's a painting that really aspires to the condition of cinema.
After all, it's painted in Cinemascope format.
I think, in a way, the only thing that's missing is a little man coming up through the floor playing an organ! But by the start of the 1840s, Russian culture was on the brink of a momentous change.
Writers like Gogol were beginning to show that the lives of ordinary Russians could be the stuff of great literature.
And, after a century of academic repression, artists were desperate to follow their lead.
There was a growing hunger for images of real day-to-day life.
And by the middle of the 19th century, Russian art had reached a kind of tipping point.
Artists were fed up with endlessly depicting the same tiny elite, or churning out huge classical melodramas.
They wanted to paint what they saw as the real Russia - Russia in the here and now.
The first painter really to peer beneath the surface of Russian society was Pavel Fedotov.
From the 1840s, he caricatured the ruling classes.
Russia had virtually no history of satirical art, so people were truly shocked by Fedotov's feckless young woman, his preening major and his penniless noble hiding a pauper's breakfast.
This picture is called the Fresh Cavalier, and it's one of Fedotov's biggest hits.
When he exhibited it at the 1846 exhibition, thousands of people crowded round to see this satire of a rather small-minded cavalry officer.
He's been given a medal, and he's spent the whole night carousing and celebrating this honour that's been bestowed on him.
He's a vain man, his hair is in curlers.
He's also immoral, because he's spent the night with his mistress.
Fedotov was a huge fan of Hogarth and of the European satirical tradition and you can see that in his love of incriminating details.
Look at the drained champagne bottle, the broken crockery symbolising smashed virtue, the guitar without its strings, which is a symbol of discord .
and the cat, scratching away at the silk cover of the chair.
And I think the cat, in some way, is a symbol of the man himself - a privileged person who's abusing his status.
Fedotov's own life ended unhappily.
He was brutally jumped on by the Russian censor, who prevented him from publishing his work in the form of engravings or lithographs, reaching out directly to the wider public because it was seen as simply too inflammatory.
What happened was that the artist gradually retreated in on himself.
He died at the age of 37 after a long depression.
In fact, he ended his days in a lunatic asylum.
And this picture, ironically entitled Encore Encore is one of his very, very last works.
And it takes us to a far bleaker and darker place than anything seen in his earlier pictures.
Here, we've got this image of a man, a military officer, somewhere at the rump end of the Russian Empire, perhaps in Siberia.
There's a glimpse of snow and perhaps a rook or two in the murk outside that window.
He's in a log cabin, he's on his own, the implication is that he's spent months here and he's passing the time by teaching his dog to jump over a stick.
The dog is this blurred, strange form.
And it's hard not to read it as a kind of metaphor for Fedotov's very bleak view of Russian society.
In a sense, aren't we all doing something as pointless as this? But the trickles of discontent in Fedotov's work were about to become a tidal wave.
The great rebellion had taken more than a century to arrive but it would revolutionise the course of Russian art.
In 1863, the students at St Petersburg's rather stuffy academy started lobbying to be allowed to paint purely Russian subjects.
But their professors said, "No," and the subject set for that year's final exam was Odin entering the gates of Valhalla.
Fourteen students left in protest.
They decided to turn their back on St Petersburg and take their art to the whole of this vast country.
They were to be called the Peredvizhniki - The Wanderers.
The Wanderers saw themselves as more than just artists.
Acutely aware of Russia's lack of democracy, they believed it was the painter's duty to explore and expose every aspect of Russian life.
They showed the bitter lives of the peasants.
They celebrated the splendour of the landscape.
They remembered Russia's tyrannical history, the blood-letting of mad Ivan the Terrible.
They didn't paint the idle rich but kindred spirits wrestling with Russia's destiny.
Writers like Ivan Turgenev and the brooding Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Above all, they painted the towering figure of 19th century Russian culture, Leo Tolstoy.
The Wanderers regarded Tolstoy as their spiritual godfather.
And for him, the purpose of writing novels was to point the way forward for Russia.
So take a book like Anna Karenina.
Yes, it's a great tragic love story but, at its heart, it's really a political tract, a great rejection of the values of the court and the city and an embrace of the values of the land.
