"On the whole the quality of the museum’s collection insulates us from a political controversy"

By Anna Savitskaya - Sunday, April 3, 2016
"On the whole the quality of the museum’s collection insulates us from a political controversy"

The Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art has come a long and interesting way of formation and self-determination since its opening in 1922 as Kyiv Art Gallery and continues to delight visitors with the collection’s masterpieces upto present time. The museum carries out its main purpose - the preservation, multiplication, and exposure of the Slavic cultural heritage. Iurii Vakulenko, general director of the Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art, heading it since 2004, talks with Artdependence Magazine about building the collection, the difficulties the museum has been facing over the years, future plans, information technologies and personal preferences in the collection.

"On the whole the quality of the museum’s collection insulates us from a political controversy"

"On the whole the quality of the museum’s collection insulates us from a political controversy," - an interview with the general director of the Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art Iurii Vakulenko

The Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art has come a long and interesting way of formation and self-determination since its opening in 1922 as Kyiv Art Gallery and continues to delight visitors with the collection’s masterpieces upto present time. The museum carries out its main purpose - the preservation, multiplication, and exposure of the Slavic cultural heritage. It is noteworthy that at the moment Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art can be proud of possessing the third-largest collection of Russian art in the former Soviet Union. Iurii Vakulenko, general director of the Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art, heading it since 2004, talks with Artdependence Magazine about building the collection, the difficulties the museum has been facing over the years, future plans, information technologies and personal preferences in the collection.

Artdependence Magazine: Iurii, tell us a bit about yourself. What did you do before you headed Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art?

Iurii Vakulenko: In fact, I consider myself lucky, I have always been working in the world of arts. I graduated from the Baku School of Arts, where I studied painting. After serving in the army I entered the restoration department at the Kyiv State Art Institute, now it's Naomi (National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture). As an art-restorer  I immediately started working at the Kyiv-Pechersk Reserve (National Kyiv-Pechersk Historical and Cultural Reserve - the largest museum complex of Ukraine, located on the Territory of the Upper Lavra) first as a restorer, then as a head of the restoration department and later as a director of the restoration center. After having spent 18 years working in the Lavra, in 2004 I was appointed Director of the Museum.

AD: The museum has a wonderful collection of works of such masters of classical art as Shishkin, Vrubel, Repin, Vereshchagin, Vasnetsov. What kind of works in the museum's collection you would like to highlight specifically? Perhaps, there are some hidden treasures, of which just a few people know?

IV: Of course, we do not have any hidden treasures. The Museum possesses more than 14 thousand units, among which there are works of Slavic culture of world importance, which we are very proud of. These, of course, include the 5 most famous paintings by Shishkin. It’s impossible to find the works by Shishkin of same importance even in the Tretyakov Gallery or the Russian Museum. Other museums don’t have such masterpieces at all. Experts consider the existence of three most representative collections of Russian art on the territory of the former Soviet Union, and our collection is the third one after the one at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. But in the Tretyakov Gallery, for example, there is only one work of Shishkin of such importance. It is difficult to say about the Russian Museum since it also has his important works, but still, each artist has paintings, which he is known for as a genius. Of the dozen existing works painted by Shishkin five masterpieces are in our collection.

Mikhail Vrubel, "Girl against a Persian carpet background” (1886)

We have an extremely interesting collection of Mikhail Vrubel. The period of his stay in Kyiv was filled with deep emotions and in many ways has become defining for him. I believe that his work "Girl against a Persian carpet background” (1886) from our collection - a kind of Ukrainian Gioconda. Initially, this work was called "Tatar girl", though, in fact, the girl was a Jew. It’s Maria Dakhnovich, the daughter of the owner of a pawn shop, which was on Fundukleyev street, which Vrubel loved to visit studying there different gems, oriental ornaments, carpets. In our museum there is a considerable collection of works by Vrubel. His most well-known and large-scale works are in the collections of the Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum. However we have a lot of his sketches, works that show the creative process of an artist becoming a genius. Well, "Girl against a Persian carpet background " - is, in fact, his first complete work, in which he expressed his technical and stylistic method of dividing the space into precious planes. His Moscow period happened later, and all his further important works were a consequence of the Kyiv period. And, of course, the love that he had experienced in Kyiv, was his happiness and tragedy at the same time.

In addition to the works of Mikhail Vrubel museum has a lot of unique, interesting things, such as a great important work of Viktor Vasnetsov "Three princess of the Underworld", which in many ways determined his future oeuvre. There are 2 versions of this work. Version of 1881, which is located in the State Tretyakov Gallery, and the version of 1884, which is in the collection of our museum. With this work we have been involved in a large project in Groningen, in the Netherlands, "Fairy Tale in Russian art" together with the Russian Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery. We were persuaded to show this work and, of course, it was one of the best at the exhibition, despite the participation of the leading museums that showed the work of its most famous artists. We have many masterpieces we can be proud of.

Valentin Serov, "Portrait of E.A.Krasilschikova" (1906)

AD: Personally, what are your favorite and precious works? Or you love them all, like your own children?

