A grand experiment – installing elements of the latest exhibition by a contemporary artist in the halls housing the Hermitage’s main collection – has resulted in a public scandal. Many have detected mistreatment of animals in Fabre’s works and have demanded that the Hermitage cease to display them. The Hermitage itself agrees that the Belgian artist’s approach is provocative, but in doing so talks about the problem of heightened aggression in society. In an interview with Vitaly Dymarsky, the editor-in-chief of Diletant magazine, the museum’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, spoke about Fabre being a profound artist who does not overstep the boundaries of taste, while many letters of complaint are identical.
I am looking around and where is Jan Fabre? Where are the infamous stuffed animals?
Jan Fabre is all over the Hermitage, and people do come and ask “Where have you got the animals on show?” Very good-naturedly, by the way. Jan Fabre is where he ought to be – in the halls of Flemish art, where he is helping people to grasp the meaning of Flemish art, those people who often believe that everything is simple and readily understandable. And in the halls of the General Staff, where he is also conducting a dialogue, with Rubens, with Ilya Kabakov, and with all the others.
I recently happened to hear the opinion of the Ministry of Culture, stating that while they don’t actually not support it, they have a sort of neutral attitude to this exhibition. The exhibition has caused a lot of fuss, which is why I am asking. It was also said that “This is all the responsibility of the Hermitage.” Is that generally speaking the usual practice? That a museum is responsible for aesthetics?
Things are considerably better than that. Museums bear responsibility for aesthetics. There are a few things that we treasure greatly. They originated in those years that people call “terrible”, or “good”, or something else. Among them is autonomy for museums. A museum decides how much to charge for tickets. A museum decides what exhibitions to hold, but it also bears the responsibility. If the ministry likes the sort of exhibition a museum put on, it might say, “We also [played a part], but the choice was theirs.” If they don’t like it, they can say that the responsibility lies with the museum. That is a very important position and this is precisely what we are standing up for. To not have any censorship – neither censorship by the ministry and government, nor the censorship of the crowd. For museums to be able to work within the extent of their rights and powers and to be protected. The main question that is raised here is one that is typical for the Russian intelligentsia: “Should we call the constable?” I have stacks of letters saying that we are the lowest of the low and hold dreadful exhibitions and that we deserve to be punished severely. When people write in and argue that’s wonderful. This exhibition has been put on to make people debate. But when they write that you should all be crucified, hanged, shot, kicked out and so on, that is “calling the constable”. In just the same way we feel tempted to “call the constable” and say, “Look here are 60 letters, all verbatim copies.” Complaints to the ministry making work for people; we are supposed to respond – it’s disrupting the work of state institutions, “we are calling the constable”. But we won’t be “calling the constable”, not in the one case, nor in the other, because it is indeed the autonomous sphere of the museum, its right to do what it likes within the law. That right is sometimes disputed. For us it is very important that it is preserved. I spoke yesterday or the day before by phone with the minister, who inquired about a few details. And the most frightening thing is if someone or other forces the ministry into doing what they don’t want to and start giving orders and, God forbid, we go back to the “repertoire committees” and all the rest of it. It seems to me that’s what Raikin was talking about and people didn’t fully understand him, rather than about state censorship. But as it is the state also took mild offence at his words. He was saying that some decisions that the state has handed over to people active in the cultural sphere… that there are those who want to take those decisions upon themselves, people who may indeed be interested in culture, but…
But at the same time we see that on occasion the state nonetheless does involve itself in museum, theatre or other policy. Yet on the other hand, it does not get involved when what you called “the censorship of the crowd” begins.
Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Look, we are seeing protests over the state beginning to take action against those who attacked the Sidur exhibition. Here, of course, you can’t please everyone, because there are certain laws and principles that should remain. And here there should always be an absolutely correct balance and that balance should always be dependent upon a sort of social compact. We spoke about this recently, discussing the concept of museum practice. There’s a very important standpoint, which many don’t like but I think is correct: a social compact, culture should exist. And the apparatus of state performing certain public functions. The state apparatus provides for the existence of the culture of museums within some definite bounds, certainly, as there are. And gives them the right to do whatever they want. Concomitantly, in exchange for that, cultural institutions do what the state requires today for its own purposes. But that takes place by mutual agreement. For example, today the situation is such that there is a need to speak as much as possible about love of country, patriotism. Evidently the situation requires that. Remember, 20 or 30 years ago the opposite was the case: there was a need to speak about internationalism. Things are different in different circumstances. That’s why there can be certain accents, while culture in itself, the museums, work normally. In actual fact, we repeat this all the time and gradually it is getting across. Now, in the same discussion where strange things used to be heard, practically everyone is saying: visitor numbers should not be the main criterion of success for museums, of museums’ effectiveness. That’s it, we got the message across. And it really isn’t that easy to decide what’s effective and what isn’t. I believe that visitor numbers are no proper measure, because that’s a tricky criterion. It needs to be different for different museums. A lot depends on what you want and not simply “keep the numbers growing all the time”.
You said that you don’t want a return of repertoire committees ant the like, but evidently suggestions that are heard from time are heading in that direction. Recently we are again being told that some commissions or committees need to be formed that would take on the role of some moral arbiter, decide what’s moral and what’s immoral. It seems to me that even if such committees are filled with the most moral people in the whole country, it’s still immoral to give them their way.
It’s again a case of “call the constable”. That’s the usual tradition of the Russian intelligentsia, and the Soviet intelligentsia too. Everybody’s anti, anti, but the least thing and it’s “Call the constable” – “Where is the FSB looking?”, “Where is the Cheka looking?” and so on. That is really a very dangerous business. There are things that ought to be discussed. Sometimes even with raised voices, but without insults, without swearing, and without calls for people to be arrested, liquidated or annihilated.
And without vandalism
And without vandalism. In other worlds, don’t touch. And in point of fact, given strict laws against vandalism, there might be laws defining two or three moral positions such as “No Holocaust denial” and “No denial of Christ’s historicity”, how about that? That can be worked out. Today a wonderful legal conference began in the museum (as part the Legal Forum). Here too various questions are under discussion. They come under the heading “Regulating the Art Market”, but again they are about the degree to which the art world can be regulated. That regulation ought to be very flexible. You can’t prescribe every last detail, otherwise the law becomes a stick to beat people. You have to establish a flexible system in which there won’t be flagrant abuses, but there will be a certain degree of freedom that gives rise to discussion. What is the value of freedom? Not in everybody being able to say what they like – that’s not particularly valuable, but in people beginning to discuss things. They begin to argue and from those arguments something – maybe truth, maybe not – emerges. Some sort of mutual understanding emerges. Regarding the Fabre exhibition, I wrote that art provokes. It turned out the level of malice and anger in the country is too high. And you understand when people write [that kind of thing] out of concern for animals… When it comes to looking after animals, the Hermitage does more than others to care for them.
The famous Hermitage cats
The Hermitage cats. It wasn’t abuse in Fabre’s work, but a cri de coeur. But when people, in their concern over animals use bad language and call for one group or another to be hanged and crucified, then excuse me if I am not very convinced [of their concern for animals].
In other words, to save animals, you need to hang somebody?
I don’t believe them, especially as the letters are often verbatim copies of each other. Still, in principle, it’s nonetheless a good thing that a discussion has started. It’s good that it’s happening, it’s good that people are coming. It’s good that adults are bringing children and not taking them into the halls that are marked 16+. Not everything should be shown to children; we have forgotten all that. When our parents had books that it was all right to read on some shelves and ones you shouldn’t on others. That was also a certain infringement of freedom, but parents should take care of their children too.
