Catherine the Great's Hermitage collection on display at the National Gallery of Victoria

For Senior Curator Dr Ted Gott (BA(Hons) 1981, PhD 1987), one of the great pleasures of working at the National Gallery of Victoria comes from the wealth of new experiences provided by the gallery's broad and diverse exhibition schedule. In 2015, over 400 works from the personal collection of Catherine the Great will travel to Melbourne from the Hermitage to present 'Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great'. Dr Ted Gott shares an insight into working with one of the world's most important collections, featuring outstanding works from artists such as Rembrandt, Velasquez and Rubens. The University of Melbourne is proud to be the official learning partner of the Masterpieces from the Hermitage exhibition.

The International Painting and Sculpture department has worked on numerous Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibitions in particular, the focus of which has taken us from 19th-century France to 17th-century Holland and Spain, and early 20th-century Austria in previous years.

This year's MWM exhibition, Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great, has been curated by Dr Mikhail Dedinkin, Deputy Head of the Western European Art Department at The Hermitage, working with a large curatorial and logistical team in St Petersburg. Here at the NGV my colleagues Laurie Benson (PGDip Arts 1991), Sophie Matthiesson (BA 2005) and myself have been working on the curatorial aspects of the exhibition's presentation and interpretation in Melbourne. This has involved liaising with the numerous departments and sections of the NGV who all work together behind the scenes to bring to fruition the enormous and multi-faceted production that is each year's Melbourne Winter Masterpiece. Our role has been to present the content and thesis of the exhibition to the Corporate Partnerships, Audience Engagement, Multimedia, Front of House, Education and Public Programs, Marketing and Media departments in order to help them interpret the exhibition for their stakeholders, as well as liaising with Exhibition Design and Multimedia on the installation and physical presentation of the exhibition within the show's eight distinctively themed galleries. We are also responsible for drafting the exhibition's didactics and extended labels, liaising with the Publications department towards production of the exhibition catalogue, briefing our wonderful Voluntary Guides about the exhibition's themes and back-stories, and contributing to production of the show's audio-guide.

In addition to Laurie, Sophie and I, colleagues in many other departments at the NGV who are working on Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great also hail from the University of Melbourne, including Romina Calabro (BA/LLB 2006), Head of Corporate Partnerships and Isobel Crombie (PhD 1999), Assistant Director, Curatorial and Collection Management. The close links that exist between the narratives addressed in this exhibition and European history, literature, music, language, art and architecture, and politics make this year's MWM a show of great relevance to many faculties of the University of Melbourne.

With such an encyclopaedic exhibition, we have a wealth of stories to share with our colleagues. Catherine the Great came to power in 1762 at the age of 33 and ruled Russia for the next 34 years until her death in 1796. She saw herself as a Philosopher Queen, a new kind of ruler in the Age of Enlightenment. Guided by Europe's leading intellectuals, such as the French philosophers Voltaire and Diderot, she modernised Russia's economy, industry and government, drawing inspiration both from classical antiquity and contemporary cultural and political developments in Western Europe. A fluent speaker of Russian, French and German, she was a largely self-educated ruler of fierce intelligence and firm convictions. She was independent, idealistic and visionary.

The world of ideas in which she was deeply involved from an early age found tangible expression everywhere in the material world she later created around herself. The great complexes of imperial buildings that Catherine constructed reflected her informed interest in both Classical and Chinese culture. Her collecting of paintings stemmed from a belief in the civilising power of art, and in its potential role in international soft diplomacy. Catherine II assembled a collection of Old Master paintings that was in no way inferior in scale or quality to leading European collections, but she also paid considerable attention to the acquisition of contemporary painting. Catherine's diverse collections of decorative arts were unquestionably aimed to dazzle and please, with their richness and technical perfection, but they also had the more practical purpose to raise standards of artistic production in Russia. It is an occasion for celebration that over five hundred exemplary works of art from her personal collection, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, porcelain, silver and precious gems, are to be seen in Australia for the first time in this exhibition.

Dr Ted Gott
Senior Curator, International Painting and Sculpture to 1980
National Gallery of Victoria

Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great will be at NGV International from July 31 – November 8, 2015.

The Faculty of Arts is an active partner on a range of cultural initiatives. The learning partnership between the University of Melbourne and the National Gallery of Victoria provides a unique opportunity to build on and further develop the rich and multifaceted relationship that the University of Melbourne currently enjoys with the NGV. Through the Faculty of Arts' Melbourne Masterclasses community education series, we look forward to offering a range of learning opportunities and exclusive events related to this exhibition, so we urge you to keep a close eye on our events website.