IV: I would, of course, not divide them into favorite and least favorite ones, but on the  internal lever there are two works I always feel special about. It is Mikhail Vrubel’s "Girl against a Persian carpet background", a unique piece, which means a lot to me, and "Portrait of E.A.Krasilschikovoy" by Valentin Serov, created in 1906. When I look at these works, I always feel their strong energy. Serov, of course, is one of the most mysterious and fantastic painter, an interesting personality in life and in creative field. Shishkin - is also interesting, but he is less responsive to me. For me personally, he has less of a Slavic soul than the two I named. He is a graduate of the Düsseldorf Academy, his work is characterized first of all by German pedantry.  Of course, his paintings are interesting and unusual. But in general, I have much stronger connection on the mental level with the works of Vrubel and Serov. Partly because these preferences were formed from my early student days, when things are not perceived as a cold abstraction, but with your heart and soul, when you get connected with the work itself, its symbols, colors. I also think that Vrubel had a great influence on my work as well (Iurii Vakulenko is an artist himself). When you are connected with an artist, even if he is no longer alive, on some cosmic level, through the symbolism of his work, you feel his living energy. And sometimes you admire technically perfect, refined things, but you do not get charged with their energy.

AD: How the Museum’s collection was built?

IV: The collection was built on a systematic basis. Initially, the entire museum system was as a single museum in Ukraine, and, in particular, in Kiev. Then, with time, each museum has started to develop in it’s own direction and, as a result of this development, separate collections began to stand out. The idea of ​​creating the collection of Russian art was first voiced in 1922. At that time the museum was still called the Kiev National Art Gallery, and included different art movements, such as western and eastern. The museum collection was formed for its most part in 1933-34, and turned into a real monocollection of Russian art. Initially it consisted of works that were available to the museum from private sources, some works were nationalized, some came to us as part of inter-museum exchanges. We also got many pieces from Russian museums, as well as  our works were sent there, some were purchased. As a museum we received gifts, including very large ones. So, our collection has grown upto 14 thousand units. We cannot claim ourselves to be a super-big museum, but the quality of our collection is truly unique.

Ilya Repin, “Ukrainian hut” (1880)

AD: What are the main difficulties, which the museum faces at the moment?

IV: We are experiencing the same problems as others do. They can make a long list - from financing to weather conditions. The legislation is not perfect enough, which also hinders our development in many ways. It is also a human factor and the necessity of its training. It goes without saying that the museum is a conservative organization, and any technology that can be applied to it, must first be tested by time. Unfortunately, culture is financed on leftovers, and, nothing can be done in respect of this ... but this is not the main problem. The problem of today, is a new information field, which surrounds us everywhere and causes decrease in public interest in authentic things, including museums and its artefacts. I would say, that in general interest in museums decreased considerably in the whole world, however we try to keep our standards, but given the fact that the general cultural level and education level of people increases, that makes us stay alive. But I can’t name it progress, it is holding the standards at the level of the status quo for us. The effect of this grey and dirty information field provides us with momentary current information, which does not give us an opportunity to properly prioritize the real, true things. A museum, in view of the fact that it holds artefacts, refers to unique true thing.  Like the rest of the world, we are now experiencing "system of disposable plastic cups," so the modern flow of replicated information makes our receptors immune, and we cease to distinguish between real values. This, of course, reduces the attendance rating, "consumability" of a museum. "The museum production" - is also a kind of commodity subject to marketing technology, which, however, does not  really work full force now. But we try to keep pace, we are working in this direction, and also trying to attract visitors. With all the respect to our collection, I'm not trying to shift the museum in the direction of a farce or kind of a show. Some museums, in my opinion, are known for this sin. It is necessary to maintain a certain museum aristocracy, because eventually it will still show its value. Permissiveness - this is not the way out and neither the purpose. That is why I look at many technologies that come to us from Europe rather cool-headed. They have to prove themselves for us. Museum nights, selfies in museums and other innovations – these are all technologies, which bring us closer to today's information field and we start to replicate ourselves, loosing our identity. There should always be place for a healthy compromise.

AD: Did the tension between Ukraine and Russia influence the museum’s activities?

IV: On the whole the quality of the museum’s collection insulates us from a political controversy.  The name of the Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art - it's more about a brand. We have built and preserved the our common Slavic heritage, and it’s neither Russian nor Ukrainian nor Belarusian. Our collection is above it. In fact, Shishkin - is Shishkin and Vrubel – is Vrubel. Ant not because this is Ukraine and this is Russia, the controversy we have now between Ukraine and Russia has nothing to do to the genius of the artist. Our museum is well visited not because we have a good or bad relationship with anybody. The collection we posses, is being perceived by the public on an intuitive level. Frankly, we are not talking about any ideology or geography or nationality. There are real, immutable values, which, unfortunately, are now carried away by sticky informational streams. And permanent "spiritual anchors" are located in the museum. When you come there, you will always see Vrubel’s work. The museum is a constant and true value, ​​that never changes, regardless of how artists are changing, times, ideology. There is human moral, which has been developing over thousands of years and is time-tested, and the arts - is a reflection of this morality with its specific precepts.

