You didn't come from the "inner circle". How did you manage to take on the mantle of director of the Pushkin Museum?
I have never taken on a mantle, really. Recently, as part of the policy of openness I have been pursuing since I arrived, I handed over the keys of my office to the artist Alexander Brodsky. He created an installation (see photo), a genuine work of art, conveying the powerful message that my personality is separate from that of director of the Pushkin Museum.
What roadmap did you set yourself when you arrived?
Far from wanting to change the image of the Pushkin Museum, I wanted it to be more in phase with today's world. In fact, it's only a matter of getting back to its roots. For me, the museum needs to take really bold steps when society isn't ready to do that, so as to create surprise and start trends – to be truly daring. In 1956, three years after the death of Stalin, when Soviet society was ultra-conservative, the Pushkin Museum staged the first Picasso exhibition. Later on, in 1979, with "Moscow-Paris", audiences also discovered that the Russian avant-garde was part of the Pushkin Museum's identity. When I started my job, I felt it was obvious that we should follow this path and show what nobody else dared to show. The history of this museum involves taking risks. So it needed to become even more welcoming and open to the world, and to bring contemporary art into the picture.
Did this involve redeploying the collections? Which works came out of the reserves?
I wanted to show works whose history is intrinsically linked with a thorny subject for Russian society: the art brought back from Germany after the war. I felt it was crucial to show it to the public and researchers. We are now exhibiting these pieces and publishing our research on them, and we have set up dialogues with European researchers around these works, which have been shut away for decades.
In the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, these collections have been brought together in four rooms.
In Moscow, of course, we have the room dedicated to Priam's treasure, discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, but I've decided to incorporate the rest of the objects into the museum's permanent collections, while systematically indicating their provenances in the notices. You talk about those rooms at the Hermitage, but there are lot more works in the museum’s reserves.
Neville Rowley, the French curator of the Bode Museum, recently published a long article on the Donatello sculptures held in Berlin before the Second World War, which we know are now in your museum. He particularly emphasised the joint work carried out by both your institutions.
The Donatello was well-known: it had been published in the Bode Museum catalogues. It came to us in little pieces after the war. When the city of Berlin was virtually handed over to the Russians, these works were housed in a tower, and the Germans blew up these reserves. Over many, many years, our restorers have reunited all the fragments and restored them. Our museum now has a website which tells the whole story and describes all the work carried out by our teams. When the Bode Museum curators came to Moscow, they liked this site so much that they took it as a model. This Donatello really brought us together, and we now have an almost fraternal relationship. It's dazzling proof that you can't shut pieces away in reserves and keep them from the public and researchers. We need to collaborate, even if some subjects are highly delicate. I'm really convinced about this, and from time to time I take further steps to open more doors and enable our audiences to discover art that isn't yet known in Russia.
The Pushkin Museum has adopted an extremely generous loan policy, as we saw with "Icons of Modern Art. The Shchukin collection" at the Vuitton Foundation two years ago. In June, you are presenting your own Shchukin exhibition. How will that differ from the other one?
We loaned sixty-five works to Vuitton. The aim of the curator, Anne Baldassari, was to astound French audiences by making them aware that a lot of great masterpieces were held outside France. In Moscow, these collections are very well-known, because Russians have grown up with them. So, we can only impress audiences there through the way we approach our subject. The subtitle will be "A profile of Sergei Shchukin." We'll try to give an idea of the collector's existential vision, mind and character through the pieces on show.
What lay behind the current Paris exhibition at the Fondation Custodia, "The Pushkin Museum. Five hundred years of master drawings"?
Our graphic art collection represents half our collections in terms of works. They are very important to Russian audiences, and intrinsic to our museum's image. The idea arose from a meeting between Hervé Aaron and Louis de Bayser, the two presidents of the Salon du Dessin (see page 84). I invited them to come and see our collections and they spent seven or eight hours in the reserves talking with the curators. They felt the Fondation Custodia was a must. I'm ashamed to say I had never visited it. Both of them talked at great length about Ger Luijtenn, whom I went to see in Paris, and admire considerably. I wanted to exhibit our collections in a venue for specialists and connoisseurs.
To return to Russian audiences, which French collections would you like to present to them?
We have some rich opportunities. Our closest relations with foreign colleagues are those we have maintained with French curators. Apart from our agreement over the Sutin exhibition and a collaboration with the Musée de l’Orangerie, we also have strong ties with Bernard Blistène, director of the Centre Pompidou. Each year we propose at least two shows dedicated to French art, on which we work with our partners. For instance, it is very important to show post-war French art, too-little known in Russia. We need to fill this gap. This year, in fact, we will be showing an exhibition with a lot of French abstract works.
You are a specialist in avant-gardes, not the Modern period embodying the core of the Pushkin Museum collections. Is that an asset, in fact?
Yes, of course. I'm not a specialist in the 17th and 18th centuries, but at heart, and professionally speaking, I'm an exhibition curator so I always think about the audiences. I don't think you need to be a specialist to be a creative personality. I'm good at generating ideas, and I feel that's crucial in my profession. The Pushkin is a universal museum. One of the most largest collections, apart from the Impressionists, is the one of Egyptian art, and generally speaking, Ancient Eastern art is important too. With other areas, we call upon foreign partners. For example, we have a large number of Japanese engravings, but as we want to show the very best of Japanese art in Russia, we work a great deal in that direction with Japanese museums.
You took over from a woman, but when you were appointed was that par for the course?
In Russia, yes! Most museum directors are women. There's no question about it. Actually, I don't think it's necessarily a positive thing. It'd be good if a few men also began running these institutions. To have a male presence in this feminine collective would be very constructive.