Society

No Passports Or Pornography: Meet The Czarina Of Russian Photography

One of modern Russia’s most influential cultural figures has made photography a high-art form in the former Communist land. She’s also made some enemies along the way.

No Passports Or Pornography: Meet The Czarina Of Russian Photography
Sviblova with President Medvedev and Spain's King Juan Carlos
Claire Guillot and Marie Jégo

Anyone who meets Olga Sviblova never forgets the experience. Russia's ‘Miss Photography", and director of Moscow's new Multimedia Art Museum, is an inexhaustible whirlwind of human activity. Able to hold down two conversations at once, with a receiver in each hand (and a cigarette in a third!), she likes to cut off callers with the promise: "I will call you straight back". She never does.

Long and lithe, blonde and dressed in black, this graceful fifty-something with a ballerina's chignon has been known to fix business meetings at 3 a.m. She likes nothing more than to be chain smoking and talking art at the break of dawn. You should also factor in her inimitable vocabulary as well as decibel levels off the scale, because Olga Sviblova likes to shout. Only her French husband is graced with sweet purring words down the phone. "On several occasions, we have nearly come to blows', admits the artist Alexandre Ponomaref, whose work Olga exhibited at the Russian Pavilion of the 2009 Venice Biennale. "She is a difficult character. She never listens to anyone, but she has talent. Very few people of her calibre exist in Russia today, and she's done a lot to ensure Russian culture is represented on the international stage."

In a country like Russia, having a champion like Sviblova was crucial for photography. Agnès de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, former Inspector General of Photography at the French Ministry of Culture, says: "without Olga, photography would not have achieved its current profile in Russia." Sviblova puts it more bluntly: "When I launched the Moscow photography biennale, everyone thought photos were just for passports or of naked women!"

Fifteen years later, her biennale attracts more than six hundred thousand visitors. She has also set up a well-regarded state school of photography and the Moscow House of Photography, which brings together more than 80,000 works under its roof, including images by renowned artists such as Alexandre Rodchenko and Dmitri Baltermants.

After a five-year construction project, gallery has just recently re-opened in an ultramodern, 7,500 square-meter space. It now shows contemporary art in a variety of media as well and has a new and more expansive name: the Multimedia Museum of Art.

As a child in the 1950s, Olga Sviblova grew up in a world without images: her grandmother thought it better to burn the family albums, which featured images she feared could cause trouble under the Soviet regime. After a doctorate in psychology, this daughter of an aeronautical engineer decided she wanted to dedicate her life to art… and so became a street sweeper. "It gave me time for the things that mattered!" With her husband, the poet Alexeï Parchikov, she organised "unofficial exhibitions of unofficial art". It was through this hotbed of clandestine artistic activity - which eventually produced some of Russia's major artistic figures – that she was able direct a documentary, Carré noir (black square), which won a prize at Cannes in 1990.

But it was the annual Photography Month in Paris that ultimately inspired her to bring photography to Russia, "a country without any visual history." Her first photo biennale had 92 exhibitions and featured Russian and foreign photographers alike. The Maison européenne de la photographie (the European House of Photography or ‘MEP") along with France's state collection, Le Fonds National d'Art Contemporain (FNAC) lent her the works for free. Her second husband, Olivier Morane, an art insurer, helped with security issues, while she sent 400 faxes to Moscow in search of sponsors. "With Olga, there is always a bit of improvisation," explains Jean-Luc Monterosso, director of the MEP.

The new capitalist Russia proved to be the perfect soil for her talent. "Olga knows how to talk about art to everybody: the society crowd, the politicians, or the artists themselves," explains Paquita Escofet-Miro, a Russian art collector.

Making that old Russian adage her own: "It's better to have a hundred friends than a hundred roubles," she has managed to raise hundreds of thousands euros with just a few phone calls. And when it comes to support, she also enjoyed the favor of Youri Loujkov, Moscow's mayor for 18 years; while Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club and Mikhaïl Prokhorov, the energy industry magnate, bankrolled her when she curated the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennales of 2007 and 2009. "I have lived without money," she says. "But when I need it for a project, I become a maniac!"

With her latest museum, which had the support of Moscow's city hall, Sviblova had to face a major challenge when the Kremlin gave the mayor his marching papers when the project still needed two million euros. Kicking into gear, she hosted an auction with the help of her artist friends and raised 150,000 euros. "It paid for the flooring, the shelves and the furniture."

Sviblova's aggressive approach, not surprisingly, ruffles feathers; and she sometimes treads on the toes of the photographic establishment she has helped create. She featured her son, the photographer Tim Parchikov, in the line-up of an exhibition about young Russian photographers. More controversially, several odd-looking, poor quality digital prints of Cartier Bresson's work turned up at her new museum. Olga is adamant they were printed with the permission of the artist's widow, who nevertheless didn't seem to know about them.

Olga Sviblova's supreme position in photography is also being challenged today. "Her scorched earth policy annoys me, a Russian gallery owner confides. "There is no room for anyone else." But there are no signs of her letting up. Her next crusade? She plans to tell the story of recent Russian history with photographs, beginning with Perestroïka and the Yeltsin years. "We are a country without memory, she says, but I will always keep my eyes wide open."

Read the original article in French

Photo - Kremlin.ru

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