On 26 August 2013 in the evening, police seized four satirical paintings from a St. Petersburg gallery, saying the display had broken the law. The artist, Konstantin Altunin, left the country the next day to seek asylum in France.
A painting entitled ‘Travesty’ by Konstantin Altunin showed the Russian president Putin wearing a tight-fitting slip and brushing the hair of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is wearing women’s underwear.
Another picture showed the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, with his torso covered in tattoos, while two other paintings were poking fun at lawmakers who have backed legislation banning so-called gay propaganda. Among them St Petersburg’s deputy, Vitaly Milonov.
The four paintings at Muzei Vlasti (‘Museum of Power’) were confiscated by police. The seizure comes a week before Putin hosts world leaders at the Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg.
“I am an artist, I want to paint, not be a prisoner,” said Altunin to NBC News, explaining his decision to leave for France.
Aleksandr Donskoi, director of the Museum of Power, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper that Altunin is worried that “he will be arrested and he doesn’t want to return”. Donskoi’s museum has been closed down twice since the controversy began on 26 August.
Alexander Donskoi told The Guardian: “This is an [illegal] seizure. (…) We have been given no formal documents banning us from operating and no receipt confirming our petty cash was seized.”
Charges: ‘extremism’ or ‘homosexual propaganda’
Russian police have not specified the laws broken by Altunin’s paintings. The Guardian notes that there exists a Russian law against insulting state authorities, and another highly criticized law prohibiting ‘homosexual propaganda’ aimed at minors, both of which could be used against painter Konstantin Altunin and the Museum of Power.
According to The Art Newspaper, the Russian media reported that charges of “extremism” could be brought, “a broad term in Russia’s criminal code.”
Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg anti-gay legislator and Orthodox traditionalist, told the RIA Novosti news agency that he found Altunin’s works to be “blatantly offensive” and filed a complaint with the police.
August 2013 marks one year since Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina were imprisoned for performing a song critical of President Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral. A Russian court denied the the feminist art collective members parole in July despite pressure from the international community.
Art Radar Asia – 31 August 2013:
Russian artist on the run as authorities seize provocative paintings
Contemporary artist Konstantin Altunin plans to claim asylum in France after authorities close exhibition. By Cassandra Naji
Associated Press | The Guardian – 28 August 2013:
Artist flees Russia after painting Putin and Medvedev in pants
Konstantin Altunin reported to have fled to France to claim asylum after police shut down Moscow exhibition
BBC News – 28 August 2013:
Vladimir Putin ‘underwear’ painting removed from Russian gallery
Police in Russia have seized a painting depicting the country’s president Vladimir Putin in women’s underwear from an art gallery in St Petersburg.
The Guardian / Reuters – 28 August 2013:
Painting of Vladimir Putin in women’s underwear seized by Russian police
Picture displayed in St Petersburg gallery portrayed president in tight-fitting slip brushing Dmitry Medvedev’s hair
USA Today – 28 August 2013:
Russian police seize painting of Putin in lingerie
By Michael Winter
Daily Mail – 28 August 2013:
The picture Vladimir Putin wants to ban: Police seize painting of Russian president in women’s underwear from St Petersburg gallery claiming it is ‘illegal’