Ivan Shishkin, “In the wild north” (1891)

AD: In the most favorable conditions, which exhibition you would like to show in your museum to the Ukrainian audience? And on the contrary, what would you like to show from the museum’s collection abroad in the first place? 

IV: For me, the ideal exhibition - it is our exposition. I will not say that we have 14 thousand masterpieces, it is clear that this is not so, but now we are able to show only about a thousand works. Plus, during the temporary exhibitions we add up to a thousand and a half thousand during a year. In reality, even to add four thousand, that is, to bring exposition up to five thousand units  would be ideal for us to complete the exhibition. Firstly, the Soviet period is very poorly presented in the museum, and from this period we have very meaningful works. When I talk about the Soviet period I mean the art from all the countries of the former USSR. We have a lot of things that are stylistically diverse, and in terms of content they are completely self-sufficient. For example, we have a famous work of Boris Johanson "Rabfak goes" (1928). I remember the image of this work from my childhood, since it was included in the history textbook or "Green noise"  (1904) by Arcady Rylov, which was in the Literature textbook. We got used to these works in our childhood and seeing them now is very exciting.

So, ideally, what we would like to have - is a five-fold increase of our exposition opportunities to be able to show all our museum can be truly be proud of. 

AD: Is there a theme or author, you would like to show at the museum? Combining with the museum’s collection or showing separately? 

IV: You know, in this sense, I am a chauvinist. I believe that we have so much of our own that could be shown! You can, of course, bring Mona Lisa and show it next to "Girl against a Persian carpet background". And these two paintings will be completely self-contained. It is not even evident who will like what. Of course, I would like to show Vrubel’s art work from the Moscow collections. Surely, there fantastic works ther such as "Lilac" (1900), "Pan" (1899), "Demon" (1890).

The Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art The Kyiv National Museum of Russian Art

AD: And what would you like to show abroad?

IV: As practice shows, it is always better to make a group exhibition, a selection of artists of a certain epoch. I would prefer a group exhibition with some outstanding works from our collection over a theme exhibition, for example, dedicated to landscape or portrait, or to a concept like a fairy tale, or to a certain period, like romanticism. In this way we are building the exhibition at out museum. We cover the time period from the 13th century and up to the 21st century. Our permanent exhibition includes the most significant works, which development over time is interesting to trace. When the work is taken out of context the viewer loses this link with its history and place in time. It is interesting to show the self-sufficiency of our works in the museum collection, and their timeless relationship. The icon of the 13th century "Boris and Gleb" and works by Vrubel, for example "Prayer of the Chalice" (1887) - are exactly same sacred things, no matter how many centuries lay between them. These symbols affected people living in the 13th century the same way they do now. That is why it is interesting to convey this phenomenon to the viewer – how these symbols came to us through the centuries.

AD: What do you think about contemporary art? What are your preferences, if any, and who are your favorite artists?

IV: As a contemporary artist myself, I have a very positive attitude to contemporary art. I live in it and feel it. And this, of course, helps me a lot to deal with museum practice. As an artist and a restorer, I always try to associate myself with the work of any time, but not on the ideological or stylistic level, but on the material and a deeply personal level. Thanks to my background I can feel the material the object is made of, how is was modified and how it is organically welded from the inside. The relationship of the material elements creates a symbolic link. The interaction of the canvas, paints, the order of application, texture, pattern - all results in the symbolism. And this construction of things is different each time. It is interesting to observe in the works of different periods, when art begins to deny the material part, in an attempt to create something new, eventually comes back to square one. As a restorer I can assure you that some ideal forms always come back. Damien Hirst can create his stuffed cows, sharks and so on as much as he wants, but everything sooner or later goes back to the traditional painting. Through the experiment, it still returns to the roots and truths.

I personally very much like expressionism, and for me any work - is a dialogue with the absolute, and the absolute is a white canvas. I like the artists, whose works excite me in the sense that when looking at them, I want to create myself, to produce something new. I had a period since 1999, when over 9 years I did not take a brush in hand. In 2008 I had an enlightenment, which made it clear for me, that if God gave me the gift of creation, it’s a sin not to use it. And I am very grateful that this providence brought me back to the fold called art.

AD: What was a reason of your enlightenment?

IV: Love!

Image above: Portrait of Iurii Vakulenko

Anna is a graduate of Moscow’s Photo Academy, with a previous background in intellectual property rights. In 2012 she founded the company Perspectiva Art, dealing in art consultancy, curatorship, and the coordination of exhibitions. During the bilateral year between Russia and The Netherlands in 2013, Perspectiva Art organized a tour for a Dutch artist across Russia, as well as putting together several exhibitions in the Netherlands, curated by Anna. Since October 2014, Anna has taken an active role in the development and management of ArtDependence Magazine. Anna interviews curators and artists, in addition to reviewing books and events, and collaborating with museums and art fairs.

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