Samara spreading on the Volga's high left bank looks dignified and impressive as behooves a city with four hundred years' history, the major merchant center of the entire Volga region. It is situated in one of Russia's choicest localities where the Volga makes a crazy 200 km loop, the city facing the vast peninsula formed by that loop - the Samara Luka, a unique nature preserve with the famous heights of Zhiguli. Samara was founded on order of Czar Feodor Ioannovich by the regional governor Zasekin in 1586, not long after the conquest of the Kazan Khanate, as a fortress to protect the merchant convoys from brigands lurking in the woods on the banks and to repel raids by the Tartar and Nogai nomads. (As witnessed by Olearius' travel notes, Samara was originally placed in a dense forest which is completely extinct by now.) With the development of merchant navigation on the Volga Samara grew from a military outpost into an important trading city which obtained the status of a regional administrative center in 1851. As the richest harbor on the Volga, it earned the nickname of "New Orleans" (coined by T.Shevchenko), later of "Russian Chicago", and its people were dubbed "Americans". Alexander Dumas who visited Samara in 1858 described it in his book "From Paris to Astrakhan", though he was somewhat baffled in touring its sights by impassable mud.
The booming growth of Samara in the late 19th - early 20th centuries surpassed all expectations. Large wharves, mechanized mills, fashionable shops and hotels, sumptuous mansions - all were mushrooming as after a good rain. If they built a church, it was the largest on the Volga, if a railway bridge - it was the longest in Europe, if houses - they were designed by the best architects invited from the capitals. The city had several printing shops turning out local newspapers, several theaters, the Drama Theatre being the oldest one. It also had the Olympus circus, now housing the regional philharmonic society. But all that natural development was arrested by the outbreak of the First World War followed by the revolution. From 1935 to 1991 Samara's name was changed for Kuibyshev after one of the revolutionary leaders, its life was also changed accordingly. In the period of Stalin's industrialization it became an important industrial center. During the Great Patriotic War it functioned as the "second capital" of the Soviet Union. In the early days of the war the government was partly moved there (under M.Kalinin and K.Voroshilov), also the diplomatic corps, plans were mooted for Stalin's possible retreat there. A bunker was prepared for him, larger in size than all its foreign counterparts, which is still shown as one of the city's places of interest. Also moved there were Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, Leningrad's Academic Drama Theatre, and the central radio's symphony orchestra. In fact, in the war years it was the country's major cultural center. For instance, Shostakovich's 7th symphony (known as the Leningrad Symphony) was premiered in its opera house on March 5, 1942, and only later its score was spirited to Leningrad suffering then in the blockade. After the war Kuibyshev was turned into a "closed" city (i . e. with access restricted). In 1991 Samara retrieved its original name.
The present-day look of the city is stamped with several periods of its development. We find here the versatile architectural eclectics of the 19th century catering to any taste: neo-classicism, pseudo-gothic, Moorish and Byzantine styles, magnificent art-nouveau mansions, typical samples of "Stalin's empire style", also the latest ultra-modern projects which, happily, have to their credit "uncommon facial expression" and thus add to the city's distinctive features.
The treasure trove
The Samara State Art Museum is housed in the former Volga-Kama Bank built by the architect V.Yakunin in 1913-1915 in the neo-classical style, in Kuibyshev street which used to bear the proud name of Dvoryanskaya [i. e. Gentry's]. Similar to the city as a whole, the building looks dignified and impressive. With its dark-gray stone facade and sumptuous portico with ionic columns it proclaims its being, as a hundred years ago, a treasure trove, though no longer of banking, but of art values. No less imposing are its interiors - spacious, well-lit, decorated with marble and granite, stucco and gilt. They create an atmosphere of quiet concentration, the paintings are tastefully supplemented with furniture and accessories of the past periods. The roomy building has proved to be quite suitable for pictures, it seems even to have been specially created for a museum: the main entrance marble staircase, the halls, the suite of exposition rooms, and the pride of the museum - the magnificent marble auditorium with excellent acoustics where concerts are given and exhibitions are staged.
In the museum's rooms
K.Golovkin The collection of the Samara Museum is versatile and fascinating to all visitors - from a traveler staying in the city for a day or two and making a brief tour of its sights to art connoisseurs and experts. The exposition opens with a display devoted to "The Art Culture of Old Samara" paying tribute to the collectors who laid its foundation. You will find in these smallish cozy rooms a retrospective of the city life: views of the "Russian Chicago", portraits of its citizens including the characteristic social types - a city mayor, a captain, an artist, a school teacher, a student. You may note landscapes by K.Golovkin, the first head of the art department who was an all-round personality - an architect, archivist, photographer, pioneer of automobile driving. You can "pay a visit" to the artist V.Mikhailov whose home is recreated in the museum with his collection of furniture "in the Russian style". Of particular interest is the vase painted by him together with V.Surikov who stayed with him in 1906.
