John Harrison

If you are in Saint Petersburg and you are into art, you will probably head for the Russian Museum, obviously the Hermitage, and other world-renowned centres of Art. That’s what you do when you are in the northern capital. But you should consider adding to your art-feed shopping list the Erarta Museum of Contemporary Art on Vasilevski island.

Russian Gothic. Ol and acrylics, 50×80, Denis Evseyeva
Old Man’s Nightmare. 2014. Oil on hardboard. 80×100 cm. Denis Mezentsev
Self Portrait. Oil on canvas, Masha Tregubenko.

The exhibition experience starts when you are buying a ticket. Used to being ripped off in Moscow when foreigners used to be asked to pay double the entrance fee for museums because they were foreigners, I was on my guard when asked to pay 600 roubles for entrance. But no, they didn’t have a single entrance fee, only for the whole year. Furthermore, they didn’t give you a season ticket as such, they took your photograph and that was it. To my surprise, the system worked, and I marched in as if entering the Metro, and I can come and go as if I own the place for just as many times I want, for a whole year. It’s a good, innovative system, and after my initial shock I thought it was a good way to encourage the Arts. 

In The Underground. Tempera on paper, 37x65cv. Natalya Filippova.

This museum doesn’t show just one exhibition, it houses a collection of individual exhibitions, on each one of its floors. The exhibitions change periodically, and not on the same dates. You may go there to see one artist and end up being blown away by another’s work, like I was. It is snobbish to say, but as I am a Moscow resident now; a citizen of that vast, pretentious, soul shattering megapolis called a capital city, so I might as well use my capital city rights and say it: In general, the range of work on display and the artists’ work reminded of Moscow exhibitions of the 1980s and 1990s. But it was less pretentious. There was a wonderful collection of urban landscapes by Denis Mezentsev and Sasha Sokolva, and a good dose of Leningrad satire, with Andrei Prokhorov’s ‘Little Girl’ and the ‘Tom Cat’ shows. Moscow life is boring without Saint Petersburg heart-felt satire. The 1980s and 1990s were a time when painting – by ordinary painters – was taken seriously, when painters were respected, even if their nativity and ‘star sickness’ let them down.

On The Ring Road Side. Oil oil canvas. 40x60c. Elena Lakhvayenko.
Childhood Memory, Oil on canvas, 80x50cv, Maria Dergunova.

The exhibition represented a healthy, if depleted arts scene, even though, and perhaps because of necessity, it was completely devoid of direct political comment, except perhaps for a few of Denis Mezentsev’s Soviet scenes. Whether that can be taken as present-day social comment is of course up to the viewer, but as most people visiting the exhibition when I was there weren’t even born yet when the Soviet Union fell, that might be a bit far fetched? Or not far-fetched enough, as todays post-Soviet, postmodernist urban and cultural spaces perhaps deserve benchmarks from a different cultural palette. Nevertheless, the whole ERARTA space to me, was reminiscent of the 1980s, when it was still cool to do what you do, and there was an audience to perform to.

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