In 1726, Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels offered the world the perfect illustration of Enlightened despotism: a flying island, propelled by magnetic levitation and inhabited almost exclusively by a highly educated ruling class. This ruling class had physically separated itself from the underclass below, but the king could still punish them by blocking out their sun and rain. And the name of this dystopia? Laputa – the Spanish for, The Bitch.
Three years later and Catherine the Great was born.
What is it with Edinburgh of late and its reverence for the high and mighty? In 2005, the National Museum of Scotland devoted a show to the later Romanovs. One would have thought from an afternoon at this exhibition that the Romanovs had ruled hundreds of necklaces and evening gowns, rather than a society of 150 million people. Last year, the Scottish National Gallery paid homage to the present Queen by showcasing a selection of her appearances throughout contemporary art. Perhaps there are ticket sales in queens and crowns, but when it comes to aesthetic merit, we are left paupers.
The National Museum of Scotland is now hosting “Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress,” which does not seem to have learned anything from the Romanov debacle. Nobody has told the folks at NMS that “Enlightened Empress” is a logical impossibility, just as one cannot have progressive slavery. Yet there were no overly bloody power struggles once Catherine had been installed in power, and so the word “Enlightened” is used merely as a way of making boredom sound respectable. The word is divorced from its context, and never mind that Catherine’s mentor Elizabeth seems to have been just as “Enlightened,” or that Catherine’s was a fairweather Enlightenment which did not survive the French Revolution.
Quite extraordinary claims are made of Catherine. The NMS recounts how the young Catherine was “often lonely” and that she was “ignored and isolated” at court. She appears to me to have been living the life of Reilly, frolicking with perfumed aristocratic gigolos and eating diamonds for dinner (one of her cohorts actually served diamonds for dessert at a dinner party), but you should clearly not judge her life on such superficial terms. The jaw drops like a guillotine as the NMS describes how Catherine, “worked tirelessly to improve Russia,” to make the country “powerful and wealthy.” One could be forgiven for thinking from the evidence of this exhibition that she spent her entire life partying, whilst it is unclear how much of the country’s wealth reached down to, you know, the people.
As with Catherine’s court, this exhibition is a party to which the peasants have not been invited. One can hunt high and low, but there is not a single mention of a serf in the whole exhibition. Since Catherine had abolished the serfs’ right to petition her, severing the established connection between Empress and people, Laputa is one way of putting it.
She commissioned a porcelain dinner service from Josiah Wedgwood which featured hundreds of panoramas of rural Britain. She corresponded with French intellectuals such as Voltaire and Diderot. Her architects raised Chinese and Neo-Classical styled palaces for her pleasure. Safely aboard this flying island of cosmopolitan art and ideas, she floated high above the black fields of toiling Russia. This exhibition begins by remarking upon how curious it was that Catherine ruled Russia despite not having a single drop of Russian blood in her veins. This may just as well have been a qualification.
There may have been more to Catherine than meets the eye, but this exhibition is comprised mostly of portraits and costumes. From the few words of Catherine’s to be heard during this exhibition, she actually sounds like quite a card. “The fury to build is a diabolical thing…” she pronounces at one point, “it is as intoxicating as drink!” One is bemused by her madcap scheme to build a scale replica of Voltaire’s house. The great man had sent her a papier-mâché model in 1777, but then the project was abruptly abandoned, probably because there was little sense in erecting the facsimile of a house that looked the same as any other large house in Southern Europe.
Catherine had seized power in a smartly executed coup, which saw her estranged husband being throttled by his guards. In the portrait which accompanies this exhibition, he looks smirking and effete – like something which would drip down a wall if you threw it at one. Her husband dispatched, Catherine recruited a glittering array of awaiting statesman to serve as her politicians and lovers. There seems to have been a general acceptance of this official libertinism. Catherine must have been extraordinarily attractive, for everybody of any consequence at the court seems to have fallen in love with her. Poor Aleksander Lanskoj, who was selected for bedroom duties from the guards, died of old age at 26, worn out by Catherine’s exuberance.
Perhaps we get closest to Catherine in the portraits, which often look like a funfair exhibit in which somebody has stuck their head through the holes in various pictures of illustrious statesmen. In an early picture, her face is sliding unnervingly out of her head. She looks raw and bony, and you can clearly discern the stubble around her jaw. Her brain looks very hard, however, and the overall effect is of a shrewd teenaged boy who has, so to speak, stuck his head through the hole in a princess.
In the next portrait – by Georg von Prenner – Catherine is another person entirely. Flouncing in festive colours, she is now jovial and Falstaffian, and she looks somehow incomplete without a foaming tankard of ale. We next see her mounted on the back of a hippo in a portrait by Vigilius Eriksen, looking faultlessly masculine. We have to rub our eyes at the magic of it. Is that really a woman? Is it really her, or has the artist painted Prince Potemkin by mistake?
The most uncanny portraits are those great tableaus of state, in which Catherine has more chins than palaces. In her coronation robes, painted by Eriksen again, she looks like a huge goose, her fat head protruding like a slimy phallus, unavoidably unlovely as it rises from the luxuriance of her plumage. Portrayed by Fyodor Rokotov, she is as handsome as an old maid, but one is left with the odd impression that she would rather be painted naked and howling than modelling as this imperial fairy godmother. In Johann Lampi the Elder’s portrait she looks pasty and dishevelled, with her hair like cigarette smoke. Mikhail Shibanov painted her in travelling costume, looking as dazed and vacant as an elderly lady who has lost her grandmotherly charm.
Is there any sense to these images? Despite living in a world of sheer fantasy, Catherine seems to have been intolerant of flattery and ostentation. Millions of people would think that Vigée Le Brun’s 1796 portrait of Catherine’s granddaughters was simply adorable, but she herself scoffed that it made the girls look like “pug dogs” and “repulsive little French peasants.”
Of all of the treasures from Laputa, the gilded carnival sled is perhaps the most spectacular, but there are otherwise two items of note. Carl Ludwig Christinek’s portrait of Catherine’s illegitimate child Alexei Bobrinsky is a sensation. The little man is dressed in fairy green; his eyes are the deepest and clearest blue or grey or green. He looks as sprightly and wizened as Voltaire. One can imagine him capering before Irish peasants and making them convoluted bargains in which they get three wishes. There is also a gorgeous biscuit-porcelain Pan after Clodion – one has to duck down to peep at the face below the goaty locks.
At one point, Catherine spent 328,188 livres of her nation’s wealth on a dinner service. Perhaps one could have fallen in love with this world, but I like to think that if I was Catherine, I would have tired of it. The palaces and porcelain lasted a lot longer than Catherine’s exceedingly admirable but grossly inadequate “Enlightened” reforms. But if she had spent her money liberating the serfs and implementing national schooling, it seems unlikely that she would have been selected for an exhibition in Edinburgh today.
[Tychy has previously interviewed Ankhhor, the chief exhibit at the NMS’s last exhibition. Ed.]