If you Happen to be Born in an Empire
Why donít angry citizens, bourgeois and intellectuals lose the need for authenticity.
A few days ago the Hermitage appeared on Twitter and Facebook and an iPhone application has already been made. What can the Hermitage say about itself on these famous social networks, how modern is it, what kinds of visitors does it expect, what language will it speak in, what can it teach its compatriots and the rest of the world? Today Mikhail Piotrovsky, Hermitage director, correspondent member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, member of the Russian Academy of Arts, doctor of historical science, laureate of Russian Presidential awards in the field of literature and art will tell RG about this.
The Hermitageís imperial recipe
- In Soviet times, many people came to look at imperial history.
- Although it had been condemned...
- But the Hermitage preserved it in a "live" form. It could not die as a cultural phenomenon because the Soviet Union was really a subspecies of the Russian Empire, if we take the empire to mean a multinational state. That empire was preserved... And the Hermitage, with its mix of Rembrandt and Nicholas I, with a little intended confusion and the absence of clear order allowed it to find anything it wanted, from everyday imperial objects to showcases with Masonic signs.
- What happened to the imperial theme in the post-Soviet period?
- Do you think it lost its importance? Not at all. Everybody became imperialists. And democrats were the first.
-Do you think Russia is still an empire?
- While it is multinational, yes. The end of an empire is just the beginning of a mononational state. I believe that Putinís last article on this subject contains an imperial understanding of national problems.
I think it is very important now to understand that our Empire, which has not been scattered into pieces, but collected together, is our cultural heritage. For some peoples empires are bad, and for others good. They participate in its biggest tasks and biggest glory. We should not forget that an empire takes pride in being made up of many peoples and also takes pride in its real cultural diversity. The Louvre, the Hermitage and the British Museum were born from empires and happily collect objects of art from different civilisations and cultures. An empire is able to admire all this. And it is through imperial museums that people often discover "their" culture and understand "their" civilisation.
The precision of imperial principles are freedom of belief, language and culture to a certain degree, and imperial power maintained peace. The Russian imperial cultural recipe of the relation between of Islam and Orthodox Christianity, Islam and the state has worked very well over centuries. And it can be used again, because, unfortunately, multiculturalism creates ghettos, which are a horrible project for all long-awaited autonomies. Fortunately, we have different traditions.
- But they should be modernised.
- I think that the level of autonomy can change with modernisation, but the unique cultural variations in freedom and related fields remain. The Russian army had clergy from all religions, Georgian princes, Tatar morzas, German barons served in the privileged regiments, all together. The Russian empire always maintained great interest in eastern culture. Culture, architecture, language and religion were not only preserved but expanded and developed. But this should not be a political weapon against the current order of things.
Although it is well known that nobody learns from historical experience, the museum can at least present it so that people find hints at least on an emotional level. The Hermitage is opening new branches in Dagestan, Armenia, Georgia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and Azerbaijan and can not present cultures as being unequal. Immigrants visit the British Museum in London to see their culture, where it is better represented than in their own countries where museums are not so good. I think the Hermitage will soon be like that.
When you can see Byzantine, Islamic and Buddhist art together inside the Russian imperial palaces and museums you get a wonderful impression. The Hermitage is becoming a metaphor: global culture in Russian imperial palaces as the context for Russian cultural history. Rembrandt, Matisse and Buddhist frescoes are all part of our culture. This can be well understood in palaces where Moors and princes stood.
- What do you think does this imperial theme concept show to the powers that be?
- Most of all, I think, the culture of difference. One of the main principles of imperial policy was that difference is wonderful. People should be different and not the same as each other. The museum teaches this very delicately.
Yeltsin ordered the symbol of the new state and we showed him the two headed eagle, and we showed Kuchma Ukrainian regiment flags at the exhibition dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the Russian Guard. By the way, leaders clearly understand this. They often come to see us - I wonít name names - just like that. I like quoting Putinís answer to the question: "What do you think of the Kremlin palaces?" "You know, Iíve been to the Hermitage..."
Product of the court of chic
-Yes, because historical and cultural exhibitions on imperial times, the times of Peter the Great, Catherine II and Alexander I, are particularly important for the Hermitage. It is a reason to look at oneís history more seriously than now, when our history is so... alive.