The central scene in the book has the male character Levin being taught to wield a scythe by his peasants.
And suddenly, at this moment, he realises that he feels truly Russian, he feels at one with the world.
Tolstoy was celebrated in a series of paintings by the Wanderers.
Here by Nesterov, wearing peasant garb.
Here by Repin, ploughing a field.
But there was nothing twee or escapist about this retreat to the land.
Tolstoy believed the nation could only be saved by reconnecting with her ancient traditions and Russian artists followed his lead.
The Wanderers were fascinated by documenting the Russian landscape.
They were part of a broad movement towards landscape painting.
Artists all over Europe were getting back to nature - most famously, the French Impressionists.
But the Russians weren't interested in impressionistic effects of haze or blur because, for them, Mother Russia had the value almost of a spiritual absolute.
They wanted to capture every leaf, every stalk, every cloud.
So they opted for a style of almost hypnotic, photographic realism.
The Wanderers' greatest landscape artist was Isaac Levitan.
Regarded with suspicion by many Russians, Lithuanian and Jewish, he nonetheless set out to capture the essence of Russian nature.
He painted the nation's great birch forests - a world of silver and green, dappled by sunlight.
He said he painted to touch people's souls.
And here you can see his positively religious sense of the vastness of the Russian landscape.
He looks down, as if from God's point of view, to a tiny Orthodox church set within the greater cathedral of nature.
But Levitan could chill the soul too.
One of his most celebrated landscapes, Vladimirka, is shot through with a sense of morbidity and dread.
You need to know this was the path political prisoners tramped down on their way to Siberia.
Levitan had used landscape as a vehicle for protest.
Political dissidence lay at the core of everything the Wanderers did.
The most famous member of the group saw himself as Russia's conscience.
His name? Ilya Repin.
This is Ilya Repin's estate, and to Russians it's hallowed ground.
He's not that well known outside Russia, but within Russia he's considered a giant, every bit as famous as Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.
And that's because he used painting to address the great issues of the day.
In fact, during the course of his long career, there was hardly an aspect of Russian life that he didn't touch on.
Repin's paintings are a panorama of Russian society.
His Religious Procession in Kursk is on the scale of a great Russian novel.
It's a piercing, pitiless image of a divided society, full of flawed figures of authority - the guard lashing out at the crowd, the vain priest primping his hair, the cruel father, beating his crippled son.
Repin had his own wars with Tsarist authority, and the state censors.
This picture, The Arrest of a Propagandist, shows a heroic revolutionary seized by the police.
But Repin suppressed the image, knowing it was too inflammatory to show in public.
He did plan to exhibit this even more shocking painting of a political prisoner spurning confession before his execution, but it was banned outright by the censor.
Even in his portraiture, Repin was drawn to rebels and firebrands - this picture of the young, pallid Maxim Gorky emanates intellectual unrest.
Elena Kirillina, the curator of the estate, has a particular love of Repin's portraits.
If you had to name your favourite Repin painting, which one would it be? Repin lived in this dacha, which he designed himself in a simple, folksy style.
But don't be fooled by appearances.
This house, too, had an intensely political purpose.
Repin's house embodies his values, and although he was rich enough to employ an army of servants, he prided himself on having none.
In fact, visitors to the house were greeted by this sign 'Don't call for the butler, we haven't got one! Please announce yourself with a tam tam! ' I think it was Repin's way of quietly banging a gong for his own democratic values.
And this is his dining room.
And because he didn't have any servants to wait on his guests, he devised this rather ingenious circular table, to make sure the plates got to each and every person.
It was really quite revolutionary! You can see a smiling Repin on the left of the screen in this fragmentary home movie.
And here he is, proudly shovelling away snow without a servant in sight.
The living embodiment of the Wanderers' revolutionary ethos.
I think the great thing about Repin was the breadth and the depth of his humanity.
And unlike many other 19th century painters who depicted poor people, Repin didn't approach them in any patronising or sentimental way.
He'd been brought up in poverty himself, as a peasant, and I think it was that background that gave him the ability to capture the harsh realities of Russian life like no other artist.
