Russia’s mysteries on display at NC Museum of History

dmenconi@newsobserver.comOctober 12, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    What: “The Tsars’ Cabinet” and “Windows Into Heaven”

    Where: N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh

    When: Through March 5

    Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday

    Cost: $7 for ages 18 and older; $5 for ages 7 to 17 and older than 60, active military personnel, college students with ID, and groups of 10 or more with advance reservations; free for Museum of History Associates members and children 6 and younger

    Details: 919-897-7900 or

Most people spend very little time thinking about what their meals are served on. But that was not the case in Tsarist Russia, where a household’s dinner service was a major pecking-order indicator, especially among royalty.

That’s one of the themes of “The Tsars’ Cabinet: Two Hundred Years of Russian Decorative Arts Under the Romanovs,” which will be on display at the NC Museum of History until March 2014.

“Porcelain was a symbol of wealth,” said Michelle Carr, the museum’s senior development and marketing officer. “It was a status symbol only the wealthiest could afford, and they’d devote entire rooms to showing it off. But if you were wealthy enough to eat off of porcelain, and throw it out if it got scratched or broken, that was the ultimate status symbol.”

“The Tsars’ Cabinet” is the larger of a two-part exhibit of Russian works on display at the museum this fall alongside “Windows into Heaven,” a collection of religious iconography. “Cabinet” consists of more than 200 items from the collection of Kathy Durdin, a business consultant and collector who specializes in Russian art.

“Cabinet” was first exhibited in 2007 at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Va. (Durdin’s alma mater), and Raleigh is the seventh stop it has made since then. When the collection is not on display in museums, Durdin keeps very little of it in her home in Tampa, Fla.

“Florida gets a lot of hurricanes, so anything that’s any good is not at my house,” said Durdin, who is also a noted watercolor artist. “I was looted after one of the hurricanes in 2004, but all they got was two old computers and a DVD player. They didn’t even take my TVs because they weren’t good enough. All the good porcelain was in locker-sized safe-deposit boxes at the bank.”

Focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries, “The Tsars’ Cabinet” mirrors several hundred years of changes in Russia, a truly enormous country. To that end, it has a few things that communicate a sense of Russia’s scale. A map on the floor shows its size compared to North Carolina, which is a tiny fraction of Russia’s vast tracts.

Near that map is a case with 16 porcelain figures representing people from some of the different Russian ethnicities that came together as the Russian empire consolidated – Cossack, Tartar, Kamchatka, Samoyhed and others.

“When we were first pulling this together at William & Mary in 2007, we were searching for a theme,” Durdin said. “I was excited to come up with using decorative arts to tell the story of history – political and social trends, and what monarchs thought was important enough to communicate at the time.”

What comes across is opulence. A large portion of the show is given over to elaborate meal-service sets, finely rendered with designs ranging from coats of arms to scenes depicting family members and landscapes. One of the standout pieces is 1889’s Durnovo Casket, a breadbox-sized keepsake container with staggering attention to detail. But most attention-getting of all is the pair of 1845-vintage oversized urns in the Etruscan style, painted with figures engaged in the study of arts.

Most of these pieces first came to the West during the 1920s and ’30s after the overthrow and execution of Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia. There was demand from Western collectors, and Russia was in desperate need of hard currency, so the communist government began putting pieces from the deposed royalty’s art collections up for sale.

Durdin amassed a large portion of her collection in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and much of it is beyond price by now. But one of her favorites is of far more recent vintage and modest value, a plate dramatizing the 1917 end of Tsarist rule in Russia.

“One piece I like the most is the one showing the storming of the Winter Palace, even though it’s from the 1950s and not valuable at all,” Durdin said. “But it punctuates the exhibition and kind of brings it together. Some of the museums have put it by itself in a case because it brings together a statement at the end.”

Concurrent with “The Tsars’ Cabinet” is “Windows Into Heaven: Russian Icons from the Lilly and Francis Robicsek Collection of Religious Art.” Where the porcelain works seem grounded in European classicism, the 36 pieces of “Heaven” (from the Robicsek family’s collection in Charlotte) are more steeped in Russian exoticism.

“Russia has always been perceived as a strange and mysterious place,” said Jeanne Marie Warzeski, who curated the show. “Winston Churchill famously called it ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.’ You can’t think of Russia as wholly Western or Eastern, and one important hallmark is the Russian Orthodox church – a product of Constantinople in present-day Turkey.”

Russia adopted Orthodox Christianity in the 10th century, later becoming the faith’s center of gravity after the 1453 fall of Constantinople. Over the ensuing centuries, the painting of highly stylized Christian icons reached a peak in Russia.

“It’s the only art form with a theology behind it,” Warzeski said. “A hallmark of a good icon is that it’s exactly like its prototype. Painting icons really leaves no room for creativity.”

That said, the overall level of detail is amazing, especially on the calendar icons – some of which have strokes so tiny, it’s hard to imagine they could have been done by brush.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or

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