Russian President Vladimir Putin’s International Commissioner for Culture has criticized decisions by major galleries in the UK and US to switch references from Russia to Ukraine, calling the moves politically motivated.
Following the outbreak of the Russian war in Ukraine last year, a number of artists mobilized in support of Kiev and proved influential in reviving the discussion of existing controversies over references to Russia in famous works of art and the nationality of the artists who painted them have to change.
One of the campaign’s first big hits came in April last year, when the National Gallery in London rebranded a series of paintings by the late 19th-century French Impressionist Edgar Degas. Originally known as ‘Russian Dancers’, online references to the work are now ‘Ukrainian Dancers’ as it was believed that the motifs almost certainly originated in what is now Ukraine, which was then 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 classified as Russian artists. Similar decisions were made in other Western galleries when it came to Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Kabakov, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Louise Nevelson, also born in what is now Ukraine under the control of the Russian Empire.
While the moves have been seen by supporters as the culmination of years of efforts to highlight Ukraine’s artistic heritage, the decisions are viewed by the Kremlin as an attack on Russian culture sparked 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 a statement shared with me news week. “The story of renaming world-famous paintings and distancing great artists from the word Russia began a little less than a year ago, as the process of abolishing Russian culture was gaining momentum.”
Referring to Degas’ paintings, Shvydkoy argued that “cultural, bureaucratic London justified its decision based on its own notions of beauty and the attitude of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United Kingdom”.
Reached for comment, a spokesman for the National Gallery said news week that “in the scholarly literature on this work it has always been noted that the dancers were actually Ukrainians rather than Russians” and that this is reflected in the text that accompanies the series online.
“We too decided in 1998 to keep the title Russian Dancers; such troops were then referred to as ‘Russian’ in Paris, and the Degas body of work (consisting of some 14 pastels and colored drawings) is commonly known in scholarly literature as ‘Russian Dancers,'” the statement said.
“There is no evidence that Degas himself called these images Russian dancers,” he added. “This seems to have been the decision of his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who bought one such work by Degas as early as 1906 and later included it in his first and third posthumous sales of Degas’ works (1918 and 1919), entitled Russian Dancers. So they entered the Degas literature.”
Degas’ only reference to this work, according to the National Gallery, was during a luncheon with the daughter of another famous Impressionist painter on July 1, 1899, who noted in her diary that Degas had invited her to see the works while they were in progress without naming a specific title.
“Paintings in the National Gallery’s collection are continually researched and information about our works is updated when appropriate and as new information comes to light,” the National Gallery statement said, “and we felt that this was the right moment to update the title of this work to better reflect the subject of the painting.”
news week has reached out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where online references to the series now read “Dancers in Ukrainian Attire,” for comment.
The National Gallery took no notice of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, although Shvydkoy highlighted the appeals made by Ukrainian art officials and artists like 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 act show a fundamental disregard for the 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 Metropolitan staff), the name of Degas’ work was the subject of a long-standing dispute, since it depicted dancers in the colors of today’s Ukrainian flag – yellow and blue are recognizable in the wreaths of flowers and ribbons adorning the girls.”
“But whatever the representatives of the art history communities in London or New York would decide,” he added, “the artist called his pastels what he saw fit – ‘Russian Dancers’ – and not otherwise.”
The Russian diplomat also argued that the blue and yellow colors, which would later become the basis of the modern Ukrainian flag, “first appeared some fifteen years after Edgar Degas completed the work in 1914, on the occasion of the celebration of Taras Shevchenko’s centenary.” a poet and artist born in what is now Ukraine, whose work is widely associated with the founding of modern Ukrainian literature.
Other scholarly sources suggest that the introduction of the blue and yellow flag took place during the series of 1848 European revolutions known as the Spring of Nations, during which Ukraine was partitioned between the Russian and Austrian empires.
The flag was first officially used as the Ukrainian state symbol during the Ukrainian People’s Republic, which existed from 1917 to 1919, before the country was annexed by the Soviet Union and began adopting a largely red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle and blue stripe crossed by the floor is running.
However, as Shvydkoy argued, “Edgar Degas could have seen a Ukrainian dance performed only by actresses from the Russian Empire, since Ukraine had not yet existed on the world map.”
“Within the Russian Empire, there was no legal division of citizens by ethnicity, instead such a distinction was made by creed,” Shvydkoy said. “Self-identification was linked to religion and culture. For this reason it is certainly not a divine enterprise to retrospectively convert artists, most of whom are long dead, from one nationality to another, without their knowledge and consent of course.”
He pointed to the example of the artist Ilya Kabakov, who was born in the then-Soviet-controlled Ukrainian city of Dnipro and later became one of the founders of the art movement in Russia known as Moscow Conceptualism. He also pointed out that the legendary Russian writer Alexander Pushkin was of African descent, Mikhail Lermontov was of Scottish descent and that the birthplace of the influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Königsberg was once part of the Russian Empire and later became part of the Soviet Union and the today’s Russian Federation.
Referring to the composition of the Russian Empire, which was overthrown in 1917 to form the Soviet Union, Šveidkoy asserted that “the identity of the Empire is not only its army and navy, but also its culture, which is of a supra-ethnic character which to absorb the polyphony of the peoples it encompasses.”
“The ‘Russian world’ with which the Kiev authorities and their Western partners are struggling today is above all the world of Russian culture,” argued Šveidkoy, “which preserves the highest values of our national and European humanism.”
He slammed the prospects of so-called “monoethnic states” like Poland and Ukraine, which the Kremlin has long accused of abusing their significant ethnic Russian minority, an accusation Kiev routinely denies.