An Interview published in the Petersburg magazine
- 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,
- 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.