These extravagant exhibitions are done in the style of "slightly more than necessary". We quietly return people to a scientific approach to history. After all, museums never lost it. When we present something real, we always offer a "recipe" for interpreting it, and our own opinion, which you can disagree with.
At the moment, we have an exhibition dedicated to the 300th anniversary of Lomonosov. We consciously, I insisted on it, connected this personality to the Elizabethan era. The Empress was after all very interesting, under her we won the Northern War, not just against anyone but against the mighty Prussia! And entered Berlin for the first time! (For me, the most important piece in the exhibition is a hat lost by Frederick the Great when fleeing from the Russian army at the battle of Kunersdorf.) The empress developed Peterís undertaking to transform Russia into Europe, an elegant French-like Europe, rococo, baroque, a wonderful life. The need for luxury items, glass, porcelain, mosaics led to the establishment of Russian manufacturing and Lomonosov science. All his famous chemical experiments were aimed at finding a solution for producing courtly chic. You must agree that state orders, orders from the imperial court are important.
This was a time when we were trying to become Europeans (and we have an academy arts and an academy of sciences!), while not forgetting that we were Russians. The Elizabethan revolution gave birth to a second fundamental idea for her era: "To hell with foreigners, we are clever enough ourselves". That is why Lomonosov came to the court. He was a fully European person, he had studied in Marburg and he was "clever enough" in thought, scientific attitudes and experiments and a humanitarian talent. For me, his greatest achievement was to create the modern Russian language, which we relate with Pushkin. However, Pushkinís poems would not have sounded as they did without the century of preliminary work of Lomonosov, Derzhavin, Trediakovsky, which is after all the Elizabethan time. Critics have already called our exhibition "loyalist" but that was a wilful decision, and it talks about something that only the Hermitage can talk.
We are "presenting" our leaders to the whole world. I think that thanks to our exhibitions, the image of Catherine the Great has changed in the mind of intellectuals from all over the world, from anecdotes on her lovers to an example of an empress who wanted a Constitution, but at the same time we also have Pugachev. In the depths of the imperial theme you can always find leaders struggling to choose the way. And the lovers are minor matters.
Life not for the Tsar
- We know that the most democratic people are aristocrats, as they do not have an inferiority complex.
I always repeat that the museum is the most democratic establishment in the world. For example, in Russia, only libraries have more visitors than museums, 70-80 million visitors a year. Yes, a lot of children and the statistics include multiple visits, but even so... The secret is that museums are like multileveled art. They have something to say to the most varied people.
The aristocratic Hermitage, a museum in a palace, is how a museum should be, unusually democratic. The Hermitageís nobility, which enables it to talk at the same time about architecture, interiors, great art and simply beautiful things, not forgetting to be a historical witness, makes it interesting for everyone. A child can see an unbelievably beautiful floor and Florentine mosaic on cupboard walls, a simple unsophisticated visitor, who comes here for the first time, will note that the slightly faded Hermitage gold plating differs from the new Kremlin gold plating. And remember, what the real one should look like. A simple exclamation "How rich!" letís the trader understand what is real and not the riches of the nouveaux riche. The museum pulls people in and educates them. But does not force it.
-Yes, there is a feeling that the language of quiet arts, applied, visual is gaining influence.
- I think it always had it. But I agree that it is growing. Because the world around us is becoming more and more visual: simulacra, imitations, pseudo things which pretend to be real, and sometimes people believe them to be so. But, in general, people can not be fooled. It is not in vain that they stand, as if cursed, in museum queues. Just because museums are authentic. Their energy can not be put into words or reproduced.
Some people say that moral evolution does not exist, and people have not become better since ancient times. To them I would reply that from my observations, they have not got worse either. The desire for authenticity has not disappeared from todayís angry citizens, bourgeois or intellectuals.
The variety of meanings and multitude of levels in the whole artistic statement revolves around the fact that any person can always understand something, even in Malevichís Black Square.
- Who are the museumís favourite visitors?
- I must admit that tourists, who bring in most money, are not the favourite guests for any museum. Much more interesting are those who live nearby. For them the museum is not somewhere to pop in on free days. These people approach the museum as a social and cultural event. Museum life is one element in the quality of a cityís life and part of its good qualities.
Of course, they donít always have time to visit but they are attracted by exhibitions. An exhibition is an event.
- Donít they compete with the permanent exhibitions, which are just as rich?
