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An Interview published in the Petersburg magazine "ART City"
February 2004

- Mikhail Borisovich, to begin with, let’s try to sort out the basics: when we speak of modern or contemporary art, what do we have in mind? Which art? How far back in time do we go? With which artist do we begin?
- I think there is really no such thing as contemporary art. There is an artist. There is a time, the age in which he creates and lives. And there are his contemporaries. Whatever is created within their period of time will be ‘contemporary’ art for them. Personally when I was still a child I understood that there is no difference between Picasso’s “Cat” and Potter’s “Dog”. The cat in question was exhibited here and I was at the time a boy growing up in the halls of the Hermitage. I was horrified by it. But then by the time the exhibition was closing I understood that it is a normal cat, and it was all quite normal, without any distinction. In the same way there is no real difference between old and new art. Aside from the fact that modern art employs a more complex language to which you have to get somewhat accustomed.

- Nonetheless, when you open exhibitions of recent art in the halls of the Hermitage you say that this is art ‘for connoisseurs’. And many people think that half of what contemporary artists create is charlatanism. Spectators don’t always understand what they are being shown. Why do you say that contemporary art is more complex to understand than works by the ancient masters?
- Art is a complex thing to comprehend in general. Any art. Choosing from among old masters the spectator can easily make sense out of ‘salon’ art and realistic German genre painting of the 19th century with its plump children or, on the other hand, our peasants as painted by the Itinerant Movement artists. An inexperienced spectator is swayed by the subject matter. It was always that way. Therefore the old masters painted traditional canvasses on time-worn, well-known subjects such as Bible stories which were close to people and understandable. I think even Rembrandt was significantly less understandable than many less talented Dutch painters who simply ‘played with’ genre subjects. Today’s young spectator has been brought up on the aesthetics of discotheques and computers and finds it easier to comprehend video art and abstract art than realistic art. The reason is that all this has entered the aesthetics of youth culture as a basic component: this is true of the complex associations, the new technological versions, and the video clip way of thinking as well as installations. … A spectator in his or her 60’s as a rule is closer to realistic art. Art is multi-layered in principle. There are some things which, it is true, are only for ‘connoisseurs’. But there is also such a thing as ‘great’ art. And as it turns out, this is precisely the art that is accessible to everyone. This is so because each person can see in it something special, something personal…

- Exhibitions of contemporary art in the Hermitage are often placed near the section devoted to the history of prehistoric art, near the famous monuments from the Pazyryk barrows. May we assume this is no accident? Your father Boris Borisovich Piotrovsky commented on the similarities and parallels between contemporary art and ancient art: Cycladic art, the Altamira bisons, the petroglyphs…
- There are, of course, similarities, although new art is more constrained. Exhibitions of new art in the Hermitage employ a very special way of displaying contemporary art, whereby its juxtaposition with traditional art that has long existed in the museum is very important. After you visit an exhibition of contemporary works you can then see works that are similar to or quite the opposite from what you have just seen. The juxtaposition of different cultures is one of the most important functions of a universal museum. Comparison with Pazyryk culture or with the Scythians is especially interesting. After all new art often has looked back to the distant past and, as a rule, to unconscious feelings akin to the shaman’s craft, where someone inhaled cannabis and saw things that were not there. On the one hand such likenesses explain and help us to understand; on the other hand they put things in the right perspective, so you understand what was and what is or will be once again…Artists of different ages have always wanted to stir things up by being unusual. But a museum should maintain a certain balance. In a museum you have the opportunity to let yourself be persuaded that however unique and unusual one or another work may be, all the unique things which are preserved here are good in their own ways…

- You have said that museums help to legitimize contemporary art, which otherwise lives a self-contained, inscrutable and often secretive life. They help to develop a correct view of new art which still does not have criteria for judgment. Please explain.
- The main vector of our educational and exhibition activity as we have defined for the 10 years to come is firstly to instill good taste and an understanding of Russian state history and the history of culture and secondly to deal with art of the 20th and 21st centuries. At first glance it all appears to be startling. But in fact there are good ‘shamans’ and bad ones. With the help of our foreign colleagues, who have large collections of contemporary art and great experience in appraising this art, we try to show things which are irreproachable, which have become standards by which all else is measured: Jackson Pollack, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois…

- It seems at one point you admitted that for a long time you kept in your pocket a list of 10 contemporary artists whom you would like to see represented in the museum by one work apiece. Who are they?
- Over the course of 10 years this list has changed in a number of ways, and I myself change. Just three years ago Magritte was certainly on this list. Now I am not so sure. Although no one is offering us a Magritte, and if they were to do so I would buy it with pleasure. If the money were available, of course. Malevich was one name on that list. And the dream came true. Four of the brilliant artists from the list are now in the museum: Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, and Malevich. And the works we have are from among their best.

- Do you expect new acquisitions or gifts?
- For the time being we are not counting on anyone stepping forward. We are arranging to show works that are given us on long term loan. But we will be pleased if someone wishes to present us with a gift. It is an expensive undertaking to buy proven works. We don’t have money, but perhaps here is a situation where being poor is not a sin but rather good luck. There are criteria to go by but we are not yet well enough informed to plunge into the market and start buying. We will look around, study the experience of our colleagues and inform our own taste, train our eyes.

- There was a time when Pollack and Warhol were promoted by Peggy Guggenheim, wife of Solomon Guggenheim, in her own gallery. In Russia, Shchukin and Morozov played a large role. Why is it that today’s sponsors and benefactors are in no hurry to pay attention to artists?
- Let’s be precise: Shchukin and Morozov were neither sponsors nor benefactors of Monet, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. A benefactor is someone who gives money for an artist to live. Shchukin and Morozov were merchants and art collectors who loved painting, placed their orders and made their purchases. They put their collections on display and helped raise the popularity of artists in Russia. The entire Russian avant-garde was born thanks to the fact that artists could see these works first at the homes of Shchukin and Morozov, later in the Museum of New Western Art, and still later in the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. I hope that among us there will be collectors (and they are already emerging) who will discern great things when they are still not recognized by anyone.


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