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Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia examines Catherine the Great's art patronage
Chalice. Iver Windfeldt Buch (1749-1811), St. Petersburg, 1791. Gold, diamonds, chalcedony, bloodstone, nephrite, carnelian, cast glass H. 33 cm, dia. 18 cm. Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens, acc. no. 11.223.

ATHENS, GA.- The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia presents the exhibition “Exuberance of Meaning: The Art Patronage of Catherine the Great” September 21, 2013, to January 5, 2014. This exhibition features works of decorative art the Russian empress Catherine the Great commissioned for her own use or as gifts for courtiers, including a large chalice created by noted goldsmith Iver Winfeldt Buch.

The Buch chalice, which belongs to Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, D.C., serves as the centerpiece of the exhibition. Adorned with precious gems and eight carved cameos, it demonstrates how Catherine combined Byzantine and classical influences to forge a new direction for Russian culture. Other objects in the exhibition establish the background for the empress’ choices or represent major currents in 17th- and 18th-century Russian art. Dr. Asen Kirin, associate professor of art and associate director of UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art, is curator of this exhibition, which borrows objects from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Chipstone Foundation, the Walters Museum and private collections, as well as Hillwood.

Marjorie Merriweather Post, the sole heir to the multimillion-dollar Post Cereal Company, purchased the works that formed Hillwood’s Russian collection. Many of the works she purchased while in Russia in the 1930s are on display in this exhibition. Kirin invites audiences “to contemplate the art collections of two extraordinary women, who lived at different times and could not have come from more dissimilar environments. One is Europe’s Old Regime of absolute hereditary monarchies, the other—the modern, industrialized America of free enterprise.”

The exhibition presents a comparison of dazzling and masterful objects that exemplify both medieval Byzantine culture, of which Russia was the successor and guardian, and the Western, neoclassical style that was the hallmark of the Enlightenment. It focuses on the manner in which Catherine applied her knowledge of ancient and medieval glyptic art and incorporated her collection of carved gems in the commission of new works of art, a deliberate continuation of the centuries-old tradition of placing pagan, Greek and Roman carved stones onto sacred Christian liturgical and devotional objects.

During her reign, the empress worked to reconcile her contemporary scientific and historical frame of mind with the devotional ways of the Orthodox Church, which had long been sanctified by tradition. The title “Exuberance of Meaning” refers to the crucial characteristic that distinguishes her endeavors in the arts: she conceived her projects in a manner that allowed for multiple complementary interpretations covering a wide spectrum of meanings.

Kirin is particularly interested in the comparison of the two collectors, Catherine and Post, as both women were powerful, accomplished and elevated their respective domains despite a tradition of male dominance. Kirin suggests that audiences contemplate “how the arts enabled them to present themselves to society and to control the perception of their images.”

Kirin has worked with the museum before, perhaps most notably on the exhibition “Sacred Art, Secular Context,” which examined Byzantine works of art from the collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.

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