The dos and don’ts of the Russian art scene

Mark Hudson travels to St Petersburg to see how the nihilism of Bacon goes down in Russia

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

They’re doing fantastic deals on five-star hotels in St Petersburg the weekend the Francis Bacon exhibition opens at the Hermitage. With tensions between Russia and the west at their highest since the Cold War, ‘no one’, I’m told, wants to come here. No one, that is, except large numbers of elderly but well-heeled people from the Norwich area, many of them trustees and friends of the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts — co-organisers of the exhibition — who have flown out here for the gala opening.

If 2014’s UK-Russia Year of Culture passed virtually unnoticed for political reasons, the western visitor won’t experience the slightest sense of tension on the placid streets of St Petersburg. Bacon, meanwhile, may not be the easiest of British artists to sell here, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Ukraine situation or even his status as an avowedly homosexual artist in a country where gay people face discrimination at every level of society. Where generally the bleakness and ‘power’ of Bacon’s nihilistic vision are seen as universal, those very qualities may make him problematic in Russia.

Two years ago, while reviewing the opening of the Hermitage’s new modern wing, housed in the vast General Staff Building, I observed that one of the principal exhibits, ‘Hell’ by British contemporary art ‘bad boys’ the Chapman brothers, comprising large vitrines stuffed with miniature Nazis and skeletons doing unspeakable things to each other, might not go down well in a city that saw actual Nazi abominations within living memory. If that reflection felt pious even as I was writing it, I’m learning now that it was bang on the money.

I’m sitting in a restaurant in an area of the city in which, apparently, every doorway is described in Crime and Punishment, with the leading St Petersburg artist Sergey Bugaev, known as ‘Afrika’, who is telling me that, exactly as I predicted, the Chapman brothers’ work was not well received and that Bacon may fail to find a mass audience for similar reasons.

‘I like Bacon, of course,’ says Afrika. ‘I embrace all forms of human perversity. But old ladies…?’ He sucks in his breath. While the Chapman brothers have made a point of stating that they are uninterested in the opinions of old ladies, their Russian counterparts clearly feel differently. But then little in art here is quite what you’d expect. Afrika, an influential, even notorious figure in the so-called Leningrad Avant-Garde, which turned Russian art upside-down in the Perestroika era, has recently made himself unpopular with the Russian art establishment, not by opposing Putin, but by publicly supporting him. Yet amid these cultural shifting sands, there’s one thing you don’t mess with, no matter what your other opinions: the siege of Leningrad of 1941–44 in which 600,000 to a million people died — an event that still looms over the consciousness of the city. In that light, Bacon’s casual, ambivalent deployment of Nazi iconography cannot seem casual, and his eroticisation of degradation is unlikely to seem as alluring here as it does from the perspective of comfy Britain.

In fact, the brutality of the Russian past makes an appearance early in the exhibition, which puts 13 Bacons from the Sainsbury Collection, and choice works by the artist from elsewhere in Britain, into conversation with historical masterpieces from the Hermitage collection. In a scrawled note in a catalogue from an earlier Russian exhibition, Bacon acknowledges that he was ‘very much helped towards painting’ by Eisenstein’s revolutionary films Strike and Battleship Potemkin. Bacon famously transposed the agonised features of the woman shot in the eye in Battleship Potemkin on to Velázquez’s ‘Portrait of Pope Innocent X’, creating one of the most startling juxtapositions in 20th-century art. He went on to explore this piece of painterly collage in a series of harrowing paintings that helped establish him as a major figure in the Fifties, though he later declared them ‘silly’ and claimed he wished he’d never done them.

This pivotal series is represented here by one of the less screamy and, it might be argued, less schlocky popes from Aberdeen Art Gallery, placed across the room from a smaller version of the Velázquez from London’s Apsley House.

If the Sainsbury Bacons are a relatively slight bunch of works, which hardly convey the artist’s full power, they’re cleverly deployed with the other borrowings and Hermitage works to create a satisfying show that sets off unlikely associations. Sculpture, which might not seem obviously relevant to Bacon, is well used. The rippling back muscles of Michelangelo’s ‘Crouching Boy’ echo the postures in Bacon’s tortuous ‘Two Figures in a Room’, its polished marble contrasting with Bacon’s flayed and brutalised flesh.

