What future for Russian art loans in France?

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Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir, to name a few – the Morozov collection includes around 200 works by some of the most famous European painters, as well as important works by Russian artists.

For the first time, this extraordinary collection was presented outside of Russia, during a successful exhibition organized in France.

By early February, more than a million people had already visited “The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art,” the exhibition held at the Fondation Louis Vuitton museum on the outskirts of Paris.

The exhibition has been extended until April 3, but as it now ends, French and Russian curators face diplomatic and logistical problems: how will they return the works to the three Russian museums to which they belong, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow?

After Russian troops invaded Ukraine, most European countries banned Russian airlines from entering their airspace, and Russia imposed flight bans on the West.

The war makes the return difficult

Sending them back by truck would also be complicated, the Louis Vuitton Foundation said.

In cooperation with the respective Russian institutions, they are examining what to do if there is “a problem” when crossing the border, said Jean-Paul Claverie, special adviser to Bernard Arnault, president of the Louis Vuitton Foundation. , in an interview with the New York Times.

A “roadmap” has been drawn up for the return of the artifacts currently in Europe, Russian Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova told a news conference this week, but did not give details.

Both parties said the works could initially remain on the premises of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for safekeeping. Paint safety is the top priority, they said.

A historic collection of masterpieces

The paintings are part of a historic private collection. At the turn of the last century, the brothers Mikhail (1870-1903) and Ivan Morozov (1871-1921) purchased works by important European artists, including Gauguin and Cézanne.

When the Russian tsarist regime collapsed in 1918, the collection was nationalized.

Originally, it was to be part of the Museum of Modern Western Art, but Stalin, who despised European art, had it closed in 1948.

The works were divided between the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

For economic reasons, the Soviet state also sold several works, including Van Gogh’s ‘Night Café’, which went to Yale University, and Cézanne’s ‘Portrait of Madame Cézanne’, which now belongs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York).

The Parisian exhibition, which opened in September 2021, was celebrated as a major diplomatic event, in the presence of French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Minister of Culture Lyubimova.

Cultural dilemma on both sides

The Morozov collection is not the only exhibition whose organizers are wondering how and when the works can be returned to Russia.

A Carl Fabergé exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London which runs until May 8 includes 13 exhibits from Russian museums – a Fabergé egg that Vladimir Putin donated to the Hermitage in St Petersburg, as well as objects belonging at the Link of Times Foundation, whose founder Viktor Vekselberg is on the UK government’s sanctions list.

Russian museums face similar problems.

The “Diversity United” exhibition at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, a Germany-France-Russia collaboration, has been interrupted.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently withdrew his patronage from the exhibition organized by the Foundation for Art and Culture in Bonn, directed by Walter Smerling. “In this case, our plan to build bridges with the help of art and beyond political difficulties has not worked,” Smerling told DW, adding that he fears that “for the foreseeable future , exhibitions of contemporary art have no chance of taking place in Russia”. under conditions of lack of freedom and militant action.

Given the tragedy currently unfolding in Ukraine, the issues of the art world may seem irrelevant. But until the war, cooperative projects between Russian and European museums were considered an important diplomatic pillar.

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