In the 1870s, Repin created the most celebrated painting in the history of Russian art.
It was to shock the nation with its unflinching depiction of peasant life.
Barge-Haulers on the Volga is Repin's most famous picture.
It's a great work of social protest.
I'm not interested in painting light and colour, he said.
I want to paint content.
And the content here is unadulterated human misery.
11 men hauling, with their own force, a great barge to the shore of the Volga river.
They are human beings who have been reduced to the level of beasts.
Now these figures draw the eye in so much that it's quite easy to miss a very important detail which is this little tugboat.
And what it tells us, quite simply, is that there is another way of doing this.
We've got steam power.
But the fact is, that human labour is still so cheap, and our disregard for any sense of human rights is so enormous, that we're still prepared to treat people like this.
Now, one of the things that's most interesting about this picture is that from the very moment it was painted, it was hugely popular, and its popularity has never diminished.
It was, for example, Stalin's favourite painting.
This was the picture that he held up to the artists of communist Russia as a model on which they should base their own work.
And it's not hard to see why.
because to a communist this would look like a depiction of the energies and the will that would lead to revolution.
And the key figure of all, and this was said at the time when the picture was painted, the key figure, who's picked up by the light, is this boy in the middle.
He's the only figure looking up, looking out as if to a better life, as if to a more optimistic future.
And he even looks as if he's about to take off the shackles of slave labour.
This was more than just a painting.
This was an incendiary work of art, a manifesto for political change.
So what was the Wanderers' alternative to this brutal world of oppression and servitude? You can glimpse it here at the estate of Abramtsevo, where they founded an artists' colony.
Surrounded by buildings designed in homage to ancient folk architecture, they studied the arts and crafts of old Russia.
Abramtsevo was to be a model society, taking Russia itself back to basics.
At its centre they built an orthodox church, which still bears witness to their highly charged sense of mission.
HE SAYS SOMETHING IN RUSSIAN I'm sorry my Russian is terrible but we'll get there in the end.
The keeper to the church.
That is a big key.
This is the Church of the Holy Saviour.
And it marks a very important moment, a point where the artists of the late 19th century here in Russia reconnect with the mysteries of orthodox Christianity.
And a whole group of painters, craftsmen and sculptors collaborated to create the decoration for this church.
An artist called Viktor Vasnetsov created this rather beautiful, naive style mosaic floor.
But he real splendour of this little church is its iconostasis, the screen that separates the congregation from the altar.
And here Repin himself, the greatest of the Wanderers, contributed the image of Christ as if imprinted on the veil, like the Turin shroud.
I think what's fascinating about this is the solemnity of the gaze and the fact that Repin has made Christ look like an archetypal Russian.
This could almost be an image of Russia itself as Christ, as the sacrificial victim.
I think what this moment of reconnection with orthodox Christianity gave to the whole movement was a powerful, almost mystical sense of vocation.
There was one artist who would bring together this heady mixture of ancient mysticism and folk motifs, and in doing so, push Russian art to its outer limits.
Mikhail Vrubel.
Unlike most of the other artists who came here to Abramtsevo, Vrubel didn't need to be taught the rudiments of Russian folk art.
He understood it at a gut level.
Very unusually, he had grown up painting icons, restoring murals in Russian churches.
And here where they preserved his studio almost intact, you can see his homages to the folk tradition.
These ceramics, depicting figures from myths and fairy story.
But for me there's also something obsessive, strange, almost grotesque about some of these figures, and Vrubel himself was a deeply neurotic individual.
In the end, his greatest achievement was to take this popular language of Russian folk art, and merge it together into a new form of Russian painting, a painting of dark prophecy.
Vrubel's work always has a disturbing, decadent edge - an end of century fixation with dark forces, which he shared with many European artists.
But he took it to an extreme, obsessed with a figure that was like the ghost of ancient Russia, bent on a terrible vengeance.
During the last 20 years of his life, Vrubel became fascinated by a figure he simply called 'The Demon'.
He painted picture after picture of this mythical creature.
The series began as illustrations to a poem, but they developed into a strange private obsession.