If the popes and Bacon’s dark and furious ‘Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne’ from the Tate make two Hermitage Rembrandts appear a touch soft-centred, the sheer force of Cézanne’s self-portrait with cap highlights a thin and mannered quality in Bacon’s own self-portrait. The grotesquely truncated figures in Bacon’s 1970 triptych ‘Studies from the Human Body’ show how stylised and repetitive he became later in his career, certainly when seen in proximity to Matisse’s raw ‘Nymph and Satyr’ from 1908.

In the catalogue, veteran Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky recalls that when another Bacon triptych was exhibited at the Hermitage ‘many years ago …people did not, contrary to my expectations, flock to come and see it’.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

‘Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past’ is at the State Hermitage Museum until 8 March and at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, from 18 April–26 July.

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Show comments
  • As a civilization, we can do much better than Francis Bacon. Why he gets the time of day, I have no idea.

    • ItinerantView

      He’s a brilliant painter and I say that as a painter of 30 years, not to everyone’s taste I admit but you’re probably right, you have no idea.
      Just out of curiosity, how many Bacon paintings have you seen on the flesh ?

      • You mean people wear ’em?

        • ItinerantView


      • Georgiana Holmes

        Only savages place brutality above beauty.

        • ItinerantView

          Which in art is entirely subjective, who said it had be beautiful anyway?
          For example some of Michelangelo’s prisoner or slave sculptures are brutal but also exquisite at the same time.

          • Georgiana Holmes

            Beauty is not subjective. The Western Tradition has its aesthetic rules and it is the duty of the artist to defer to these rules. Michelangelo did this. Bacon did not. Hence Michelangelo always created beautiful things and Bacon always created ugly things. If you want to be part of the cult of ugliness, then fine. Have your thirty pieces of silver.

          • ItinerantView

            “The Western Tradition has its aesthetic rules”
            please remind me of what these are? because the ‘Western tradition’ to me has been about breaking rules, otherwise there would have been no development apart from a twee, academic prescribed set of rules, that would only inhibit artistic license and experimentation.

          • Georgiana Holmes

            You have made a fetish of novelty. The work of the Western Artist is rooted in the careful observation of nature and often supplemented by a reverence for the Divine. Without careful observation as a starting point, there is no room for ‘artistic license [sic] and experimentation’.

          • ItinerantView

            Unlike the current head of D&P at the RA, I can actually draw and paint, having trained in the classical tradition, I also realise Duchamp knew he was destroying that tradition in 1913.
            I do not make a fetish of novelty, I think our current sellers of stains and pickles are dire but without experimentation there is only stasis and state prescribed acceptable art or unacceptable degenerates.

            Free speech is being slowly throttled in the West, it is not a time to paint beautiful paintings to hang on rich peoples’ walls, it is a time to stand up and be counted, beauty has little to do with it, although that doesn’t mean the work can’t be both.
            I’m still waiting to hear what are the “aesthetic rules” of the Western tradition.

          • Guest


    • ItinerantView

      Noted you’ve disappeared below because apparently, you can’t qualify your own statements.
      p.s you have forgotten to delete your original comment so your moniker- amandastarspangled is still visible.

      • I don’t have to qualify my statements. I don’t like F. Bacon as a painter. There are plenty of other painters to like so it’s not a problem.

        • ItinerantView

          I have no problem with personal taste, as I said art appreciation and definitions of beauty are subjective, yet you disagreed and stated: “Beauty is not subjective. The Western Tradition has its aesthetic rules and it is the duty of the artist to defer to these rules” but declined to say what these rules are, other than vague waffling about studies of nature and the divine.
          You then accused me of being a Judas for some unfathomable reason.
          I think you don’t really know what art is and the restricted parameters you seem to set for what qualifies as art, are those of a prudish naif.

          • Oh, rubbish!

          • ItinerantView

            Good at making sweeping statements, not so good when it comes to backing them up with cogent argument.
            Oh rubbish to you.

          • If you want an argument, you’ll have to find me on another thread on a subject I’m interested in.

    • Simon Fay

      Being based in Soho probably helps, along with bumming a would-be burglar and having a pinched little face well suited to making pronouncements like “Man is an accident” whilst holding court at the Foul-Mouthed Old Pseud bar. But yes, well-crafted horror and despair goes down well with the Islington Arts Council.

  • MacGuffin

    ”Two years ago, while reviewing the opening of the Hermitage’s new modern
    wing, housed in the vast General Staff Building, I observed that one of
    the principle exhibits…”

    A ‘principle exhibit’? Ugh. I stopped reading at that point.