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Moscow Pans West's Removal of Russia From Art as 'Lame Political Gesture'

By Tom O'Connor,

2023-03-15

Russian President Vladimir Putin 's international culture envoy has slammed decisions taken by major galleries in the United Kingdom and the United States to switch references from Russia to Ukraine, describing the moves as politically motivated.

Following the outbreak of Russia's war in Ukraine last year, a number of artists mobilized in support of Kyiv and have proven influential in changing the conversation on existing controversies over references to Russia in famous pieces of art and the nationality of the artists who painted them.

Among the first major victories for the campaign took place in April of last year when the National Gallery in London renamed a series of late-19th century paintings by French Impressionist Edgar Degas. Originally known as "Russian Dancers," online references to the work now read "Ukrainian Dancers," given that the subjects were deemed to have almost certainly hailed from modern-day Ukraine, which was then a part of the Russian Empire.

Just last month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reclassified Ivan Aivazovsky, Arkhyp Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin as Ukrainian artists, previously ranked among Russian artists. Similar decisions have followed in other Western galleries when it comes to Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Kabakov, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Louise Nevelson, who were also born in modern-day Ukraine under Russian Empire control.

While the moves have been cast by supporters as the culmination of a longstanding effort to highlight Ukraine's art heritage, the decisions are being panned by the Kremlin as an assault on Russian culture prompted by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

"This lame political gesture has trumped all legitimate cultural considerations," Mikhail Shvydkoy, Putin's special envoy for international cultural cooperation, said in remarks shared with Newsweek . "The history of renaming world-famous paintings and the disassociation of great artists from the word Russia, commenced a little less than a year ago, when the process of abolishing Russian culture was gaining momentum."

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On the issue of Degas' paintings, Shvydkoy argued that "cultural, bureaucratic London justified its decision on the basis of its own ideas about beauty and the stance of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United Kingdom."

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the National Gallery told Newsweek that, "It has always been noted in the scholarly literature surrounding this work that the dancers were in fact Ukrainian rather than Russian" and that this has been reflected in the text accompanying the series online.

"We also in 1998 decided to retain the title Russian Dancers; such troupes were identified in Paris at the time as 'Russian,' and the group of works by Degas (consisting of around 14 pastels and coloured drawings) is universally known in the scholarly literature as the 'Russian Dancers,'" the statement said.

"There is no evidence that Degas himself called these images Russian Dancers," it added. "That seems to have been the decision of his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who bought one such work from Degas as early as 1906 and later included them in his first and third posthumous sales of Degas' works (in 1918 and 1919) under the title Russian Dancers. That is how they entered the Degas literature."

Degas' only reference to this work, according to the National Gallery, was during a July 1, 1899, lunch with the daughter of another famous Impressionist painter, who noted in her diary that Degas had invited her to see the works as they were underway without mention of any particular title.

"There is ongoing research about paintings in the National Gallery collection and information about our works is updated as and when appropriate and when new information comes to light," the National Gallery statement said, "and we felt this was the right moment to update the title of this work to better reflect the subject of the painting."

Newsweek has reached out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where online references to the series now read "Dancers in Ukrainian Dress," for comment.

The National Gallery made no note of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, though Shvydkoy highlighted appeals made by Ukrainian art officials and artists such as Mariam Naiem, since the war broke out. Shvydkoy acknowledged the ongoing debate surrounding the series' title, but ultimately disagreed with the decision.

"As for Edgar Degas' pastels, the questionable explanations given to condone the deed, display an elementary disregard for author's rights and historical context," Shvydkoy said. "According to representatives of the London Gallery (and these excuses were repeated in one form or another by the employees of the Metropolitan), the name of Degas' work has been the subject of a long-standing dispute, since he depicted dancers in the colors of the present-day Ukrainian flag - yellow and blue are discernible in the floral chaplet wreaths and ribbons adorning the girls."

"But no matter what the representatives of the art history communities in London or New York might decide," he added, "the artist called his pastels, as he saw fit – 'Russian Dancers' – and not otherwise."