And you can sense that in a picture such as this, Vrubel is straining, almost self-consciously, to create a very Russian language.
, there's a vibrancy of colour.
And over here on this side of the picture you've got this tremendously adventurous use of paint which seems almost to prefigure Cubism, these blocks of colour have been placed here like this.
But I think they're actually meant to evoke the mosaic traditions of folk art and their ceramics.
And in the centre we've got this figure of the demon, this brooding spirit of modern Russia, of Russia as the 20th century approaches, which I think is meant to be somehow pondering the great questions that face the nation - who are we, where are we going? But if you want to see just how far Vrubel would push the Russian folk traditions towards a kind of fin de siecle melancholia, you need to look at this picture, the very last of his demon paintings.
- The Demon downcast.
Now at first sight, it's a baffling image.
Here at the centre you've got this elongated, strangely dislocated figure of the demon, who appears to have been wedged into some piece of hillside in the middle of a barren Siberian plain, cloud-capped, snow-capped mountain in the distance.
And once again you've got, very much you've got the colours of the Russian orthodox church.
You've got this gold everywhere.
And yet the whole things been whipped up into a storm of almost total visual incoherence.
This is figurative painting that's almost on the brink of abstraction.
You've got the sense of almost as if the elements of your visual experience have been put into a kaleidoscope by the artist and whirled around.
Like many another Russian artist and writer of his time, Vrubel ended up in a lunatic asylum.
But I think there's a kind of passionate sanity about this image.
I think he genuinely did feel that Russia at the start of the 20th century was on the brink of some kind of apocalypse.
And this image of a world almost ripped to pieces by its own elemental energies was his way of saying what he thought perhaps lay ahead for his nation.
Vrubel's sense of approaching apocalypse was shared by many Russians.
And it was a feeling fuelled by new, radical strains of political thought from Europe.
A book which would change the course of Russian history was published in the late 19th century, the work of a dangerous German revolutionary.
Das Kapital got past the Tsar's censors on the grounds that nobody in Russia could possibly understand it! And although it is a dense and difficult book, it's also full of prophecies and Biblical metaphors that appealed very strongly to Russia's mystic, apocalyptically inclined thinkers.
Marx compared the accumulation of capital to original sin, and described capitalism itself as a demonic force, hatching golden eggs.
As Russia accelerated into the 20th century, this book became its new bible.
While Marxists plotted, back in St Petersburg Russia's old tsarist regime was looking ever more out of touch.
Ancient structures of power had barely changed in Russia since Peter the Great and the cracks were beginning to show.
In 1894, Nicholas II took to the throne, a feeble ruler who resisted calls for democracy.
The people were stirring into open revolt, but Nicholas chose to ignore the abyss opening before him.
His own favourite art shows him disappearing into a darkly intoxicating dream world.
The Tsar commissioned a series of eggs from the Faberge workshop.
With the shimmering colours of silk, miraculously fixed in enamel, they're like Marx's golden eggs come to life.
Housed behind bullet proof glass, these cold, glittering, brilliant objects of luxury are still the greatest symbol of the Tsarist regime in its last and most vulnerable years.
And in fact, you can even see a tiny little portrait of Tsar Nicholas II embedded in the top of this particular Faberge egg.
He looks as aloof and remote as ever.
The timing of this weird imperial cult of mad extravagance could hardly have been worse.
This egg was created in 1900, and just a few years earlier, half a million people in Russia had died of famine.
Talk about obscene self indulgence.
Nicolas' disconnection from the people was fanning the flames of revolution.
And artists were growing so bold that even a royal commission could be used to undermine royal authority.
This is the hippopotamus, as it was instantly nicknamed by the Russian people.
A statue of Tsar Nicholas' late father, Alexander III, it's an outrageous parody of the heroic Bronze Horseman.
This is the Obese Horseman.
But so out of touch was Nicholas, he gave it the royal stamp of approval.
The great Wanderer, Ilya Repin described the horse as an image of the Russian people, oppressed by the burden of the tsar, digging its heels in and refusing to go on.