Next is a small but high-quality collection of icons which used to be much larger. But a valuable collection of icons (over 400) assembled in the 1920s by the enthusiasts of the Society of Archeology, History, Ethnography, and Natural Science attached to Samara University was destroyed in the mid-1930s. In the collection of West-European painting you will find such pearls as "A View of Venice" by Bernardo Bellotto and "Landscape with Cypresses" by Hubert Robert. As any large Russian museum, this one also has some portraits by F.Rokotov, D.Levitskiy, and V.Borovikovskiy (how productive were those fine masters of the 18th century!) and a rich collection of the 19th century Russian art including "Lamentation over Hector" by Alexander Vitberg (Academy of Arts member, author of the first, never implemented project of Christ the Savior Temple); rare works by romantic landscapist M.Lebedev 'Albano' and 'Arriccia near Rome' which were discovered by chance in the 1960s in the former estate of the Counts Orlov-Davydov near Samara where a technical college was placed after the revolution. The entire Samara Luka on the right bank had been owned by that aristocratic family. The canvases stained with oil paint in the course of repairs were salvaged by the museum. Now they are among its treasured possessions, as well as an early work by I.Aivazovskiy "Sea Landing near Subashi" representing a naval battle in which the artist had taken part. Further the familiar names of K.Brullov, I.Shishkin, V.Polenov, I.Repin, V.Surikov, I.Levitan welcome the visitor who has the joy of recognizing the artists' hands. As to the collection of Russian avant-garde, it can be the envy of any first-rate museum including The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and The Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg. Lovers of oriental exotics will also find much of interest in the museum.
The Samara (then Kuibyshev) State Art Museum was officially opened in 1937. But the foundation of its collection had been laid down much earlier, back in the late 19th century. In 1886 Samara's Mayor P.Alabin, an outstanding public figure, created a Public Museum for which he planned, among others, a future department of fine arts and crafts. The implementation of that idea was undertaken by K.Golovkin, a merchant and amateur artist, who sent the Committee of the Samara City Museum a letter of April 25, 1897 offering a donation of some pictures by local artists as an inception of an art department. That date (8 May new style) has since then been accepted as the day of the art collection's foundation. Among its first acquisitions was the portrait of Alabin painted after his death from a photograph by Academician A.Novoskoltsev in October 1897.
A year later Golovkin sent, in the name of the then Mayor P.Arapov, about 270 letters to leading Russian artists asking them to donate their works to the museum. In 1899 that appeal was published in the magazine 'Iskusstvo i khudozhestvennaya promyshlennost' ('Art and Art Industry'). It found a warm response. One of the first donations was M.Nesterov's study for his picture 'The Youth of Sergy'. That was followed by V.Baksheyev, K.Yuon, and V.Pereplyotchikov who also sent their pictures. Icons, ceramics, graphic and applied art works were donated to the art department of the Public Museum by Samara collectors. The collection was growing.
After the revolution, as most other major museums, the Samara museum accepted an influx of nationalized private collections. Many collectors offered them voluntarily to preserve them from plunder and ruin. Among the best of them was the collection of the Shikhobalov family. Pavel Nikolayevich Shikhobalov (1870-1929) came of a Samara philanthropic merchant family and his wife Vera Lavrentyevna was the daughter of the merchant and collector L.Arzhanov well-known in Samara, The couple began collecting in the 1900s and by 1917 they had made an excellent collection of contemporary Russian painting - pictures by I.Repin, V.Surikov, V.Polenov, N.Yaroshenko, K.Korovin, N.Dubovskoy, Vladimir and Konstantin Makovskiy. They handed all of it over to the museum in April 1918. They had deliberately collected works by the most famous Russian artists intending to create in their Samara mansion an art museum similar to that of Pavel and Sergey Tretyakov in Moscow. In one of his letters Nesterov thus mentioned Shikhobalov, "He'll come back to his Volga and build a museum and give it to the people, and the good people will thank the miller". The revolution and civil war deprived those "Samara dreamers" of that chance. But now the Shikhobalovs' mansion has been assigned to the Samara museum and is under restoration.
Surprises and rarities
The museum's exposition of oriental art is based on the collection of Alfred von Vacano (1846-1929) who was known as the "beer king". He was an Austrian subject who settled in Samara, lived there nearly forty years, and founded the Zhiguli beer brewery which to this day adorns the Volga's bank in the center of Samara. It was built in 1881 and has kept its original look almost intact - a fine sample of industrial architecture of the late 19th century. Vacano's magnificent collection of art objects from the Middle East and Asia is no less, if not more valuable heritage to Samara than the famous beer brand which is its pride to this day. This collection of oriental art unique in the Volga region contains ancient Chinese bronze (rare in Russian museums) and porcelain, Japanese art, Indian textiles and miniatures, various samples of crafts - lacquers, exquisitely painted objects, virtuoso carving in wood and bone, ornamented and encrusted items, cloisonne enamels, mother-of-pearl. Where else in the heart of Russian provinces can one see such an oriental treasury?
