New York Times: Russia’s Photo Impresario


Russia’s Photo Impresario


(originally published in the New York Times)

MOSCOW — It was almost midnight and Olga Sviblova was still going strong. Though the Moscow Manege — an exhibition center adjacent to Red Square — had been closed for hours, Ms. Sviblova was giving a private tour of a show she had curated for the city’s Photobiennale, which runs until the end of June and takes place in dozens of museums and exhibition spaces across the city. Next to a collection of some of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s best-known photographs, Ms. Sviblova had chosen to exhibit the black and white works of Andrey Bezukladnikov, a little-known Russian perestroika photographer.

Ms. Sviblova, the founder and director of the Multimedia Art Museum Moscow (MAMM), said that some art critics scoffed at her placement of Mr. Bezukladnikov’s images, including portraits from a tuberculosis hospital where the photographer was also a patient, next to works by the man many consider the father of modern photojournalism. As Ms. Sviblova smoked a thin cigarette — flouting the ubiquitous “No Smoking” signs — she gave the impression that she had never cared much for critics or convention, anyway.

Ms. Sviblova, 56, has been credited with almost single-handedly bringing to light the lost art of non-official Soviet photography. MAMM, which was founded as the Moscow House of Photography in 1996, will soon move into bigger digs on Ostogenka Street, in the heart of Moscow and close to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The building will include four floors of large exhibition spaces and archives to house the more than 90,000 photographs and other items in the museum’s collection.

One could also argue that Ms. Sviblova has done for the Russian contemporary art world what Mr. Cartier-Bresson did for modern photojournalism. She has twice curated the Russian pavilion at the Venice Biennale (last year she highlighted the multimedia work of Andrei Molodkin) and is also a noted filmmaker, having won various awards, including the Paris Critics prize at the Semaine de la Critique in Cannes in 1988 for her documentary “Black Square,” about Russian avant-garde artists. Ms. Sviblova has also been the director of the Moscow Photobiennale since 1996, and over her career she has organized more than 500 photography and contemporary art exhibitions in Russia and abroad. Her most recent exhibition outside of Russia, “Glasnost: Soviet Non-Conformist Art from the 1980s,” is running at the Haunch of Venison gallery in London through June 26.

“She is an absolute tour de force,” said the art historian Nina Miall, who worked with Ms. Sviblova on the London show. “Her advocacy of Russian art — photography in particular — and her work in gaining international exposure for it has been instrumental to the development of the scene.”

Ms. Sviblova has been involved with that scene nearly all her life. Describing herself as a child of the “Khrushchev Spring” — a time of more openness in the Soviet Union after the death of Joseph Stalin — Ms. Sviblova said that the first photography exhibition she ever attended, when she was 6, was a show about the Soviet premier that included Dimitri Baltermants’s shots of Krushchev playing the accordion and eating popcorn.

After attending Mathematical School No. 444 in Moscow, where she says she learned a foreign language and studied the letters of Soviet dissidents — a rare education at the time — Ms. Sviblova studied philosophy and psychology at Moscow State University, later earning a doctorate with a thesis on the psychology of art. She married the Russian poet Alexey Parchikov at 18 (they had one child together, Tim, who is now 26 and a photographer, before they divorced in 1991).

Though she was offered a job in the Ministry of the Interior after her undergraduate degree, she refused, choosing to work as a street sweeper instead. “I still think that was the happiest time of my life,” she said, adding that many poets and artists of her generation would say the same thing. “We were working as street cleaners or night guards because that was the job that gave you freedom — the most expensive thing in life is free time for creative expression.”

For seven years, she swept the streets by day and spent her evenings entertaining artists, poets and writers at the apartment she shared with her husband. It was during this time, when they would hold spontaneous underground art exhibitions, that she got a taste for curating. She eventually gave up her sweeping job to organize events for artists, and in 1987 she set up her first official exhibition for young Soviet painters. Other exhibitions quickly followed, including the first Festival of Soviet Underground Art in Imatra, Finland, in 1988.

Over the years Ms. Sviblova has gained a formidable international reputation for her promotion of Russian contemporary art. In 2007 she was awarded the Order of Friendship by then President Vladimir V. Putin for her contributions to the development of Russia’s cultural ties. In 2008 she received the French Legion of Honor.

“She is kind of a celebrity in Russia,” said Maria Baibakova, the 24-year-old founder of Baibakov Art Projects who considers Ms. Sviblova a mentor. “She has always been very supportive of young people entering the art world in Moscow.”

But it is the historical photography that has most endeared Ms. Sviblova to her fellow Russians.

In 1991, when she traveled to France (her second husband, Olivier Moran, is French) to work on a documentary about contemporary art, she came across several exhibitions of Soviet photography she had never seen in Russia because the country’s archives had been heavily censored by the state during Soviet times. “At the time a new Russia was starting and we were a country without any kind of visual history,” she said. “I realized without history you cannot look into the future.”

She returned to Russia with a commission to organize a photography festival and she began to cobble together images from across the country, tracking down photographers and following leads to gather what would become the collection of the Moscow House of Photography.

The holdings include daguerreotypes from the 1850s through the most advanced digital multimedia platforms; there are classic archives from avant-garde photographers from the revolution like Alexander Rodchenko and Max Penson as well as photographs from pictorial artists from the 1920s and 1930s, including Alexander Khlebnikov and Arkady Shaikhet. The museum also houses collections from Russian and foreign contemporary photographers and artists.

Through the museum, Ms. Sviblova organizes the Photobiennale, now in its eighth installment. The theme this year is “Vive La France,” part of Moscow’s “Year of France” program of exhibitions, theater and events across the city. Ms. Sviblova not only directs the biennale but also curated several of the shows, including those of Cartier-Bresson, Mr. Bezukladnikov and the young photographer Natasha Pavlovskaya.

When asked what her favorite work of art is, Ms. Sviblova says it is like asking a mother to choose her favorite child. When pressed, she says she loves Peter Lindbergh’s captivating black and white photograph of Jeanne Moreau, which is included in the Photobiennale exhibition at the Manege. “When I am dying, that will be the portrait I think of,” she said. She also said she loves a photograph taken by Mr. Bezukladnikov of a potted cactus next to lace curtains. Indeed, the piece could be seen as a metaphor for what it takes to succeed in the art world, and for Ms. Sviblova herself: it has a bit of an edge, but a soft touch.