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The Russian diplomat also argued that the blue and yellow colors that went on to become the basis of the modern Ukrainian flag only "first appeared some fifteen years after Edgar Degas completed the work in 1914 at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko," a poet and artist born in modern-day Ukraine whose body of work is widely associated with the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature.

Other scholarly sources place the introduction of the blue and yellow flag as taking place during the 1848 series of European revolutions known as the Springtime of Nations, during which Ukraine was divided between the Russian and Austrian Empires.

The flag was first put to official use as the Ukrainian state symbol during the Ukrainian People's Republic that existed from 1917 to 1919, before the country was annexed by the Soviet Union and began to adopt a largely red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle and blue stripe running through the bottom.

As Shvydkoy argued, however, "Edgar Degas could have seen a Ukrainian dance performed only by actresses from the Russian Empire, since Ukraine had not yet come into existence on the map of the world."

"Inside the Russian Empire there was no legal division of citizens according to ethnicity, instead such differentiation was made by confession of faith," Shvydkoy said. "Self-identification was associated with religion and culture. For this reason, to convert retroactively artists, the majority of whom are long deceased, from one nationality to another, needless to say, without their own knowledge and consent, is certainly no divine enterprise."

He pointed to the example of artist Ilya Kabakov, who was born in Ukraine's city of Dnipro, then under Soviet control, and went on to become one of the founding creators of the art movement in Russia known as Moscow Conceptualism. He also pointed to the fact that iconic Russian poet Alexander Pushkin had African ancestry, writer Mikhail Lermontov had Scottish ancestry and that the birthplace of the influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Königsberg, had once been part of the Russian Empire, and later became part of the Soviet Union and modern-day Russian Federation.

Recalling the makeup of the Russian Empire, which was overthrown in 1917 to form the Soviet Union, Shvydkoy asserted that "the identity of the empire is not only the army and the navy, but also its culture, which has a supra-ethnic character, absorbing the polyphony of the peoples it comprises."

"The 'Russian World,' with which the Kievan authorities and their Western partners are fighting today, is, above all, the world of Russian culture," Shvydkoy argued, "which preserves the highest values of our national and European humanism."

He criticized the outlook of what he called "mono-ethnic states" such as Poland and Ukraine, which the Kremlin has long accused of mistreating its significant ethnic Russian minority, a charge that Kyiv has routinely rejected.

"From the outset of the establishment of modern Ukrainian statehood, there were unsuccessful attempts in the first years to convince our counterparts in Kiev that multilingualism is not a problem, but rather, a blessing," Shvydkoy said. "Recognition of the Russian people of Ukraine as part of the Ukrainian nation would have facilitated the creation of a truly viable and modern state."

Questions among Russian officials about the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood since the country established independence amid the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been seen by Ukrainian officials as central to the basis of the current conflict now in its second year.

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Culture has also been a casualty of the war within Ukraine itself as Ukrainian officials have accused Russia of destroying dozens of museums and institutions, including one dedicated to the works of Kuindzhi, who is among the artists reclassified from Russian to Ukrainian in some international galleries, in an airstrike against Mariupol last March. In November, a convoy carrying 51 rare works of art slipped out of the country hours before a wave of Russian missile and drone strikes.

That same month, after Russian forces withdrew from the city of Kherson, one of four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia in a series of internationally disputed referendums, it was revealed that a significant portion of the city's art collection had been relocated to Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014. In an interview published Tuesday with the state-run TASS Russian News Agency, however, Russia's acting Kherson Governor Vladimir Saldo accused Ukrainian authorities of "stealing cultural assets from Kherson's museums," again putting such works at the center of the ongoing conflict.

Shvydkoy, for his part, argued that Western galleries would come to regret their own part in the culture war playing out on the sidelines of Europe's most devastating conflict in decades.

"'The dead know no shame!'" Shvydkoy said. "But the living – both in London and in New York – will eventually be disgraced by their mediocre political gesture which took shameless precedence over the interests of culture."

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