Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Another view on Catherine the Great


This one was written by Grace Morgan.

At first glance, one may find it hard to believe that the persona behind this fine collection is the source of so many scandalous rumors. But upon examining the exhibition more closely, one may find her decadence betrays her. Upon entrance to the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts,

the marble staircase is adorned with a regal red carpet which leads the walk up to the enormous adorned gold coach, which truly creates a grand first impression. Secondly one is to meander through the small hall of portraits surrounding the staircase. From these portraits, I was struck by the very steady and confident stare of the Empress. The room that follows on walk-about through exhibit is one that displays Catherine’s intellectual character, featuring a series of busts of artists and thinkers of the time, including: Diderot, Voltaire, Etienne Maurice Falconet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and of course a central bust of Catherine herself. This room also displayed Catherine beautiful, classical inspired Mahogany and Bronze cylindrical desk, where she is said to have sat, armed with two brand new pens every morning, to attend to state affairs.

These first two spaces equally demonstrate Catherine’s excess and decadence, followed directly by her more astute side. A perfect example of the marriage of these two halves is displayed by a series of illustrations that depicts the moving of a 1800-ton granite stone from the Gulf of Finland to Saint Petersburg to form the base of a monument she commissioned in memory of Peter the Great, topped with a heroic bronze sculpture of Peter gesturing towards the Baltic Sea.

I was also quite impressed by Catherine’s dizzying array of jewel and gold encrusted snuff boxes. Though they were adorned with gold and enormous and numerous precious and semi-precious stones, I was disappointed when the audio guide informed me that snuff is not cocaine but a tobacco derivative. Under my misconception, I had always found the idea of the European nobility being all sketch-out and insane of gross amounts of drugs absolutely hilarious and I had always used that idea as explanation, but by no means a justification, for many of the egotistical and brash actions of European monarchs.

However, I find the historical factor almost surpassed the sheer splendor. When speaking to my friends about Catherine the Great I was impressed to find how many people were in fact interested in Catherine II, former empress of Russia. One friend remark which stuck out to me was, “Any woman who died making love to a horse is fine by me!” This set off my curiosity, as I personally had never heard this story.

I attempted to do a little background check into the life of Catherine to see if this story could actually, possibly be true, and I almost considered that it could be as I found many introductions to her biographies almost a bit too defensive. For example: “One of the most interesting, industrious and powerful personages to grace the pages of history during the eighteenth century is Catherine II, Empress of all the Russias. Historians have not always been kind to her memory, and all too often one reads accounts of her private life, ignoring her many achievements. The stories of her love affairs have been vulgarized and can be traced to a handful of French writers in the years immediately after Catherine's death, when Republican France was fighting for its life against a coalition that included Russia.” Though this is most likely true and I agree that she sounds fantastic and so does Musée de Beaux Artes; however, mention Catherine the Great in a bar and people still become excited recounting bizarre erotic tales, which today portrays her as an impressive woman as opposed to degrading her image as it was supposed to in her time.

But, unfortunately, I was dissuaded from believing this story after reading a few documents which claimed she died from a stroke at the age of 67. An age at which I strongly doubt she would have the vitality for a more spectacular death.

If you'd like to read what I wrote, click here. If you'd like to read what Jacquline Mabey wrote, click on this.

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