Hermitage Vies to Keep Paintings
The fight continues between Moscow and St. Petersburg over a long-divided collection of modern artwork.
Published: May 29, 2013 (Issue # 1761)
The State Hermitage Museum
‘La Danse,’ by Henri Matisse, is one of hundreds of artworks at the center of a still-unfolding drama.
In 1948, Josef Stalin took the first modern art collection and split it between Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, sending the bulk of the important works to the latter. Now, over half a century later, the director of the Moscow museum is asking for them all back.
Matisse’s famous canvas “La Danse” — five voluptuous bodies, hands joined in a ring — is one of the 400 iconic images by modern masters that welcomes visitors to the top floor of the Hermitage. The museum’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, as well as Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, and even fans of the Zenit soccer team, have all been jarred by the proposal to dislodge such an integral part of the Hermitage’s collection.
The feud began in late February when Pushkin director Irina Antonova appealed to President Vladimir Putin to support the idea to return the collection during his annual live call-in show, televised by the First Channel on April 25.
Putin asked if Piotrovsky was on the line.
“Mr. Piotrovsky is going to say that he ‘will never give anything away — it will never happen,’” he said.
“They were transferred to the Hermitage,” Piotrovsky said in response, “in exchange for some 200 Old Masters that were removed from the Hermitage and transferred to the Pushkin Museum in the 1920s.”
“I knew it,” said Putin.
“As for the museum business — I am ashamed that museum business has come up in such a discussion with the President,” Piotrovsky said.
On May 14, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the Union of Russian Museums instructed Medinsky and a panel of experts to determine the feasibility of re-creating the Museum of Western Art, where the original collected resided. Their conclusion is to be announced on June 3, and will likely determine the fate of the artwork.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, told Interfax that the dispute would be put to rest between the two museum directors and the Russian Cultural Ministry, without bureaucratic interference.
“This is not an area of the administration or the head of state,” he said.
If the paintings in question could talk, they would certainly have a story to tell. Deemed degenerate, taken hostage, and hidden in basements, their life in Russia began as part of the private collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, rich Muscovite textile merchants. Following the revolution in1917, the works were appropriated by the State. In 1923 the State Museum of New Western Art opened its doors in Moscow as the world’s first museum of modern art.
Such cultural progressiveness was brought to an abrupt halt 25 years later. Just before World War II, Stalin closed the museum and sent the Shchukin and Morozov paintings to Siberia for safekeeping. In 1948 the collection was broken up, with around 300 major impressionist and post-impressionist works, including paintings by Picasso and Matisse, being sent to the Hermitage.
The Shchukin family has twice unsuccessfully challenged Russia’s ownership of the pictures. The first occasion was in 1993, when several paintings were out of the country at a Matisse exhibition in Paris. The pictures were hastily removed from the walls and taken to the Russian embassy, and then sent back to St. Petersburg.
In 1999, with the situation still unresolved, the Shchukin family issued its second challenge. The paintings were on show in Rome at the time. As soon as Piotrovsky found out about the claim, he organized for the paintings to leave the country as soon as feasibly possible.
The full extent of the collection wasn’t revealed until the fall of the Soviet Union. Some 70 works that were seized from German collections by Soviet authorities during World War II — paintings by Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, and others, including the famous “Place de la Concorde” by Degas and “White House at Night” by Van Gogh — were in hiding until 1994.
It has since been revealed that 18 of the works were first seized from Poland by the Nazi government. The Polish government is now making its case to have the works repatriated.
However, at this point, the real dispute is the one happening within the country. The fight between the political and cultural powers-that-be in both cities has quickly escalated.
The 91-year-old Antonova has shown herself to be a feisty defender of the work she presides over. In her 50 years as director, she has challenged the official word numerous times, exhibiting works by “formalist” and “bourgeois” artists like Renoir, Picasso and Cézanne. In 1981, Antonova saw to it that the Pushkin host the Moscow-Paris Exhibition of Chagall and Kandinsky after Moscow’s famous Tretyakov Gallery refused — an inflammatory gesture to Soviet cultural authorities.
In an interview last year with German international news site Der Spiegel, Antonova said that after the official dissolution of the Museum of Western Art by Stalin, she set her sights on reuniting the collection.
“I saw it as my responsibility, in the face of this resistance, to gradually find a place for Impressionists in our museum,” she said.
Antonova recently stated that if the state could break up the collection, then it could also put it back together.
The last time the whole collection was on view was in 1956, when the works were united in a joint effort between the museums for a show of “Works of French Art from the 12th to 20th Centuries in USSR Museums.”
Speaking to the St. Petersburg Times on Sunday, Piotrovsky said he maintains his position adamantly against the requisitioning.
“There are several dangers in all these proposals. Nobody is against building a museum of modern art. But to build it by robbing another museum which has a historical collection is wrong,” he said.
“Shuttling collections will bring complete chaos in museum relations, not only in Russia but all over the world. Because nowadays museums all over the world have demands on each other — if we try to decide them unilaterally, it will stop all exchanges.”
At a meeting of experts on May 14, Medinsky also voiced the opinion that trying to right history’s wrongs by uniting the dissected collection was not necessarily the appropriate course of action.
“Frankly, I’m convinced that a big mistake was made in 1948: it wasn’t necessary to eliminate the museum. But I’m not sure that correcting the error wouldn’t be an even bigger mistake,” he said.
For the moment, Medinsky has signed an initiative to create a virtual Museum of Western Art.
In St. Petersburg, government and cultural officials have also cried out against the proposal. Governor Georgy Poltavchenko expressed his support for the Hermitage in a personal letter to Piotrovsky, supported by his deputies. He stated their intention to contact the president with the request that he “not plunder” the Hermitage.
“The third floor of the Hermitage is the pride of St. Petersburg,” Poltavchenko wrote. “It’s hard to overestimate the merit of the Hermitage, in that this art, whose value wasn’t evident at the time of the liquidation of the Museum of Western Art, was recovered from its imprisonment and given its due representation at the Hermitage.”
Zenit soccer fans have also started a petition against the measure on the Landscrona website, an online community for supporters of the soccer team. That petition, powered through Change.com (an international platform that only recently launched in Russia), has already gathered almost 38 thousand signatures from Russia and beyond.
According to Piotrovsky, the issue is not just a matter of local pride. The director, who oversees one of the largest and most important museums in the world, reflected on past events to shed light on the potentially far-reaching implications of the proposed re-appropriation.
“Another important issue is that if we cry to the President to solve such a minor issue, it means goodbye to all our freedoms and autonomy as museums.
“We have had a good example in our history of the robbery of the Hermitage. First the Soviet government decided to shuttle the collections and take objects from the Hermitage collection and give them to other museums around the country, including the Pushkin. And when they saw that it was possible to lay their hands on great masters, they understood that everything was possible, and the next stage was selling collections abroad.
“The authorities felt that they could do anything. We can’t let them do anything. That’s why what is happening in St. Petersburg is so important. People are ready to fight to defend the museum,” he said.