We got together with animal rightists as well. Incidentally, campaigning for animals’ rights is very interesting, because no creatures have rights apart from people, do they? We used to have rights too, but now sovereignty is also under question. The rights of nature are more or less recognized. Why am I saying this? I am constantly advocating the rights of culture that were formulated first by Roerich and then by Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachev. The response is always “Culture cannot have rights; the subject of culture has to be a living person.” Well they seem to have been acknowledged for nature. Now, perhaps, I have already heard, under the influence of these discussions, animals will be partially recognized as legal entities with restrictions. That would be a very good thing, because in our country the regulation of the treatment of animals and actual care for animals generally is in a rudimentary, very poor state. Hence this cry – it needs to be said. Only while looking at oneself, and not just in protest. The packs of homeless dogs that wander around all the cities in Russia were kicked out by people. They haven’t come in from the forests. They aren’t wild wolves.
But the exhibition isn’t about that at all. A real discussion is taking place about how to view old art. How to look for meanings in it. How new art helps to look for meanings. That’s really serious.
Regarding that I have two questions at once. Museums generally, and the Hermitage in the present case, probably do have some sort of explanatory function, don’t they? On the other hand, is there a need to explain? Perhaps it’s simply the case that not everyone should go to every exhibition?
The one and the other. I already said that we underestimated the degree of hate that exists in society. It’s enough to read the comments on your Echo of Moscow website [Vitaly Dymarsky is editor-in-chief of Diletant magazine and of the Echo of Moscow in Petersburg radio station]. I had a look at a conversation with me from two years ago and there were comments there that bore no relation to what we were talking about. But they did bear relation to me. I got on someone’s nerves (laughing).
Let’s bash Piotrovsky…
Quite. We underestimated that factor. Secondly, we failed to realize that we need to explain things very persistently, almost forcibly. The way schoolchildren used to be brought here, soldiers and sailors had compulsory tours and there were lectures at enterprises. At some point we decided that the cultural level was sufficiently high and people simply needed a bit of prompting. Well, just imagine, it turns out that’s not the case. It turns out that we do have to explain. After reading our fill of #pozorermitazhu [“shame on the Hermitage”] in the Internet, we on the one hand responded right there with the hashtags #pozopozory and #koshkizafabra [“shame on shame”, “cats for Fabre”] and on the other hand we increased the number of lectures, guided tours and meetings with people willing to listen. You have to explain to those willing to listen; if someone isn’t willing, it’s a fairly pointless exercise. There are many who are willing to listen. You can explain and tell them things; they take an interest. Here and there you can prompt them to see things differently. That’s what Fabre does. When he hung skulls between paintings by Snyders, why did he do that? You can admire it and you can ask why. He did so because the skulls are intended as a reminder of death, because all still lifes are in actual fact a reminder that everything is transitory, everything comes and goes.
Nature morte [the French term for “still life” also used in Russia] actually means “dead nature”
But in artists’ works it is alive. Nothing of the kind. Artists are always telling us about this. Take those market stalls [by Snyders] – they are gathered fruit, slaughtered animals. That is why the skull is there. Want to take that thought further? Go on. There was a skull at the foot of Golgotha, bathed with the blood of Christ – Adam’s skull as a symbol of original sin that was washed away. So the skull is a symbol with many aspects and many meanings. You can think up all sorts of things if you want to go deeper. And Fabre tries to explain. He pays reverence to Flemish art and tries to tell us how all those things might sound today. Both in the material and with different allusions, of which there are an infinite number. The allusions that Fabre inserts and the allusions that occur to me when I go around the exhibition. And when Fabre’s little pictures belonging to the Carnival are suddenly hanging in the gallery of Netherlandish painting and you look at them, getting close up, the entire character of your vision changes and you begin to look at the neighbouring pictures that you have seen a thousand times in a different way, with a different closeness. And with that, Breughel begins to strike you differently, Jan Gossaert begins to strike you differently. He has made you look, made you think about it.
And he has, it turns out, fitted into some tradition. That’s to say contemporary art has a connection with the traditional kind.
He has fitted into a tradition. He demonstrates that very well, which is why we chose him. We of course chose a famous and slightly provocative figure, we didn’t take either Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons, though, but Fabre, all of whose provocative character is emphatically connected with old Flemish art. His acerbity is a Flemish acerbity; you sense some kind of roots in it.
