Wijnanda Deroo: Behind the Walls of the Hermitage @Deborah Bell

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 color photographs, framed in light wood/white and matted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space and the library area.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 9 archival pigment prints, 2018/2022, 2019/2022, 17×22 inches, in editions of 10
  • 5 archival pigment prints, 2018/2022, 30×40 inches, in editions of 10
  • 1 archival pigment print, 2018/2022, 40×50 inches, in an edition of 10
  • 2 chromogenic coupler prints, 2010, 2011, sized roughly 28×35 inches, in editions of 10
  • 3 chromogenic coupler prints, 2005, 2008, 2013, sized 16×20 inches, in editions of 10

(Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was published in 2021 by Lecturis (here).

Comments/Context: Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has cast a very long shadow over Russian cultural activities in the West. The cancellations began almost immediately after the troops crossed the border and the bombs started to drop, with Russian orchestras, opera singers, and other artists (particularly those with visible pro-Putin ties or opinions) swiftly removed from any kind of participation in global events. Nearly everything Russian has been swept into this continued wave of outrage, so for the Dutch photographer Wijnanda Deroo, it hasn’t exactly been a shining moment to launch her project of images taken behind the scenes at the Hermitage.

Gaining access to the back rooms, storage areas, and restoration labs of a place like The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg can’t have been easy, and likely the doors reluctantly opened to her only because of her long track record of sensitively documenting architectural spaces. Prior to her work in Russia (which took place in four trips between 2018 and 2019, pre-pandemic), Deroo is likely best known for her images of the various stages of renovations at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (as seen in a 2014 gallery show, reviewed here), as well as her quietly empty pictures of New York restaurants and other locations around her adopted home of New York and elsewhere around the world. Her aesthetic has often been frontal and squared off, with precise, nuanced attention paid to light and color in the context of particular rooms – in a sense, she’s been making portraits of these places, and capturing their understated and often overlooked personalities.

Deroo’s photographs at the Hermitage continue that overall approach, albeit with much less ability to control her compositions. Often she was only given one chance to see and photograph a particular location, and she was at the mercy of the limited available camera placements, the combination of exterior and interior lighting, and whatever clutter had been momentarily left behind by the museum staff. Her pictures make the most of what she was offered, imposing her own sense of order and structure on back room locations that generally feel overstuffed and mismatched.

Because the quarters were often cramped, Deroo’s resulting photographs are less squared off than we’re used to; when she has the space, she backs up to formally arrange the scenes, but more often, she’s pushed closer to various cabinets, storage closets, and glass cases, which forces her to rebalance her setups. In several cases, she leverages the transparency of glass fronted cabinets to look through them to still other objects in the background, the reflectiveness of the glass to introduce patterns (and flared distortions) from other parts of the rooms, or the angles and verticals of the shelving to flank views deeper into space. Her results are consistently layered, with foreground, mid ground, and background providing different (and sometimes competing) parts of the aggregate visual story.

Light was clearly an additional challenge for Deroo in documenting these spaces. In several spots, including the bronze “depot” and the storage area for Western European sculpture, the only light comes from arched windows, the pure white of the morning pouring into the rooms from one side or the other. In other locations, all of the lighting is artificial, with overhead fixtures and lights inside the display cabinets creating competing areas of color; in the glass and faience storage area, as an example, the lights unexpectedly bisect the room into halves of light blue and yellow. A closer look at Deroo’s pictures finds that nearly all of them revolve around her handling of the light options, from the ornately tall windows in the prints room and the blast of sickly fluorescence in the antiquities office to the gloomily dark sconces and chandelier in the treasure room and the complex three-way light combinations (window, overhead, and display case) found in the arsenal.

The other consistent feature in Deroo’s compositions is the deliberate inclusion of work areas, including mundane desks, broader tables for repair and restoration jobs, and more improvised work spots seemingly constructed from scavenged or readily available furniture. Most are strewn with papers, printouts, catalogs, plastic wrappings, and other office junk, providing an anachronistic modern intrusion into areas generally populated with artifacts from the past. This messiness becomes part of the charm of these pictures, in that the situations feel altogether modest and real, even when ornate marble columns or gilded cases linger nearby – the work needs to get done, and there’s essentially nowhere else to do it except right in the middle of the storage racks.

Up close, Deroo’s photographs document a range of details, chance arrangements, and open-ended mysteries. What might be in the cardboard box marked SCOOTER? Who left the single white glove hanging over the back of a chair (and why is there only one)? Why are pieces of armor lined up on the floor? These and other questions draw us into the messy piles of fabric ribbons amid the horse gear, the cluster of leftover clock faces on the wall in the timepieces workroom, the turned profiles of sculpture arrays, the unseen works hidden behind bubble wrap or in the closed wooden cabinets, and the arcane numbering systems represented on paper tags. There is magic in this minutiae, and Deroo brings us close enough that we can imagine our own endings to the stories.

What Deroo gets consistently right in these photographs is the balance between grandiosity and practicality – each scene matches the majesty of the surrounding architecture with the ordinariness of the everyday job of making a massive, world class art museum function. Her pictures are cool in tone but surprisingly intimate, pulling back the curtain on the places where the objects rest until their next star turn out in the galleries and where the staff does the methodical work of cataloging and conserving these artistic treasures, often in circumstances far less impressive than we might have expected.

Hopefully, sometime in the not too distant future, these photographs can get out from under the dark cloud of anti-Russian sentiment and be more readily seen, for both their elusive behind-the-scenes art world subject matter and their readily apparent craftsmanship. Deroo has made an imposing closeted world feel approachable, and found a way to place her own aesthetic stamp on an institution that few have seen with such engaging clarity.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are $4000, $7000, or $11000, based on size. Deroo’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Wijnanda Deroo, Deborah Bell Photographs, Lecturis

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