- There are many disagreements about this in the museum. We have huge permanent exhibitions, they have to be changed and renewed, so why do we need more exhibitions? Sometimes this is said as a joke, sometimes seriously, because the work load on the staff who put exhibitions together is huge. I believe that exhibitions must be done, because they attract the right visitors and because an exhibition is a kind of statement. You might not understand it, or understand it differently, which is also normal. Sometimes the meaning is well understood but is not liked. An exhibition is always a conversation with its time.
- How do the themes of such a conversation arise?
- From the surface it seems as if it is following a well trodden path, someone proposed something, someone asked something. In fact the Hermitage has a (continually discussed) exhibition strategy and principles, which we stick to. Firstly an exhibition is a scientific report by experts who study Rembrandt, German silver, tobacco use or whatever. Rembrandt, studied, interpreted with nuances is something quite different.
Gourmands and young people
- Are gourmands Saint Petersburg people?
- I hope that there are already Muscovites.
- What about from abroad?
- Of course, they come. They also have the Hermitage in Amsterdam.
As well as talking about the museum where the painting came from (this is usually forgotten about at large exhibitions), single painting exhibitions become a metaphor: all museums are a single world collection.
The third area is modern art.
- This probably faces conservative opposition?
- This is normal in the Hermitage. Some people complain others cheer. We argue, agree and try to balance modern and classical. Our work is such that neither a conservative nor a modernist will be offended, only a layabout.
To those who criticise or applaud us I say "Well done Hermitage", this is nothing new. The Hermitage has always been interested in modern art. Catherine the Great bought it, so did Nicholas I. So when we have an exhibition of young modern artists from all over the world, it is continuing a tradition.
So Ilya Kabakovís Red Wagon will be next to Ancient Herculaneum. Not many people have seen it yet, but a lot of dirt has been thrown at me because of it, and shouts of protest are expected. Even so, Red Wagon will stand in the Hermitage because it is a kind of aesthetic manifesto and real modern art, and it brings us a different audience. Kabakov came for the opening of the installation as well as a lot of viewers who donít usually come to Russia, high level traders and gallery owners.
In Saint Petersburg, modern art is mostly understood by young people (in Moscow I think that possibly everybody understands it). Therefore, in the General Staff building we are going to install, with the help of an old friend of the Hermitage, the architect Rem Koolhaas, a modern art laboratory. It will have an exhibition hall, a student club, artist master classes and student works. This is a living site, which will freely form the next generations.
- What is happening with the modern art audience?
- The audience for "a new language of art" in Saint Petersburg is gradually growing, but there is still a gap. For the first 10 days we had lots of visitors and then, despite the newspapers and magazines continuing to talk about what a great artist he is and the most expensive, the audience ended. One of our ideas is to not just make an effort but a leap forward to make Saint Petersburg a centre for new art. I think it will happen if Dasha Zhukova brings her Garage here.
- As a branch?
- Well, it is said that Abramovich has invested in New Holland and there is a plan to set up a modern art centre there. New Holland, the Russian Museum, the Hermitage, a centre for modern art, something could come of it.
- You once said in an interview with RG that a leader must have good taste, or a good team of advisers who can form it. Can you confirm that rich people are also bound by good taste?
- Yes, I think so. Although bad taste is hard to overcome for them, because they do not listen to their advisers as much. Politicians know that whatever they do, they should always show good taste, or nothing. But rich people are confident they know everything. However, they gradually form a certain good taste. World prices and the market are not a bad compass. As for Abramovich, knowing his history and biography, who would have thought...
- Maybe itís because this is the second generation of oligarchs? Some are friends with Grishkovetz, etc...
- Yes they can be interested in things that donít directly bring them money. When society breaks away from the idea that money is everything it is psychologically difficult even for those who agree. When a rich person begins to understand that there are things more important than money, they start to find that beautiful authentic things are interesting, and then they get a taste for creating the future contours of the humanities. At the German-Russian forum Petersburg Dialogue, I was asked to give a lecture on humanities. I talked about how it seemed to me that the 21st century will be a century of the humanities, a century which will bring back our taste for culture and morality.
- Which of your exhibition-statements do you consider the most successful?
