A Blockbuster Exhibition, Ripped in Two by Russia’s War

Every day this week, hundreds of visitors to the National Gallery in London have marveled at “After Impressionism” — an acclaimed exhibition examining how, at the turn of the 20th century, painters including Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso pushed art in bold new directions.

So, too, have art lovers visiting an institution 1,700 miles away: the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, in Moscow.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, the two museums were collaborating on a single “After Impressionism” show, which would bring together masterpieces from each institution’s vast museum holdings. The exhibition was to open in London and then travel to Moscow. Now the shows are divorced; the National Gallery’s version of Cézanne’s “Bathers” will be seen only in London, while Henri Matisse’s “The Pink Studio,” a major painting of bright color and vivid decoration from 1911, will stay put in Moscow.

Over the past year, the National Gallery’s curators searched worldwide for paintings and sculptures to replace the 15 masterpieces that had been expected from Russia. The Pushkin’s curators, in turn, refocused its “After Impressionism,” which opened on Tuesday, toward Russian artists. Last year, Olga Lyubimova, Russia’s culture minister, said it was vital that exhibitions that had been planned with foreign museums went ahead, even when those museums now refused to loan works to Russia.

At a time when Western opera houses and concert halls are grappling with whether to resume work with Russian singers and musicians, the bifurcated “After Impression” exhibition shows that Western museums are holding firm in deciding to cut off Russian state institutions until the war is over. Although phone calls between colleagues on both sides continue, Russian museums are otherwise sealed off from Western influences and partnerships.

In recent statements, Russia’s culture ministry has downplayed the impact of isolation, and trumpeted potential cultural collaborations with nations that have not condemned the war, including China, Oman, and even Cuba.

MaryAnne Stevens, the lead curator of the National Gallery’s “After Impressionism,” said in an interview that the situation felt like a throwback to the 1970s, when Westerners struggled to borrow from Russia’s incredible collections of art and were hampered in academic research. “It’s deeply depressing and very saddening,” she said.

That sense of Russia being shut off has only grown in recent weeks as the government changed the leadership at several of Moscow’s biggest museums, pushing out directors that promoted joint projects with Western institutions.

Last month, Marina Loshak, the Pushkin’s longtime director and a driving force behind the joint “After Impressionism” show, resigned after 10 years in the role.

In a statement on the Puskin’s social media accounts, she said it was time for a new director “to come with new energy, with new thoughts and with new ambitions.” But to many in Russia, Loshak’s position had become untenable because her daughter, Anna Mongayt, is an opposition journalist who opposes the war. Loshak said in an interview with The Art Newspaper Russia that she wanted to leave the Pushkin on her own terms. Loshak was replaced by Elizaveta Likhacheva, previously the head of Russia’s Shchusev Museum of Architecture.

In February, there was a similar changing of the guard at the State Tretyakov Gallery, another of Moscow’s major museums, when the culture ministry announced the abrupt dismissal of Zelfira Tregulova, the Tretyakov Gallery’s steadfastly independent director since 2015. She was replaced by Elena Pronicheva, who previously ran the Polytechnic Museum, a science collection, in Moscow.

Under Tregulova’s leadership, the Tretyakov Gallery staged or hosted several surprising contemporary art shows — including one that celebrated diversity and European unity — and lent works from its collection across Europe. In January, the ministry wrote to the museum urging it to do more to promote “traditional Russian spiritual and moral values,” according to a report in The Moscow Times. A few weeks later, the ministry decided not to renew Tregulova’s contract. Tregulova told reporters she learned of the decision in the press.

Both Loshak and Tregulova turned down interview requests for this article; the Pushkin and Tretyakov museums did not respond to similar requests.

Catherine Phillips, a British art historian who had worked with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg since the 1990s, said in an interview that although the changes were stark, they seemed more about the government wanting to show its power over cultural life, rather than seeking to alter the museums’ content or “micromanage the culture.”

Yet there has been a more patriotic turn in the past decade in some of Russia’s museums, particularly its military and historical institutions. Over the past year, Lyubimova, the culture minister, has visited and praised several such shows, including a Moscow exhibition venerating Russia’s warrior saints. The show had perhaps been conceived “in a completely different setting, with a different message,” she said, according to a news release, but it was “all the more providential to open this exhibition today.”

Of all of Russia’s museums, the Hermitage — founded in the 18th century by Catherine the Great, a German princess who became Russia’s empress — has had the greatest ties to Western Europe. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Hermitage recalled numerous loans, including Fabergé eggs at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, paintings at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris and a Picasso portrait from an Italian museum.

The Hermitage’s director, Mikhail Piotrovsky, remains in place. The museum’s head since 1990, Piotrovsky is close to President Vladimir Putin of Russia and has made statements backing Russia’s invasion. Last year, in an interview with a Russian newspaper, Piotrovsky, said he felt “stabbed in the back” when foreign museums cut ties with his institution.

In an emailed statement, Piotrovsky said “the blockade of Russia’s museums” had forced the museum to change how it operates. “We have been looking into the opportunities for holding exhibitions from private collections and from friendly countries,” he said.

With fewer international tourists, the museum is pivoting to maintain its global presence. Piotrovsky said the Hermitage was becoming more active online, a move that includes offering virtual museum tours. In March, the museum began broadcasting live feeds from webcams trained on of two of its greatest modern masterpieces — Matisse’s “Dance” and “Music” — so that art lovers outside Russia could still see them.

The museum would also work outside Russia by hosting events in Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, Piotrovsky said, but did not explain what those would involve.

Officially, Russia’s museums may now be looking Eastward, but Vladimir Opredelenov, a former deputy director at the Pushkin Museum, who left after Russia’s invasion, said in an email interview that Western and Russian museums were still collaborating, just in “more veiled and bizarre forms” rather than via official channels.

Once the war’s over, “we will see that museums will be among the first to set an example” and resume cultural exchange, he added, because “both sides equally understand the value of maintaining human relationships.”

Until then, Opredelenov said, Russian museums need to work with countries in the Middle East and Asia to help spread their creativity: “I hope that the world community understands and accepts this.”

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