And even the sculptor responsible for it, Trubetskoy, who later fled to France, admitted that he'd intended the piece as a caricature.
"I wanted to depict one animal on top of another.
" he said.
So, ironically, what had been conceived as a grandiose celebration of the power of the Tsar, became a rallying point for those who wanted to overthrow his regime.
And there were plenty of them.
The Hippopotamus was the last gasp of the art of Imperial St Petersburg.
An emblem of a culture about to be swept away.
As the 20th century dawned, the energies of Russian culture shifted away from the capital and found a new home.
A revolutionary centre for these revolutionary times.
The City of Moscow! This great city had long been Russia's alternative centre of power, a place that defined itself in opposition to St Petersburg.
And while the Tsar's city became ever more museum like and stultifying, Moscow embraced the spirit of a new age - bold, progressive, modern.
At the start of the 20 century, this was one of the most exciting places in the whole world to be an artist.
Moscow was a natural home for artists who wanted to combine radicalism with a renewal of Russian culture.
Vrubel emblazoned Moscow's grandest hotel with figures from legend and fairytales.
Languid spirits casting a spell on the city.
Inspired by Cubism and Futurism, Natalia Goncharova celebrated Russian life, in pictures that also evoke icons and folk art.
But one Moscow-born artist would catapult Russian modernism further than anything found in Europe, creating a completely new, revolutionary style of art.
Wassily Kandinsky turned Moscow into a tapestry of colour.
And he dissolved it into the swirling forms of a bewildering dream.
It was the city's ancient forms that enthralled him.
Above all, its exotic onion domes.
Kandinsky said that Moscow itself was the catalyst for his new form of disorientating painting.
He saw it as a kind of fairytale city and said that the music of its streets made his heart tremble and vibrate.
Filled with these heady, intoxicating visions of old Russia, Kandinsky would leap into the unknown.
Between 1909 and 1914, Kandinsky worked to untether his art from any reference at all to the visible world.
And he created what have been remembered as the very first abstract paintings.
This for me is the greatest of them all, Composition seven, which he created in 1913.
Now, for all the importance of the French influence on Kandinsky, the influence of the Cubists, of Monet, the Impressionists, I think you can really see his Russian roots.
This is almost like that extraordinary Vrubel painting of the demon cast down.
This could almost be that picture seen through half closed eyes.
Vrubel's kaleidoscope has become Kandinsky's vortex.
A kind of whirlpool in which the last vestiges of representation float free.
Kandinsky was also a mystic.
He believed that we were on the brink of what he called the great epoch of spirituality, and that is what he was painting.
He was tearing the veil from the over materialist eyes of mankind, I think that what this picture expresses, more than anything else, is his genuine belief that the world was on the brink of some kind of spiritual revolution.
As Kandinsky launched Russian art into abstraction, Russia itself was degenerating into formless chaos.
In 1915, in the throes of the first world war, the Tsar was losing all control over the country.
As communists demanded revolution, the most radical Russian artist of all, Kazimir Malevich, created art for a new world to come.
A series of stark geometrical shapes, thrusting away all the old conventions.
He was marching towards one of the most shocking works of the 20th century .
the Black Square.
This cracked and fading painting has the status of a holy relic, an icon touched not by God, but by revolution.
It's an image of Russia itself as a blank space, ready for the great change to be written into it.
Malevich was a revolutionary, in politics as well as in art.
He had fought on the barricades against the Russian state.
Here, he's followed Kandinsky into abstraction, but he's purged the image of all colour, all form.
He's left you with nothing but a void.
The traditionalists tried to laugh the picture off.
They said Malevich had gone mad, he must've painted the black square in the dark.
His response was straight forward.
"I'm glad I'm not like you.
"I can go further and further into the wilderness, "because it's only there that transformation will take place.
"My black square is a bare and frameless icon for our times.
"Arise, Comrades and free yourselves from the tyranny of objects.
" In the same year the Black Square went on display, Lenin was in Switzerland plotting the overthrow of the Tsar.
Russian troops were retreating from German forces.
Strikers were bringing the nation to a standstill.
Revolution was coming.
Russia had reached Year Zero.