- The Antony Gormley exhibition, modern art in a classical setting. There are many such exhibitions now, in particular in the Louvre. Although we are used to working with living artists (itís hard, I always say it will be the last time), working with Gormley was good. We succeeded in saying how you can look at classical ancient statues (we lowered them to the floor) and modern art in different ways. We achieved a beautiful multi-sided dialogue without any ideology, but with an invitation to see what happens when gods come down from their pedestals and modern man sculpturally multiplies into new forms.
- Is there anything special about placing modern art next to classical art?
- I think that the Hermitageís niche is to emphasise the relation between them. By doing so we show that there is no revolution in modern art, it continues the classical tradition. It is also important that the museum is attracting internet people who are interested in photography or engravings which they find similar... Then it turns out we have daguerreotypes and we can display them. The internet exploded with excitement: "The Hermitage has Daguerre!" We actually had got three Daguerre daguerreotypes from the academy of arts. To show what he had done, he sent examples to heads of different states, including to Nicholas I. In addition we displayed wonderful photographs taken by our writers from the Pushkin House and its collection. It was important for us to display daguerreotypes in the Hermitage Picket Room. Before this we had an Annie Leibovitz exhibition. The Hermitage is acquiring a new colour and the light plays differently.
- From time to time in this country we are sadly told that we are hopelessly behind world museum business with all its high tech, and we donít have anyone who can do anything about it. However, this is not true. We have all the latest multimedia technology, touch screen kiosks which can provide specific routes through the museum, multimedia videos in all Petersburg cafe's, Twitter, Facebook, a magazine, newspaper, radio station, TV programs an iPhone app. We are fine with modernisation.
Thanks to active international partnerships, world Hermitage centres and the interesting people who visit us, we are modernising normally. At the last Venice Biennale the Prigov exhibition from our collection was shown. It turned out beautifully, although it is not our most usual genre. We plan to invite directors to curate exhibitions. Greenaway did an exhibition, why not Sokurov?
- Are the Hermitage and Sokurov still friends?
- Yes. As well as being a great artist, he is a person who really understands the wonders of museum life and work. He has suggested making a round the clock broadcast from the Hermitage, including scientific council meetings and from the halls...
- Good idea.
- An excellent idea, but if I put everyone in front of the camera they will freeze.
- How much are you involved in the international exhibition cultural business?
- We take part in lots of exhibitions. Currently we are preparing an exhibition on Catherine II for Edinburgh and an exhibition for Japan on the Hermitage called Nature and the City in the World of Painting in Art. We are preparing a huge exhibition for Amsterdam on Peter the Great, and we are taking impressionists and post-impressionists there. The Van Gogh museum is closing for almost a year for renovation and exhibits are being transferred to the Hermitage-Amsterdam. We will see what our impressionists look like next to Van Gogh. Itís a shame that the museum "cold war" means that we donít exchange exhibitions with the USA, but in Great Britain we are going to show the collection Catherine the Great bought from Lord Walpole in his ancestral home. By the way, the English are not worried that we have this collection.
- Does the Hermitageís mission to be a cultural bridge to Europe and the World remain?
- No. Today we are aiming for something bigger than just cultural relations and exchanges. We want to teach taste to the whole world. We should not just say that Russia is great (although that is important), but we should also bring our understanding of what is good and bad in art. Our satellite centres, which we are launching or bringing down from orbit (exhibitions in Amsterdam, research in Italy, a museum of modern art in Vilnius and the resurrection of the Hermitage - Guggenheim project), not only present the Hermitage as a keeper of things but also as a cultural phenomenon. We bring our history and interpretations, and we have our own language. (By the way the Louvre admits that they looked at our experience of creating centres when setting up the Louvre - Abu Dhabi project).
The Hermitage is an encyclopaedic museum of world culture, but this encyclopaedia is written in Russian. It is important for everybody to see how Russia interprets world history, how Rembrandt combines with Schukinís Matisse paintings and Scythian gold and the most ancient rug in the world.
As we preserve world heritage, we believe that we should help the whole world. When our government couldnít maintain us the whole world helped us. Sometimes we have a tendency in this country for being closed, but it is important to remember that the Hermitage has always been more open than the country as a whole.
- What are your strategic tasks?
