sat 13/07/2024

Extract: Bacon in Moscow by James Birch | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: Bacon in Moscow by James Birch

Extract: Bacon in Moscow by James Birch

Art crosses the Iron Curtain in this complex memoir of suspicion, espionage and opportunity

James Birch: 'Bacon in the USSR'(c) Carla Borel

In 1988, James Birch – curator, art dealer, and gallery owner – took Francis Bacon to Moscow. It was, as he writes, "an unimaginable intrusion of Western Culture into the heart of the Soviet system". At a time of powerful political tension and suspicion, but also optimism and opportunity, the process of exhibiting Bacon was riddled with difficulties, careful negotiations, joys and disappointments.

In this extract, we find James in 1988 and perestroika is in full bloom: General Secretary Gorbachev appears to be at the height of his popularity and power, and a possible democracy beckons. James sits with one of his story's most important figures: Sergei Klokov, the man on the inside of the iron state who could make things happen, a bridge to the West and all the art it might bring, James’s exhibition fixer fraught with contradiction – but a man necessary to his cause.

One misstep with an unseen Soviet official and the exhibition would be cancelled. If Moscow was leaning towards the West, could the USSR really follow suit? Could goodwill and and openness to Western art and culture really solve Russia’s huge economic problems? And could the iron state re-make itself, within the space of a few years, as a liberal democracy? The tale that tells the attempt is one of thrilling twists and turns, full of false-starts, narrow triumphs, and near misses: an important piece of history.

***

Klokov came back into the room with Vodka. "Poyekhali!" he declared – let’s go! – the word uttered by Yuri Gagarin before blasting off in 1961. "Poyekhali! we echoed.

In these circumstances, I had to see Klokov as a friend, and as I got to know him better I came to admire his apparent genius for pushing things just about as far as they could be pushed without incurring the wrath of the Communist Party. Klokov had the knack of judging what could qualify as acceptable under the Soviet system. He also took me seriously, which I responded to, and he was happy to consider the largest and most unlikely projects. This struck a chord with me. We were both, in our different ways, ambitious, and I wanted to give the Russians the opportunity to see a different version of the world through art. It might sound foolishly idealistic now, but I believed it with complete conviction and I saw Klokov as the man who would help me make it happen.

Bacon in MoscowAs we sat at the table that evening, Paul talking to Johnny Stuart and Elena next to me, I mentioned to Klokov an idea I had had: might it be possible for the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude to wrap up the Kremlin? In September 1985 they had covered the Pont Neuf in Paris in bronze-coloured man-made silk, a project that attracted three million visitors. Imagine what the world would say if they wrapped the Kremlin in Russian Red. I wasn’t being entirely serious but Klokov considered the suggestion as if I were in deadly earnest. He waved a finger around, grunted, pulled a face and then declared, "Yes, why not wrap the Kremlin? It would announce perestroika to the world. Anything is possible!" We cheered and applauded, as indeed anything did seem possible in that moment.

Even Johnny Stuart, usually urbane and contained, was caught in the mood of excitement. "It’s happening already," he said. "Sotheby’s are going to have an auction of early Soviet art and they’re letting the contemporary guys take part. There’ll be avant-garde pictures in the auction too."

I had read Sotheby’s auction announcement. It was to be the first official art sale to take place in Moscow since the Revolution. Klokov knew about this already, of course.

"It will bring influential people to Moscow," Klokov said. "The world will be looking at us and they will still be looking in September when we have the Bacon exhibition."

The Bacon show was a radical departure from the norm but still recognisably within the parameters of the Soviet worldview, part of the state’s remit to bring culture to the masses. In theory, anyone could queue up and buy tickets for Bacon in Moscow. However, the Sotheby’s auction was an expression of pure capitalism and in stark contrast to official Soviet ideology.

"Will it be low-key?" I asked.

"I doubt it," laughed Johnny. "The whole circus will come to town. There’ll be Western dealers, international journalists, agents for wealthy bidders. I’ve heard Elton John and David Bowie are interested. And I guess there’ll be some big nobs from the politburo."

"What about the Russian artists?" asked Paul. "Won’t they be there?"

"They’re letting them in," said Johnny. "I think they are going to stand at the back and watch from behind a rope, but there won’t be any mingling. The dissident artists will only be allowed a glimpse of capitalism."

I knew enough to recognise the implications of the auction. It commodified an aspect of human existence that Marx and Engels had argued, in those long meetings above the Red Lion, would prosper through communism – man’s innate artistic creativity. Sotheby’s were the out-riders of a coming counter-revolution.

Did Klokov realise this? What calculations was he making? Which bets was he laying off in the months before the Bacon show? As we talked and laughed that evening, I found myself freshly intrigued by him. His great knowledge, his occasional naivety and, of course, the ominous pressure he was subject to. Occasionally there would be a hint of a darker, more terrifying Russia just behind the city of empty shops and threadbare hotels we were encountering: the Soviet hinterland where Klokov also lived, with the long shadows of interrogations, prison camps and executions.

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