The classic figures of Flemish art were also quite severe
The classic artists were severe and so were the people who lived in difficult conditions and fought all the time. There is a lot of heavy-handed humour and much else in their aesthetic. It’s interesting to come to see all that. And when he makes a picture of “bloodying his nose on art”, that by and large is also a wonderful image.
What about the second half of the question? On the one hand, some people need things explaining, but perhaps others simply shouldn’t go?
That’s fine, they don’t have to go. What’s needed is for everyone to be able to go. Take, for example, those 18+ and 16+ signs. We put them up, but I myself consider them unnecessary. Everyone can be admitted, you just need to tell and explain. But everyone should come with an understanding that they are not the hosts here, that they should wipe their feet before entering the house. Sometimes people write: “Art belongs to the people. I paid for my ticket and I want a pleasant experience and what do you go and do to me?” Look here – the ticket you bought does not give you the right to do whatever you want or to get whatever you want. You bought a ticket giving right of access to this cultural treasure, to this copyright. Because the treasures exist for humanity and are passed on. You are granted the opportunity to see this, to view and appraise it. That’s a different matter from “Look I paid and I’ll do what I like”. That’s another perversion that came with money, although now perhaps there won’t be big money. That doesn’t happen in culture, it’s a no-go. You paid money to be allowed in, now look and try to get your fill of pleasure from what you discover and learn. Real pleasure comes from discovery, when you learn something new and unexpected.
And, of course, people should not go to places that are not to their liking. There are a large number of different establishments and institutions in this country where I don’t go, because I don’t enjoy them, that are ugly and dismal. But if they don’t interfere with me, I don’t demand [their closure].
But, you know, among the people who don’t like Fabre, there is also a group who then assert that their feelings – religious feelings, say – were offended. All the more reason not to go. Why would you go to be offended?
That’s true. Indeed, to go and be offended, in doing that there’s something… With this offence-taking there’s an appeal to the press and the rest of the media. There are a lot of things, but no serious insults in Fabre’s work. Besides the obvious fact that he employs Catholic images. That’s part of Flemish culture and so may not coincide with Orthodox culture. But with this too we have to be more careful. There was an article by a certain well-known person who defends religious feelings all the time here, fights with Mephistopheles and with St Isaac’s Cathedral. He is actually a priest, but he was expressing his own opinion. On the one hand, it’s interesting for discussion – he understood that it wasn’t an Orthodox cross there, that it’s European culture, on the other hand, he uses words such as pozorny. That’s a word that actually comes from… We have a lot of criminal jargon in the language. Volki pozornye – that’s where it’s from. An exhibition can be plokhoi – bad. The main thing is, though, that when he wrote all that the press had headlines all over “Russian Orthodox Church comes out against Fabre exhibition”. As a result, I got a phone call from the Metropolitan’s office to say: “Mikhail Borisovich, you do understand that this is not the official opinion, even of the Metropolitanate? It’s one person, who does indeed hold a post in the Metropolitan’s office, expressing his personal opinion on Facebook.” Here too people should be more careful. The impression is that we offended religious feelings, while as yet no-one particularly took offence.
See, when people express an opinion, that’s their undoubted right. But when activists of some sort up and – you gave the example of the Sidur exhibition today – when they beat and destroy things under the pretext of defending the purity of religion and their own unoffendedness, that’s already…
Nothing should be destroyed, on any pretext. Not Sidur’s sculptures, not monuments to Lenin. Nor the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, nor the monument to Dzerzhinsky. Things should be moved, but nothing should be destroyed.
Perhaps an expert opinion. Simply the aesthetics of those many plaster monuments to Lenin that stood in every village. No-one needed those, most probably.
Just because it’s not needed, it doesn’t have to be destroyed, most probably.
So what should be done? A plaster statue standing there with one arm broken off?