- We have to be museum innovators in Russia and the world. We have to change the role of museums in the global world. Globalisation can often be a bad thing, but we will try to make sure that we give the best part of us to the wider world. Itís the same with the Internet, which is a dump. But who is preventing us from having beautiful museum websites? We should improve the global world as well the world outside our window. We could turn Palace Square into an "entrance zone" for the Hermitage and sharply increase the museumís urban role. We are going to open a passage along the Small Hermitage to the Neva and hope that it will create a city forum. This is gradually happening all over the world. You can live in a modern museum. And it is better to live in a museum than in a ship building factory, into which our city is turning. A city can learn how to live from a museum. It has a normal economy, not with 200 percent profit, but with the aim of preserving the brand and high quality growth. The museum corrects school education errors, teaches patriotism better than the army and educates adults. Museums in the world today often become city forming factories with their commerce, education centres and universities. It is a kind of public institution which is creeping into everything, trying to teach people how to live in a city and preserve its monuments. We donít seem to be able to understand what we can or can not do in a historical city. I say that you should start like in a museum. How do we decide what to buy for our collection? No museums, by the way, ever buy something they do not need. They always understand what is needed. And there are some things that we will spend any amount of money on if needed. For example, when we wanted to buy a watercolour of the 1837 Winter Palace fire I made everyone work on it.
- What is the secret of good museum choices?
- Openness and discussion. But the most important thing is to make the choice with the future in mind. We recently had a meeting with construction industry people at the Petersburg Club, and it turns out that some of them are good people. They formed two interesting principles. The first was that "It is better to have a famous name than a very high income" and the second was "We are afraid of poor quality growth". However the city development is of poor quality. All sorts of things that have not been properly thought through are being built, and on old communication networks. Good quality development is not just simple arithmetic, it requires taste and humanitarian principles. Imagine what would happen if developers worked based on the humanitarian principles that we use in museums.
Home and the street
- It is a great responsibility to sit in my fatherís chair. You understand that people look and compare and ask if he is good enough. I nearly always ask myself, "What would my father have said?" I think that in one situation he would use a harsh word, but he would never have called me an idiot. Sometimes I know definitely that my father would have done something differently. He was different to me, a bit softer, a bit sharper, a bit conciliatory... But for me it is important that I donít copy him but keep the feeling that at some level I am doing everything as was done in our family. It is almost impossible to describe the principles which are absorbed in a family. After all nobody gives lectures at home and says, "Do like I do"... The Hermitage was like a second home for my father. Mother was jealous, she would say, "Youíre going to your Hermitage again..." Nobody is jealous in my family, but for all of us, for my wife, son and daughter the Hermitage is some kind of centre. The world and home. For everyone who works there it becomes a second home. We have families working for us and they bring their children. This domesticity creates an atmosphere, a feeling of comfort and inner support. I think that it is wonderful when public and inner, family life have the same principles. I am a public person by profession but not psychologically. But being a museum public figure never weighs me down. On the contrary, it gives me great pleasure.
At home it is important to be understanding and take part in everything. It seems to me that todayís social problems come from a shift in the border between the street and home. Too much in the world has become the street. In Egypt there is even the phrase "youths from the street".
The Hermitage had difficulties when the events on the street entered here. People started to grab each other and recall old grievances turning them into politics. The street came in here and the museum stopped being a place of unity. But this ended and the museum is a house again and not the street.
You often have to protect yourself and loved ones from the street and remember that there are no families on the street. Revolutions happen on the streets, but homes should prevent them from happening.
- The archives. Only 7-10 percent of the archives are on display. But the archives should be accessible. Our open archive fund is a wonderful solution and a completely different display method. These are restored or unrestored items, many of them should not be restored on principle, you always need to leave the chair with its torn cover, and that is what we are doing. This makes a different statement, we are also going to hold exhibitions there, for example of modern costumes. Yesterday the buying commission decided to buy some night shirts. This is also an innovation by the way, new things, new possibilities...
- What does the museum never stop doing?
- Acquisitions. We are often asked why the Hermitage needs to buy anything when the archives are full. But, just as archaeologists canít stop digging because it is so interesting, museums canít stop buying. Acquisitions are like a way of feeding a living organism. Alas, we have to remind everyone that displaying in the halls is only one, and not the most important, museum function. Museums sometimes have to close (for example during wars), but museum life doesnít stop. The museum collects new and old because it has to collect and preserve things for future generations. But today the only important point for society is to study, save, restore and present them, while something can lie in the archives for a very long time before it is needed.