Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Protest and art

I walked by the Dissenters' March today. Apparently, in Moscow the police beat up and arrested a bunch of people. In St. Petersburg, they arrested a bunch of people as well, but on a smaller scale. What I saw from across the wide Nevsky prospect was a group of 300 or so people (including some parents with young children) hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the shopping center Gostiny Dvor, surrounded by the busloads of policemen. I hung about for a few minutes -- there were lots of onlookers from across the street, including traffic cops and a man with government tags on the windshield of his car -- he was on the phone, perhaps giving orders. A fire engine arrived and parked right next to the protesters. The firemen in full gear unraveled the hose and stood by waiting for the word from the top to unleash the water. I'm not sure what happened next, but according to the reports online, it seems nothing much happened in St. Petersburg except some of the protesters were arrested by the special police. A breakaway protest started nearby, in the square in front of the Winter Palace (that houses the Hermitage), a few dozen of people walked around a commemorative column and chanted slogans. Many of them were arrested as well.

The organizers of the March have promised to gather protests on a 31st of every month that has 31 days. And if Putin has his way, they'll keep getting beaten each time: he said so himself. Here's a Yahoo News article on the matter that translates his quote this way: "You will be beaten upside the head with a truncheon. And that's it." Fun stuff.

I walked by the protest by accident. My friend Polina and I had gone to see the Picasso exhibit at the Hermitage, and I was on my way to meet my parents at their office. The Hermitage owns a few Picassos (I remember the early works, a mandolin and a guitar), but the exhibit was a very special opportunity to see Picasso en masse: an exposition of 280 works from all periods, including sculpture and photographs. It came from the Picasso museum in Paris that is currently being renovated, and was displayed in the main ceremonial halls of the Winter Palace, in the spacious halls around the emperor's throne. Unfortunately, the halls seem to have the same infrastructure as during the emperor's times -- there's no air conditioning or air circulation of any kind. It was hot and stuffy -- and huge crowds of tourists didn't help. I spotted one museum attendant who was fanning herself with an old-fashioned ladies' fan, and asked her what it was like when the temperature in the city climbed to record-breaking heights for three weeks in a row, over 100F.

"Awful," she said. "Just awful. Many of us were having heart problems, and stayed home. The crowds were enormous, and we barely survived the experience."

"I'm sure the heat is damaging the art as well," I said thoughtlessly.

"Art! Everyone cares about art, not about the people who work here!" She pointed out the tactlessness of my statement -- I had spoken from the point of view of a tourist, who associates museums only with the art and not with the people who work there. I rushed to correct my mistake.

"You're right, it must've been much harder on people," I said. "Did anyone get a heat stroke?"

"Mostly people stayed home, they took sick leaves. But," and she came closer to me and lowered her voice to a whisper, "one woman died. One of the cleaning staff."

"From the heat?"

"Yes, this summer."

This was grave news, and I wanted to know more details about the incident, but the attendant went on to talk about what was on her mind. "Art!" she scoffed. "This is not art," she said referring to the Picassos hanging all about the large hall, "this is a bunch of smears."

"You're not a fan?"

"We send abroad good paintings, real art, and they send us this!"

Picasso, it seems, is still challenging and very controversial with many of the locals. Later, Polina and I found a guest book and read some of the notes that previous visitors had left there. By and large, they were very positive, expressions of gratitude and excitement at the opportunity to see so much of Picasso at once. But here and there, people wrote: "This is degenerate art! Picasso should've been examined by the psychiatrists. He's mental" or "Your museum is criminal for bringing this rubbish into the country, the only country where there still remains a tradition of good, realist art." And of course a bunch of curses, variations on "Picasso sucks."

Polina and I enjoyed the exhibit immensely, even though the flow of traffic was not very well marked, and we had to walk six times through one hall and climb several sets of stairs to find all the parts of the exhibit. It was very interesting to see how wildly experimental Picasso's art was from the early 1900 until the mid 1930s, and how in the later years he moved towards minimalism and abstraction. Polina made a fascinating discovery: she pointed to a painting of a vase and a plate with two apples perched on top of the vase, and said: "Later, he would've called this 'Portrait of a woman'." Indeed, every later abstract painting of a woman featured two round balls of various colors, and usually a vase-shaped curve somewhere on the canvas. So do his sculptures. I, a Salinger fan, was on the lookout for the paintings from Picasso's Blue period, but saw only one in one of the far galleries: a painting of an old woman (Celeste?) with one blind eye. I spend a good amount of time in front of it. I wondered if the museum attendant from earlier had seen this painting -- if she thought this, too, was a bunch of smears. That conversation bothered me deeply -- the woman's fierce anger at Picasso in combination with her story about another woman dying from the heat at the museum bother me still. And somehow these experiences are connected with the Dissenters' March I saw later in the day, but I am not sure how yet. To figure this out, I must transform these experiences into fiction.


  1. Hi Olga! I enjoyed this post, and also look forward to reading/ hearing this experience transformed into fiction... perhaps at writers group in the near future? '-)

    RE Picasso - saw a very complete, chronologically curated group of works at the Picasso Museum in Paris a few years ago and what I came away with was this: Picasso was a satyr. Yes! So much sex, sexuality, libido, and general lust for life. Now I can't help thinking of him as a satyr-artist-genius whenever I see even a terrible postcard reproduction. /Jen

  2. Great post OZ. Your wish to know the connection inspired me to write!

    I was most moved by the guest book entry at the Hermitage, declaring Russia as home to "realist art," which to me echoed back to the words of the woman you met there, saying the Hermitage sends "real art" abroad.

    I'm not going to go the Social Realism route ; ] , but it seems to me there may a connection around perceptions of "real"-ness. Quite clearly, what is being protested outside is both real and not popular w/state powers. The woman dying due to the summer heat, and perhaps even her work conditions, is also very real, yet her story needed to be whispered. Maybe the museum staff is encouraged to be seen and not heard? And then there's the art itself. Picasso's content is all real, his form is something else entirely (oh, Olga, I can't help but talk about it in literary language!). I'm also thinking of his battle of wills w/Franco from the 1930s through the rest of their lives. But I feel Picasso's goal was often to challenge, not reflect, reality. To force the viewer to critically engage with the work and maybe even the content. And herein lies the rub with the public. If one is not encouraged, taught, told, asked to critically analyze - anything - then maybe one gets sluggish, and it just becomes easier to prefer "reflections" of what one considers reality (consider conservative talk radio in the US). The closer art is to one's version of realness, or maybe just to one's comfort zone, the better it is regarded (or at least it is not made of "smears"). I do understand that some people genuinely do not like modern art. Yet, like I tell students, it's OK to not like something, as long as you can explain what about it you do not like. They find that this usually requires critical thought.

    After reading the yahoo article you mentioned, another connection may be Article 31 itself. You witnessed "illegal" assembly outside, and a legal assembly (of sorts) in the museum. A very little research informs me that the exhibit you visited was held "under the auspices of Pres. Medvedev and Pres. Sarkozy," something having to do w/ Year of Russia in France, Year of France in Russia. Not sure if you'd noticed the fetes in Russia?... but my point is that this widely-visited exhibit has a state blessing, so to speak, yet from your issues as a visitor and the woman's issues as a worker, it is still not quite well done. For this woman, criticism of the state is not an option, the artist becomes the scapegoat. Hmm, Olga, after seeing all that I've written, maybe art is the connection? you said yourself that you need to write on this...

    Have you gotten a chance to follow up on this idea yet? Can't wait!