Britain and Russia swap art treasures as cultural diplomatic relations thaw

Sculptures by Henry Moore will be brought by crane into the heart of the Kremlin next Spring, while works by Antony Gormley will be shown at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, and there will be the first exhibition in Russia of work by the visionary poet and painter William Blake at the Pushkin museum.

The peace-making loans from the UK are announced Monday by the British Council to coincide with the visit of David Cameron. They represent a remarkable thaw in cultural diplomactic relations. They will mean major Russian exhibitions in Britain, including one on Catherine the Great, coming next year from the Hermitage to the newly expanded National Museum of Scotland.

Just four years ago the British Council was ordered to close its offices outside Moscow. The move was widely seen as having nothing to do with claim by the Russian authorities that the council was operating illegally in breach of tax regulations and everything to do with the collapse in relations between the two countries following the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and Britain’s expulsion of Russian diplomats.

Now peace has broken out again. Martin Davidson, chief executive of the council, said: “I am delighted that the visit of the prime minister to Moscow has led to this initiative. The cultural and educational relationship with Russia matters – in both directions – and this agreement is a huge boost to collaboration between our two countries.”

He added that cultural connections “build trust, and trust underpins trade”.

The new warmth in relations has already borne fruit. When Andrea Rose, head of exhibitions at the council, met the head of the complex of museums within the medieval walled fortress of the Kremlin to discuss the Henry Moore exhibition, she commented on her unusal name. Elena Gagarina, director of the Kremlin museums, is indeed the daughter of the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the outcome of their conversation was his statue which now stands outside the British Council offices on the Mall in London – a gift from the Russian Space Agency.

The early sculptures and drawings by Moore, a lifelong socialist whose wife Irina was half Russian, will be the first contemporary art exhibition within the Kremlin museums.

The Antony Gormley exhibition will open at the Hermitage later this month, where the artist whose work includes the giant Angel of the North, the best loved piece of public art in Britain, is installing 17 new works among nine classical sculptures from the museum’s collection.

In November, an exhibition on William Blake and British Visionary Art opens at the State Pushkin Fine Arts Museum in Moscow, a partnership between the museum and the Tate gallery: they are also working together on an exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites for 2013, when there will also be celebrations in Moscow and St Petersburg marking the centenary of the birth of the composer Benjamin Britten.

The council is also backing an exhibition of British fashion in Moscow in November, featuring the work of Vivienne Westwood, right, Hussein Chalayan and Paul Smith, and emerging names including Peter Jensen, Marios Schwab and Osman Yousefzada.

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