First Ever Kochubey Readings Take Place at HSE
On October 11-12, the HSE University - St Petersburg campus hosted the first ever international Kochubey Readings, devoted to the study of private collections in Russia and around the world. The conference took place under the patronage of the Kochubey family, members of which travelled to Russia from France, Belgium, and the U.S.
The University as a Generator and Preserver of Knowledge
Vasily Kochubey was the master of ceremonies for the court of Emperor Nicholas II. His residence now houses the Management Training Centre (Kochubey Centre) at HSE’s St Petersburg campus. Kochubey was a passionate collector of minerals, rare publications, and art pieces. He also put together exquisite collections of paintings and sculptures. After the revolution in 1917, many pieces from his collections were transferred to state museums or distributed among private collections.
The first international Kochubey Readings, entitled ‘Private Collections in Russia and Around the World – Cooperation Between Society and State,’ were held in honour of Vasily Kochubey’s 150th birthday. Historians, art history experts, and private collection owners all gathered at HSE for the event. This meeting was both somewhat out of the ordinary, but also quite typical for HSE.
‘The university is a place where optional knowledge is preserved and developed – knowledge that does not have a direct application or need in the professional arena,’ noted HSE Vice Rector Sergey Roshchin. ‘But it is optional knowledge in particular that forms the cultural connections and contacts that largely allow us to develop and create social communities. The Kochubey Readers represent the first conversation being had on the cultural codes that enable us to understand one another. They must absolutely be maintained or restored if they start to become lost. The university has to be not only a generator and preserver of knowledge, but also a platform for dialogue – not only about the present, but also about the connection between past and present and between present and future.
The conference showcased the international experience of creating, preserving, and representing private collections. Key speakers included Bruno Henri-Rousseau, the director of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild (France); Countess Alberta Cavazza, co-owner of the Villa Isola del Garda (Italy); Aleksandra Murre, Director of the Kadriorg Art Museum (Estonia); and Magdalena Gaete, representative of the University of Navarra in Russia (Spain). The expert-level discussions took place in the form of round tables and touched upon three key topics: private collections as an object of study, as exhibition projects, and as business.
Honoured guests of the readings included Pyotr Vasilyevich Kochubey, Andrei Sergeyevich Kochubey, and Vasily Vasilyevich Kochubey, great nephews of the mansion’s owner.
Who Should Collect and Why
To the question, ‘Is the discovery of private collections a duty or responsibility?’ two answers were given – a Russian and a foreign one. Vancouver Maritime Museum Executive Director Joost Schokkenbroek talked about private collecting through the prism of history.
The first private collections came about in the 16th century during the era of the Great Geographical Discoveries. People greatly broadened their knowledge of the world around them. Very popular were rarities and wonders that could not be found in Europe at the time. Collectors hunted for samples of flora and fauna, minerals, and household items. In the 17th century, there were some 90 private collections in the Netherlands alone. St. Petersburg had similar rooms of rarities, the best example being Peter the Great’s collection at Kunstkamera.
Private collections opened to the wider public after the French Revolution, and the museum business expanded considerably between the 18th and 19th centuries. After Carl Linnaeus created a unified classification system for plants and animals, museum collections began to be actively systematised and catalogued.
When private collections turned into museums, the approach itself towards collecting changed. Private museums were meant to deepen and expand one’s understanding of national history. European nations identified themselves with museums as repositories of cultural and historical memory
‘For me, the concept of heritage is closely related to the concept of belonging. In other words, the place itself, the exhibition, and contents of the collection should allow a person to identify themselves with the history of a given region and the nation as a whole,’ Joost Schokkenbroek adds.
A collection’s interpretation depends on cultural and political context. The majority of private collections were created not to demonstrate national identity, but to satisfy the personal cognitive and aesthetic demands of the collector. Heritage is a complicated concept that has both retrospective and contemporary characteristics.
Private Collections as Both Duty and Responsibility
That is how Natalia Avtonomova, the head of the Department of Private Collections at the Pushkin Museum, answered the conference’s main question. Responsibility as concerns private collecting is an extremely important idea that is followed by a duty to display items of cultural heritage publicly.
The first facet of responsibility is towards the collection itself. The owner must make every effort to maintain the integrity of the collection. Unfortunately prerevolutionary collections often fell apart specifically because of a lack of this sense of responsibility.
The second is a responsibility towards society. A collection must first and foremost be opened up to specialists. Real collections always have a ‘ballast’ and may contain showpieces whose authenticity is in question. Putting one’s collection up to be judged by professionals is a feat in itself, as it recognizes an obligation to society.
History is full of examples where private collections impacted the course of artists’ creative identity
Malevich’s Black Squaremight not exist without Sergei Shchukin and his collection of French impressionist art. Additionally, the collection at the apartment of Russian avant-garde collector George Costakis impacted nonconformist artists of the second half of the 20th century – Rabin, Mukhin, and Kabakov, for example.
There is also a responsibility to exhibit. Collections are exhibited either separately or in a format where works from different collections are displayed as part of a single-themed exhibit. And finally, a private collection can be given to a state-run museum where professionals will work with the pieces.