Photograph of Nicholas II from 1894 in "The Reluctant Autocrat: Tsar Nicholas II"
Last year marked not only the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I, but the fall of the Romanov dynasty, whose three-century reign ended during the Russian Revolution with the forced abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Painted as a devout family man, Nicholas II is remembered as serving dutifully yet incompetently, with his actions ultimately ushering in the economic and military collapse of the Russian Empire. The Bolsheviks’ brutal execution of Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra and their five children—all of whom were canonized as passion bearers much later by the Russian Orthodox Church—creates a chance to contemplate the complicated relationships, public portrayals and private lives of both “good” and “bad” historical figures.
On view at the Georgia Museum of Art through Sunday, Mar. 17, “The Reluctant Autocrat: Tsar Nicholas II” explores this pivotal period of time through photographs, paintings, porcelain and other objects relating to Nicholas II and his father and predecessor, Alexander III. The exhibition demonstrates the museum’s ongoing efforts at building an expansive body of Russian art, with the majority of its pieces selected from the Parker Collection, which consists of over 2,200 objects. Through descriptive labels and wall texts, Asen Kirin, Parker Curator of Russian Art at the museum and a professor of art history at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, documents the life of Nicholas II, humanizes the royal family and illuminates a swiftly modernizing world.
In accordance with a political ideology held by the Russian autocracy, tsars were believed to be born with the inherent divine power to rule as God’s representatives on Earth. This heavy religious undercurrent is best represented within the exhibition by the inclusion of dazzlingly ornate devotional icons encrusted with jewels, pearls, intricate enamel designs and precious metals.
A fairly new technology and a growing leisure activity of the social elite, photography provided a way of establishing a sense of closeness between royalty and the public. Images of formal processions—such as Nicholas II’s coronation—allowed secondhand access to significant events, while portraits of family members offered a look into the ruler’s private life.
The exhibition also includes many military items, such as gold-embroidered sabretaches (saddlebags for officers), silver-gilt epaulettes (shoulder pieces), a feather-topped hat, plenty of swords and other official insignia, like enamel pins and badges. Several delicate textile objects are also on view, including a sharp-looking parade uniform tailored for Nicholas II, an extraordinary costume for the Lord Chamberlain at the Imperial Court of Saint Petersburg and a gold-embroidered Caucasian vest for a young boy.
A gallery room dedicated to works on paper further conveys the Romanovs’ influence as military leaders, with a series of six color lithographs illustrating the pomp and circumstance of the Imperial Army’s most prestigious and honored regiments. These stand in stark contrast to other works depicting bloodier, less romantic battle scenes.
In addition to “The Reluctant Autocrat,” fine and decorative arts from Russia can be found in the exhibition “One Heart, One Way: The Journey of a Princely Art Collection.” Also curated by Kirin, the show features objects dating from around 1660–1952 that were passed down between generations in the family of the Russian Princes Belosselsky-Belozersky.
“The Reluctant Autocrat” provided the inspiration behind an Elegant Salute XVI: An Imperial Evening, the museum’s biennial black-tie gala and fundraiser coming up on Saturday, Jan. 26. Advanced reservations were required earlier this month, but guests are still welcome to attend From Russia With Love, a James Bond-themed afterparty featuring dessert, drinks and dancing with DJ Mahogany from 9 p.m.–1 a.m. Available at Agora Vintage or online at bit.ly/elegant-salute-2019, tickets are $50 for members or $65 for non-members, and proceeds support the museum’s exhibitions, outreach and educational programming.
If you miss the 007 night, Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art will host its quarterly reception, 90 Carlton: Winter, on Friday, Feb. 8 from 5:30–8:30 p.m. Free to members or $5 otherwise, the evening includes an “Ask the Experts” session, gallery activities and door prizes.
While at the museum, be sure to take a look at “Out of the Darkness,” an exhibition of large-scale pieces by multimedia artist Rebecca Rutstein. An installation of laser-cut steel and color-changing LED lights races across a wall for over 60 feet, while a floor-to-ceiling painting reflects her interest in abstraction inspired by science and deep ocean activity. Closing soon on Saturday, Feb. 3, “Richard Hunt: Synthesis” showcases the six-decades-long career of the sculptor, who has created over 130 commissions across 24 states and is considered one of the leading figures in American public art.
The Friends of the Georgia Museum of Art host their 16th biennial black tie gala featuring cocktails, music, dinner and dancing. The gala is followed by From Russia With Love, a James Bond-themed dance party with DJ Mahogany. See Art Notes on p. 15.