The greater part of Vacano's collection came to the museum after the revolution. In 1915 Vacano was charged with spying for Germany and deported from Samara to Buzuluk. He returned to Samara briefly in 1917, but a year later he left Russia for his native Austria. His property, including art objects which he and his family had not yet donated to the museum, was plundered during the Civil War. (The Workers' and Peasants' Inspection subsequently taking stock of what was left issued the following curious resolution,"... the absence of book-keeping and illegal expenditure of the property... is to be recognized as NORMAL in the conditions of late 1919, the investigation of it is to be closed...") It has taken the museum researchers much laborious effort to identify their exhibits as coming from Vacano's collection since in the years after the revolution new acquisitions were rarely entered properly. That work was completed as late as 1996.
In 1937 the art department was finally set up in its own right as The Kuibyshev State Art Museum. But still earlier it had received quite a number of works of the latest art trends including those of the Russian avant-garde. Some of them came in the period of 1919-1922, then more in 1929 after the dissolution of the Moscow Museum of Painting Culture which had been formed under the patronage of A.Lunacharskiy, the then People's Commissar (minister) of Culture, for keeping works of the "leftist" trends in Russian art. As a result, Samara has one of the largest collections of avant-garde paintings which are in high demand for grand international exhibitions, so that they are constantly traveling, being studied and admired. It might be otherwise, however: for decades they were never exhibited and were actually threatened with physical annihilation. In 1953 the Ministry of Culture sanctioned a "purge" of museum stocks and avant-garde works were "blacklisted" as having no art value. Over 400 works kept by the Samara Museum deviating from the "socialist realism" mainstream - practically all art "after Levitan": P.Konchalovskiy, V.Rozhdestvensky, A.Lentulov, O.Rozanova, N.Udaltsova, A.Exter, Menkov, Le Dantu - were entered in an official act as subject for destruction. But the museum staff saved them: in the 1950s by hiding them in their depositories, later in the restoration workshops, then little by little beginning to exhibit them.
The curious point is that as avant-garde works came to the museum, their laconic authors' titles, such as 'Suprematism' or 'Cubism' (how many pictures of similar titles are there in Russia's museums?), were supplemented with others suggesting their link with reality. Thus, O.Rozanova's composition 'Suprematism' was called 'Airplane in Flight', and 'Cubism' by M.Menkov - 'Riding Tramway' "(later 'Tramway No.6'). Another composition by Rozanova entitled 'Clock and Cards' was subtitled after the author's death 'The Gambler's Dream'.
Soviet art that superceded the avant-garde period is housed next to the museum's main building, in the wing of a huge Stalin-age edifice built in 1937 by N.Trotskiy intended as a Palace of Culture (now shared by the museum, the opera and ballet house, and, in the recent past, by the regional library). It has enormous grounds with the monument of V.Kuibyshev in the middle, which is quite in keeping with the style of the building and of what it contains: works by I.Grabar, K.Yuon, A.Plastov, and G.Korzhev in the best traditions of socialist realism; a giant portrait of the pilot Gromov by P.Korin; next - the poetics of the "severe style", then the "quiet art" of the 1970s. Altogether, here is, as well as in the main building, another comprehensive collection which adequately represents the history of Soviet painting.
To complete this report on The Samara State Art Museum we must mention its subsidiary in the village of Shiryaevo - a memorial cottage where I.Repin spent a summer. A two and a half hour sail by the local diesel boat down the Volga (with fantastic views of the banks on the way) takes you to that cozy village in the valley between green hills in the center of the nature preserve of Samara Luka. Here Ilya Repin stayed the summer of 1870 in company with two other young artists F.Vasilyev and E.Makarov with whom he was traveling down the Volga. He was overwhelmed with the breath-taking beauty of the landscape: "We couldn't take our eyes off the opposite woodland bank. Green, dark, reaching up into the sky with its lovely heights. Its reflection waved wonderfully in the dark-green water with broad juicy strokes. What luxury, boundless! Some kind of mirth never leaves you on the Volga. Space, expanse..." It was in Shiryaevo that Repin made dozens of sketches and studies for his future picture 'Barge Haulers on the Volga'. In his book of memoirs "The Distant but Close Past" he recalled that summer with delight describing in detail all its events with his unfailing talent of keen observer.
The staff members of The Samara State Art Museum found the cottage belonging to the local villager Alexeyev and restored it. They did more than just that - it looks as if life is just the same in that place, in that village, as it was in Repin's time, as if nothing has changed since 1870. They recreated lovingly the atmosphere collecting utensils of that period and filling the house with them. But it's not only that. The nature, the Volga, the peace and quiet reigning in Shiryaevo still little touched by modern civilization - all makes you feel transplanted into the 19th century.
Today Shiryaevo is a tourist attraction which has, apart from the Repin cottage, an exhibition room arranged in an old merchant's house and the memorial house-museum of the poet A.Shiryayevets, a native of that place, a friend of Sergey Yesenin. All of that is surrounded with hills, springs of clear water among nearly extinct plants, on the Volga bank fascinating with panoramic views. In a word - a preserve, a place where people know the secret of time-machine for taking you to another epoch.