It has been home to tsars and one of the finest art collections on Earth. Now with a new wing slowly opening to the public, the Hermitage in St Petersburg is inching its way into contemporary art, a controversial world in a country regularly accused of censorship.
With four exhibits going on show over the past two months, the museum’s new wing, inside a building that once housed the tsarist-era finance ministry, has moved one step closer to its official opening – 2014, when the Hermitage will celebrate its 250-year anniversary.
The renovated general staff building, which faces the Hermitage’s famed baroque facade, is to be entirely devoted to modern and contemporary art. “We want it to be done so that this art is found to be on the same level as the ‘old collection’,” said Dmitry Ozerkov, the director of the museum’s contemporary art department. “We want to create a dialogue between old and new.”
A glass ceiling creates an atrium out of the building’s former courtyard. The works of Dmitry Prigov, a dissident in the Soviet era and a critic of the Russian authorities until his death in 2007, now line three rooms, one of which will turn into the wing’s first permanent exhibit.
Downstairs, hundreds of figurines, some dressed in Nazi uniforms, many depicting scenes of violence and suffering, fill nine raised glass cases. Jake and Dinos Chapman‘s End of Fun has caused controversy in a country where depictions of Nazism are often seen as an affront to Russia‘s efforts during the second world war.
“I didn’t believe this was possible in Russia,” said Kostya Mitenev, a St Petersburg artist who attended the show’s opening late last month. “They are breaking taboos. I’m sure if they [the Chapmans] were Russian, not one gallery would show them.”
Accusations of censorship have long haunted Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Exhibits are regularly shut, particularly when they are seen as offending the country’s powerful Orthodox church, whose head is a close ally of the president.
Last month, an exhibit called Icons, which featured religious symbols, was cancelled in St Petersburg. The city authorities requested it be put off, said its curator, Marat Guelman, accusing the government of censorship. Another exhibit he curated in Moscow, devoted to the punk band Pussy Riot, was attacked by Orthodox activists. In 2007, a photograph of two policemen kissing by the art duo Blue Noses was banned from leaving the country for an exhibition of Russian works in Paris.
Yet the relationship between the state and art remains complicated. In 2010, the radical performance art group Voina was awarded an innovation prize by the ministry of culture for painting a massive phallus on a drawbridge across from the St Petersburg HQ of the FSB, Russia’s security services. Several members of Voina went on to form Pussy Riot, two of whom are now serving two-year jail sentences for hooliganism after performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow church.
“Pussy Riot has no relationship to art … to modern art, to old art, to any art,” Russia’s culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, said during a recent press conference. “They are sitting in jail not as artists, but as hooligans. There is no censorship in the country in any form.”
Ozerkov also bemoaned the politicisation of art in Russia, saying: “We’ve spent 10 years catching up with what happened before – artists were often left to shout ‘We’re here, notice us!'”
Pointing to an acclaimed exhibition of contemporary Russian art at the Saatchi gallery in London, he added: “Now there are signs we are reaching a new level.”