Any light-deprived one of you suffering from the ‘Seasonally Affec tive Disorder' (SAD), could benefit from a trip to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts as therapy. For the price of a latte in Coffee Mania, you can be transported round the world and through the centuries, from the tomb reliefs of Memphis three and a half millennia ago to the paintings of Picasso. As with any world-class museum, the history of the collections is both complex and emotive; the Pushkin has befitted from revolution (when private collections were given to museums) and war (when the Red Army notoriously organized "trophy commissions" to collect compensation in the form of cultural booty). The incredible end result now spreads over several buildings, realizing founder Ivan Tsvetaev's vision of a "museum village". This walk wanders through all three main collections on Volkhonka Ulitsa, giving a subjective overview of some of the highlights. For a more comprehensive guide, each museum sells a plan in English for 50 rubles and you can choose, of course, to visit them on different days. Weekday mornings are delightfully deserted; weekends can mean queues.
There are several metros nearby, but finding the right exit from Kropotkinskaya, which is the nearest, is complicated by the fact that the Pushkin Literary Museum is nearby in the other direction; it is simpler to follow signs to the Christ the Savior Cathedral (Khram Khrista Spasitelya), which brings you out right opposite the museum. Heading for the neo-classical main building (open from Tues-Sun 10am-7pm; 300/100 for foreigners/Russians), you find yourself among huge replicas of ancient Greek monuments on the left at the top of the stairs. To get to the chronological start of the rather confusing layout, you need to walk left through room 6 where the "Fayoum Portraits" painted in Egypt two thousand years ago stare out with disconcertingly modern directness, past the gold ‘Treasures of Troy' in room 3 next door, through the curly-bearded reliefs and giant amphoras of ancient Persepolis and into the atmospheric Egyptian Room.
Like a huge dimly-lit temple with painted vultures spanning the ceiling and granite pillars, this room creates the perfect atmosphere in which to display the carved hieroglyphics, intricate sarcophagi and lapis lazuli of the Egyptian art collection. Going back past Schliemann's diadems and straight ahead, Room 4 has an impressive ancient Greek collection, with several vases. Room 7's collection of Italian art startlingly jumps ten centuries and includes a small, but beautiful Botticelli Annunciation in the side hall. Outside this gallery to the left, is the ‘Italian Court' where a host of replica famous statues, among them a huge ‘David', stand incongruously in front of the doorway of Freiburg Cathedral. Going through this arch, you reach German art, featuring some lovely Cranachs; in one, a Madonna stands to one side in front of a vine-covered trellis and the distant blue alp of an idealized Bavaria.
Room 9 is Flemish art, with a bacchanalian Rubens; Snyders' ‘Still Life with Swans' must be one of the liveliest of its genre: the servant with the tray of figs, distracted by the game-stealing dog. Past the dark, glowing Rem brandts, there are Dutch landscapes and more beautiful still-lives of silverware and half-peeled lemons. By the time you return to the Italian Court to head upstairs, you may be flagging, especially at the sight of so many miles of plaster casts and eighteenth century paintings, but the temporary exhibition of Japanese prints (until April 20th) moves you to a subtler plane and it's worth glancing at the sensual Bouchers and the famous portrait of the mounted Prince Yusopov in what appears to be a leopard skin cape. Towards the end, the rooms that house ancient Roman, medieval and renaissance sculptures have some incredible ceilings, enhancing the feeling of having travelled in time and space.
The entrance to the ‘Gallery of 19th and 20th Century European and American Art', next door, is round the corner in Maly Znamensky Pereulok. This annexe, which opened less than two years ago, is far more logically arranged than the main museum. The displays are roughly chronological, but are also divided according to national and artistic trends. Beginning with German romanticism, Caspar David Friedrich's ‘Giant Mountains', by the door into the second room, uses the tiny ploughman and church spire to emphasize the scale of the misty peaks in the sunlight. By contrast, Corot's ‘Road to the Church‘, hidden on the left in Room 3 after the Goyas, evokes the intimacy of a drizzly day in Argenteuil; his recurrent motif of a path leading into the distance is found again in the ‘Heather Covered Hills near Vimoutier' where the lonely woman under the huge sky helps to draw us along the hillside track. Walk on with Millet past moonlit haystacks, on the beach with Courbet by the limpid Nile with Fromentin, or through a golden afternoon at the Villa Torlonia with Achenbach. The arresting ‘Village Lovers' by Bastien-Lepage, a painting particularly admired by Tolstoy, admirably represents the school of ‘poetic realism'; the love scene is played out in work clothes over the broken gate of a market garden, surrounded by leeks, yellowing beans and nasturtiums.
The second floor is the real highlight, where all the most famous paintings in the collection follow in bewildering succession. Degas' Blue Dancers are followed by a room full of Monet with the familiar bridge across the green lily pond at Giverny, the famous picnic on the grass, Rouen Cathedral, and the Thames with Big Ben and seagulls looming out of a lilac mist, each capturing what the artist called "the atmosphere and light diffused in the moment". In Room 10, you can discover a ‘Frosty Morning at Louve ciennes' with Sisely, a ploughed field or French boulevard with Pissaro or the chiaroscuro Seine with Renoir
who said that pictures should be unashamedly "pretty... There are quite enough unpleasant things in this life already, without us increasing their number". Next door, the color therapy intensifies with Signac's pointillist rainbows, Van Gogh's ‘Red Vineyard' or the striated impasto of his ‘Landscape... after Rain'. On the other side of the staircase, Cezanne's familiar green-and-ochre landscapes add to the palette, followed by Gaugin's langourous Tahitian beauties set against pink beaches and exotic gardens.
If the queues for either of the main museums are too daunting, you can visit the gleaming ‘Museum of Private Collections', at 10 Volkhonka Ulitsa (open from noon Weds-Sun and costing 100/50 rubles for foreig ners/Russians). The best of the three cafes is here.
Family friendly features
The mummy cases and canopic jars in room 1 of the main museum are generally popular, especially when accompanied by actual mummified heads, cats, birds and an Indiana Jones setting. The scale and atmosphere of this museum make it the most impressive for kids, but the bright colors of the impressionists can also be appealing. In the Museum of Private Collections, a definite highlight is the reconstruction of Dmitry Krasnopevtsev's Studio, as full of shells, skulls, fossils and oddities as an I-Spy book.