On the evening of June 11, despite a steady light rain, hundreds of invited guests lined around the block in front of Montréal’s Musée des Beaux-Arts in order to attend the gala opening of the new exhibition: “Fabuleux Fabergé: Joaillier au Tsars.” The exhibition, which is the only Canadian venue for the exhibition “Fabergé Revealed” which opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts last year, is a reevaluation of the magnificent collection assembled by Lillian Thomas Pratt during the 1940s-1950s, and which the museum continues to expand. The collection has been touring, as a new multi-million dollar expansion takes place at the VMFA; the reinstallation of the Pratt collection is planned for 2016.
Museum officials noted that the crowd for the opening was the largest that they remembered, and the crush of people were clearly interested in the exhibition. The event attracted many local Québecois personalities, as well the new Russian Consul in Montréal, the Hon. Yury Vartanovich Bedzhanian, and a score of Russian Imperial historians and Fabergé specialists.
Opening announcements were made by the exhibition’s charismatic Director, Nathalie Blondil, who explained that the exhibition was a major departure for both the museum and for Fabergé exhibitions in general in the selection of exhibition designer, M. Hubert le Gall, a French artist and sculptor known internationally for his unconventional designs. Blondil also noted that this was the first major exhibition of the works of Karl Fabergé ever to be seen in Canada. Ms. Blondil was then followed by exhibition’s curator, Dr. Géza von Habsburg, who noted that the exhibition was a chance for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to reassess, reinterpret, and reevaluate their important collection. With a new catalogue that reflects more recent scholarship, this exhibition is very important. Finally, Robin Nicholson of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts praised the exhibition and its organizers, and announced that after this international exhibition, the Pratt collection would probably never travel again after its reinstallation in 2016.
The exhibition begins with a dark and intimate room that is dedicated to the Russian tradition of giving easter eggs, and objects created by Fabergé and other jewelers for the devotions of their Russian Orthodox clients. This room features dozens of miniature easter eggs, mounted on stemlike gold wands which rise from a central table like sprays of lily of the valley. It is an interesting effect, as it allows the viewers to admire the eggs completely in the round. The jeweled icons by Faberge, Ovchinnikov, and other makers line the far wall, in very shallow cases, allowing visitors to see these works up close.
The following rooms are divided into sections that are centered around one of the four Imperial Easter Eggs in the Pratt Collection. The Peter the Great Egg, the Red Cross Egg, the Pelican Egg, and the spectacular Tsarevich Egg are each the center of attention in their rooms, each sealed in a transparent column on a high base, allowing full view in the round.
Along the walls, unusual custom-built cases in amorphous shapes hold the many pieces that make up the collection. Several people around me mentioned they thought that the cases were “weird” but I was very impressed for several reasons. Fabergé pieces are generally exhibited as if they were works of art. They are elevated to eyelevel or in cases mounted on walls, to provide maximum security and visibility. In this show, Le Gall has placed the pieces unusually low, at table height, with low hanging lamps over the pieces. The undulating cases allow the viewers to walk behind each piece.
This is exactly the way the pieces were intended to be seen, on tabletops with artificial light. It was, for the first time in my memory, easy to appreciate that the rose-cut diamonds were specifically set to catch the light from that vantage, and that the angle of the enamel frames was specifically chosen for optimum effect of color and reflection. Objects in Oyster grey and Salmon pink are particularly beautiful in this setting, and it is easy to differentiate the many layers of color required to execute these rare colors.
While the catalog does not mention it, the cases also recall the workbenches of the Fabergé masters; large tables with indented cutouts for the jewelers, allowing them maximum table space, and the ability for a number of workmasters to work on a piece at the same time.
The exhibition includes video installations, complicated effects using fractured glass panels on which photographs of objects and the Imperial Family are projected, and hidden uplighting which allow the pieces to rest in a uniform glow which makes every detail clear.
The objects in this exhibition are simply to numerous to list, and the scholarly work is better examined in the VMFA’s exceptional catalogue, “Fabergé Revealed” available here.
If you are in Montreal this summer, I highly recommend this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see these familiar works in a challenging and unusual setting that enhances, rather than detracts from their beauty.