With time it would collapse and that would be that. But I think it is wrong to make a public act out of it. That aggravates things. Those cast-down Lenins have now reminded us of themselves, and Dzerzhinsky too is doing so. Incidentally, he is standing just fine by the Tretyakov Gallery.
Well, on the one hand he’s reminding us of himself, on the other hand all revolutions go through…
Revolutions are not all the same.
Which of them left cultural heritage untouched?
Our own Russian revolution affected cultural heritage far less than the French one. The French revolution destroyed the palaces completely, a whole stratum of cultural heritage was eliminated. There is an interesting tale that when they intended to buy furniture of the right period for Versailles it was almost impossible to find. So in some ways we can be proud…
Proud of less destruction? That’s not such a great thing, it seems to me.
They destroyed. The National Convention resolved to destroy the King’s carriage, but ours survived.
They went on a proper spree there too. You yourself said that art is provocative. Provocation should cause a scandal and a scandal means additional attention.
Provocation should not cause a scandal. These are very subtle definitions that we all need to be clear about. Provocation should prompt discussion. There is provocation and provocation. There’s the kind of provocation when they slip drugs into your pocket… If provocation evokes healthy discussion, then that’s fine. In contemporary art, the provocations are often somehow mean-spirited. And they provoke nothing but meanness, maliciousness and are not in especially good taste. But I consider that Fabre is in good taste. People may not like him, might find him irritating. He treads a fine line, beyond which – I won’t mention other names – comes foul nastiness. He is precisely on that boundary, where nastiness still does not happen, but go any further and it might. And that provokes discussion. Discussion is necessary. All these things need to be discussed. And to some extent we understand contemporary art and what we can glean from classical art. How contemporary art can engage in a dialogue, how a museum can create a dialogue of different cultures or exhibitions. How a museum can be a place where the setting engages in a dialogue, converses with an exhibition. Fabre is not the first occasion when we have done something that only the Hermitage and a few other major museums can do. The whole museum is participating in it. We did that with Manifesta too.
But, excuse me, Mikhail Borisovich, Manifesta also left many people bewildered, to put it mildly.
It caused a lot of bewilderment and protests. Protests from around the world – “You ought not to do this!” Some people were saying: “There’s no call to bring us this junk, to put it mildly, from the West!” Meanwhile in the West they were saying: “There’s no call to take decent art to those idiotic enemies of homosexuality!” The end result was a wonderful exhibition. Our next exhibition that will involve the whole Hermitage is “The Storming of the Winter Palace”. It’s a big museum –it’s very interesting, this might come off, it might not, when everything in the place works together with the exhibition.
And what is “The Storming of the Winter Palace”?
It will mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution.
A purely historical exhibition?
It’s a whole complex of events. We still haven’t finally settled everything. But, for example, in the General Staff there will first be an Eisenstein exhibition, devoted to the creator of the myth that was invented first by the French and then by the Bolsheviks. We had to do things the way the French had, so there was a storm of the Winter Palace, although it was not needed as an assault. Well, and then they decided that the guillotine was also necessary. The whole myth was born of various elements from real life. We will, I hope, be holding an exhibition of the German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer, if we can manage it. One devoted to how Khlebnikov predicted the 1917 revolution. That’s a whole myth as well. Here in the Hermitage there will be the exhibition “The Romanovs and the Revolution”.
So purely history and not art?
History. Now everyone is doing the Russian avant-garde. Somewhere we will be having avant-garde porcelain, avant-garde posters, somewhere there will be a history of exhibitions of modern and contemporary art in the Hermitage. There will be an exhibition about the military hospital.
That was here in the palace at that time.
There will be an exhibition about the Provisional Government. An instructive story of how intellectuals came to power. It really was a government of intellectuals and there you have it – what happened when the intelligentsia came to power. One of the turning points. There’s the story of how the Hermitage boycotted the Soviet authorities and how it ignored the orders of Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, who demanded that the Scythian gold that had, theoretically speaking, been found on Ukrainian soil be handed over to Ukraine. How the Hermitage fought for and won possession of the Winter Palace. That was no easy matter. I call it the second storm. And then the Hermitage became quiet as can be. That lull lasted until the end of the Second World War, conquering the parts of the Winter Palace and then making the Winter Palace part of the Hermitage. It’s everything mixed together, both mythology and real-life history. That can only be done in this museum.
