Zelfira Tregulova:

Art heals the soul

“A trip to the museum and everything that you get out of that trip helps people cope with problems they encounter in everyday life,” said the director of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery Zelfira Tregulova in an interview with Capital Ideas.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was wrong. It isn’t beauty that will save the world, but culture. But isn’t culture a synonym for beauty? Isn’t the whole point of culture to awaken the good in people so they can become better and respect others, even those who aren’t like them?

I thought a lot about this during my hour-long discussion with Zelfira Tregulova, the director of the State Tretyakov Gallery. She has no doubts about the fact that culture nourishes the human soul, even though she is reserved when it comes to discussing the subject. When I asked her whether or not culture makes people better, Zelfira Ismailovna instantly responded: “At the very least it’s supposed to help people not become worse, to preserve their humanity.”

No wonder that these days, in times of financial crises, spikes in terrorism and general confusion, people gravitate toward beauty. Here’s a good example: 200,000 people visited the Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val in 2014, but over 800,000 visitors came last year. “What’s interesting is that these numbers aren’t only going up in Moscow or in China, which opened over 5,000 new museums recently,” Ms. Tregulova says, “but also in Europe and the US.”

So what’s the reason behind this trend?

“When we come to a museum, we fulfill a certain, special need for individual communication,” she says, “I get the impression that we’re losing the connections we used to have with close friends and family. We move these relationships to a computer or smartphone screen, neglecting to meet in person due to our busy schedules. No wonder that people need some source of artistic energy to help keep us afloat. After spending 2 hours at an exhibition or museum, it’s much easier to return to our everyday problems and routines. This is because you come back with an understanding that there is something else, something greater than this, and you can use it as a source of inspiration when you need. It’s a kind of medicine - one that heals your soul. A trip to the museum and everything that you get out of it is something that stays with you for a long time and helps you overcome the problems you encounter.”

Art not only helps us overcome our individual problems, but can also help address broader issues relevant to all of humanity: misunderstandings between nations, for instance. For example, an American or Japanese tourist who comes to the Tretyakov Gallery will immediately fall in love with Russia, right? “Of course not. It’s not that simple,” Ms. Tregulova smiles, “But for the most part, culture helps us understand other countries, to find common ground with the people who live there. After all, people in any country are to some extent shaped by their culture. This means that you can start figuring out what Russia is and what Russian people are like by exposing yourself to Russian culture. After this, you can move on to a deeper mutual understanding with Russians, one that is grounded in trust.”

The Tretyakov Gallery does a lot to facilitate this kind of understanding, including organizing unique exhibitions abroad. One of these exhibitions recently took place at the National Portrait Gallery in London, giving British people the opportunity to learn about nineteenth century Russian artists. This year, the Tretyakov Gallery will have an exhibition at the Vatican for the first time. All of this, according to Zelfira Ismailovna, is important not only for the museum, but for Russia as a whole. “This work needs to be continued,” she says, “It shouldn’t be terminated.”

“If politicians are talking past each other, for some reason regular people have to suffer,” Ms. Tregulova points out, “What we keep at the Tretyakov Gallery is humanity’s heritage. These are works of art that have universal significance.”

There is no denying that culture is strength. But what does it mean to be a cultured person? “It’s tough to say exactly,” Zelfira Ismailovna says, “but it definitely means a person who thinks about things deeply. It’s a person who contemplates things instead of just absorbing everything they come across blindly. It’s a person that has a moral backbone. Without these qualities, a person certainly can’t be considered cultured.”



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