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Exhibition of stuffed dead animals sparks outrage in Russia

Published Nov 17, 2016, 4:09 pm IST
Updated Nov 17, 2016, 4:09 pm IST
Criticism of the Belgian artist's installations in Russia's venerated temple of fine art have come from diverse groups.
"This is psychological sadism," animal rights activist Svetlana Los said (Photo: AFP)
 "This is psychological sadism," animal rights activist Svetlana Los said (Photo: AFP)

Moscow: Taxidermy tabbies, as well as the stuffed and suspended corpses of dogs, rabbits and swans are not the only artwork in Jan Fabre's Hermitage Museum show, but they're raising the hackles of the Russian establishment.

Criticism of the Belgian artist's installations in Russia's venerated temple of fine art have come from diverse groups, ranging from animal rights activists to religious elders, from the political right to the left.


The show is "revolting", national lawmaker Vitaly Milonov, who spearheaded a controversial anti-gay law, said.

"This is psychological sadism," animal rights activist Svetlana Los told the popular Komsomolskaya Pravda tabloid. "A stuffed animal hung up among pictures -- what kind of abomination is this? I don't consider that art."

But Fabre, no stranger to controversy, has challenged that definition with the exhibition of more than 200 works entitled "Knight of Despair/Warrior of Beauty", which opened at the Saint Petersburg museum last month and runs until April.


'Dialogue' with Flemish masters

Fabre's works -- which also include porcelain sculptures, abstract paintings and iridescent figures encrusted with jewel scarab shells -- have been put on display directly alongside the Dutch and Flemish Masters from the Hermitage's permanent collection.

The goal, say curators, is to create a "dialogue" between the classical works and Fabre's collection, which includes more than 70 pieces made specifically for the show in the formidable former tsarist Winter Palace.

But the exhibition has sparked dialogue of a different sort. One Twitter user posted a photo of an abstract Fabre work on display, saying "How to ruin a Rubens. Put something purple and pointless by Jan Fabre under it."


"Is the Hermitage leadership right in the head?" pop star Yelena Vaenga wrote on her Instagram account, calling the show "a real disgrace".

The Communists of Saint Petersburg and Leningrad Region, a radical splinter group, condemned what they called the "inhumane" exhibition by a "Western pervert" and called for the "animal corpses to be buried in a hygienic way".

Russian social networks have exploded with debate, with the hashtag #pozorermitazhu (Shame on Hermitage) being used to bash the museum and show.


Cats for Fabre

The Hermitage rolled up its digital cuffs and jumped into the fray itself, launching the hashtag #koshkizafabra (Cats for Fabre) on its official Instagram account. It posted photos of several of its legendary house cats, very much alive within its halls.

The Hermitage has an army of some 70 felines who live in its cellars and are used to control rats. Periodically kittens are offered to the public and people snap up calendars and magnets featuring the felines.

The Fabre affair is the latest culture clash in Russia over contemporary art. Recently, conservative and Orthodox Christian activists have mounted physical attacks on some Moscow exhibitions, pouring urine, spraying paint and smashing works they saw as offensive.


The Hermitage has sought to calm the caterwauling, stressing on its website that the artist used "homeless animals that died on the roads".

"Fabre is trying to give them new life in art and thus conquer death," it said. Its director Mikhail Piotrovsky told TASS news agency on Wednesday that critical comments are "mostly written by people who haven't been to the exhibition".

"It turns out our public is less educated than we had supposed," he added pointedly.

But the exhibition by Fabre, a star in the firmament of international art who also writes and directs avant-garde theatre, has prompted plenty of praise, too.


Rock star Sergei Shnurov, lead singer of the band Leningrad, said it showed "respect for the Old Masters".

"I didn't see any animal abuse or abuse of people -- more the opposite," he wrote on Instagram.