Painting tests sense of humour in St. Petersburg

5 September 2013

By Chloe Cranston

I was surprised yesterday to come across the news that a painting of Putin and Obama, exhibited at the Museum of Erotica in St. Petersburg, had been removed by authorities. The painting depicts Putin and Obama in battle, but with their genitalia as their weapons. For most people, the description of the painting’s contents would be the surprising matter, and perhaps, with the G20 commencing today in St. Petersburg with the real-life meeting of Putin and Obama, its removal would be altogether unsurprising. However, for me it was quite the opposite. 

I saw this painting almost a year and a half ago, in its first home at G Spot Museum of Erotic Art in Moscow. Like its counterpart in St. Petersburg, the museum is owned by the former mayor of Archangelsk, Alexander Donskoi. Donskoi opened the museum after finishing a three year long jail sentence back in Archangelsk, on charges he claims were invented to stop him running for president.

I was there to interview Donskoi about a play the Museum was about to hold. The play, written by the then 19-year-old Oleg Vorontsov, retold Gogol’s tale The Nose, putting Putin in the place of Major Kovalyov, the unhappy official who loses his nose, only to watch it become a highly-successful official. 

Written to time with the Presidential election of 2012, the play was supposed to be a political allegory of the election. As you watch Putin struggle against himself, the spectator is to become aware of the inevitability of his success – i.e. the choice is between Putin and Putin. However, as is perhaps obvious from the venue, in Vorontsov’s version Putin loses a different body part rather than his nose. I never actually saw the play, so I do not know how much this overshadowed the political message of the play. 

Donskoi and Vorontsov insisted the play was not just about erotica. Donskoi discussed with me in length his criticisms of the Russian system of democracy and freedom of speech. He claims the museum for him is an expression of freedom, to provoke the thoughts and discussion silenced by the Russian media. He claimed the play would allow the Russian public to see past the propaganda surrounding the March 3rd election, and instead allow people to develop their own opinions. 

He also expressed his concerns about the longevity of his exhibits, and even the safety of their creators. He told me about a visit he had already received from city officials, trying to confiscate one of his exhibits. This exhibit – a particular painting of Putin and Obama. Donskoi told me he managed to dissuade officials by persuading them that the painting is actually in Putin’s favour, as he is depicted more “complimentary” downstairs than Obama. 

I thought this was quite a clever get-out, and therefore was very surprised to see that it had failed a year or so later in St. Petersburg. I found it very interesting, but it could just be a commentary on the difference between the sense of humour of the authorities in St. Petersburg and Moscow.