Coming back to contemporary art. This is not the first provocative exhibition, as you put it. And not, I imagine, the last. But it’s good that the Hermitage director is an influential person, someone who likes and understands contemporary art. Still, it’s no secret that it’s hard to stand firm against the sort of pressure, aggression from below, public opinion, the “censorship of the crowd”, as you say.
Of course, it’s hard, because that, excuse me, is the very thing that is called common democracy. And to hold out against that is considerably more difficult. Orders from above – it’s always possible to explain things to one superior. Or if you don’t get your point across, you can have a row, walk out and slam the door. When some large part of the populace does not understand you and has an aggressive look as well, then of course it’s more difficult. And the main thing is that we don’t know all the ways to deal with it, besides “the constable”. And we will not go “calling the constable”. There are the prescriptions of the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia for what to do when those in authority withhold permission. They did a lot of different things. But what should you do when you get a stack of letters like that, saying that you’re a scoundrel, you should have your head torn off, be given the sack, that you’re exhibiting some utter trash…
And how do they mainly write, by the way? I don’t know if you have conducted any analysis – do people write from a religious or an aesthetic standpoint?
There is an analysis, of course. Because I am supposed to respond to the ministry to all these stacks. Mainly, non-religious, it’s an insult to animals, to a humane understanding of what animals are. And the second inevitable point: it all begins not with the animals, but with “I demand the cancellation!”. That “I demand the cancellation!”, “I demand a ban!”, “I demand the sacking!”
“I don’t want my children to…”
But children are there. There’s one place in Fabre that may genuinely be unpleasant for children to look at and there’s a sign saying 16+. Our administrators tell parents it’s better to avoid it.
But they still go in there?
They say: “No way. We are definitely going there. Don’t tell us what to do…” Incidentally, 16+ is only a recommendation.
Is there, or will there be, a catalogue for the exhibition?
There will be a catalogue. For Fabre we thought up a different type of catalogue. Since in this case a great deal is installed in the halls of the Hermitage, we set up the exhibition, photographed it all and now we’ll… By the way, this is not the first time that we will be producing a catalogue with installations. You want to suggest that we publish some of the letters in it, don’t you?
I won’t be the first, of course. It’s a suggestion for you from Echo of Petersburg, and from the comments book.
First of all, thank you for the suggestion. We will indeed do that and we will ask you to act as editor, to make the selection.
I’d be delighted.
In actual fact, without being funny, these are the voices of people. Not the voice of the people, but the voices of people. There is of course a portion that is simply verbatim copies, simply from the other side of the provocation, but there are people who are concerned, who don’t understand that… Well, there are different kinds of people. I know one person who looked at Fabre’s animals then went and took a dog home from a rescue shelter. That’s the sort of emotions it arouses. And rightly so, it should arouse normal emotions. We shall have to tell about that as well.
But an altercation with name-calling on both sides is not interesting.
And worst of all, nothing helps. Thank you. And now I also have a confession to make. As they used to say “I haven’t seen it, but I condemn it”. I haven’t been to the Fabre exhibition, but I neither condemn nor approve it. After what you’ve said, I am rushing off to see it.
Incidentally, one very important point. Fabre is Fabre, but we don’t stage one exhibition, westage many exhibitions. Today we are saying farewell to a very great painting, one of the top ten in the world – Vermeer’s Geographer. Not much got written about that, though. What’s there to write? Although it does have many fascinating mysteries to it. An incredibly interesting picture. And we have five more very diverse exhibitions, from “Surrealism in Catalonia” to the Salon painter Boldini, who really should appeal to everyone and I think does so. All those together are the Hermitage’s exhibitions and not just the one.