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Moscow Pans West’s Removal of Russia From Art as ‘Lame Political Gesture’

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international culture envoy has slammed decisions taken by major galleries in the United Kingdom and the United States to switch references from Russia to Ukraine, describing the moves as politically motivated.

Following the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine last year, a number of artists mobilized in support of Kyiv and have proven influential in changing the conversation on existing controversies over references to Russia in famous pieces of art and the nationality of the artists who painted them.

Among the first major victories for the campaign took place in April of last year when the National Gallery in London renamed a series of late-19th century paintings by French Impressionist Edgar Degas. Originally known as “Russian Dancers,” online references to the work now read “Ukrainian Dancers,” given that the subjects were deemed to have almost certainly hailed from modern-day Ukraine, which was then a 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 ranked among Russian artists. Similar decisions have followed in other Western galleries when it comes to Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Kabakov, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Louise Nevelson, who were also born in modern-day Ukraine under Russian Empire control.

While the moves have been cast by supporters as the culmination of a longstanding effort to highlight Ukraine’s art heritage, the decisions are being panned by the Kremlin as an assault on Russian culture prompted 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 remarks shared with Newsweek. “The history of renaming world-famous paintings and the disassociation of great artists from the word Russia, commenced a little less than a year ago, when the process of abolishing Russian culture was gaining momentum.”

On the issue of Degas’ paintings, Shvydkoy argued that “cultural, bureaucratic London justified its decision on the basis of its own ideas about beauty and the stance of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United Kingdom.”

Reached for comment, a spokesperson for the National Gallery told Newsweek that, “It has always been noted in the scholarly literature surrounding this work that the dancers were in fact Ukrainian rather than Russian” and that this has been reflected in the text accompanying the series online.

“We also decided in 1998 to retain the title Russian Dancers; such troupes were identified in Paris at the time as ‘Russian,’ and the group of works by Degas (consisting of around 14 pastels and colored drawings) is universally known in the scholarly literature as the ‘Russian Dancers,'” the statement said.

“There is no evidence that Degas himself called these images Russian Dancers,” it added. “That seems to have been the decision of his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who bought one such work from Degas as early as 1906 and later included them in his first and third posthumous sales of Degas’ works (in 1918 and 1919) under the title Russian Dancers. That is how they entered the Degas literature.”

Degas’ only reference to this work, according to the National Gallery, was during a July 1, 1899, lunch with the daughter of another famous Impressionist painter, who noted in her diary that Degas had invited her to see the works as they were underway without mention of any particular title.

“There is ongoing research about paintings in the National Gallery collection and information about our works is updated as and when appropriate and when new information comes to light,” the National Gallery statement said, “and we felt this was the right moment to update the title of this work to better reflect the subject of the painting.”

Newsweek has reached out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where online references to the series now read “Dancers in Ukrainian Dress,” for comment.

The National Gallery made no note of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, though Shvydkoy highlighted appeals made by Ukrainian art officials and artists such as 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 deed, display an elementary disregard for 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 employees of the Metropolitan), the name of Degas’ work has been the subject of a long-standing dispute, since he depicted dancers in the colors of the present-day Ukrainian flag – yellow and blue are discernible in the floral chaplet wreaths and ribbons adorning the girls.”

“But no matter what the representatives of the art history communities in London or New York might decide,” he added, “the artist called his pastels, as he saw fit – ‘Russian Dancers’ – and not otherwise.”

The Russian diplomat also argued that the blue and yellow colors that went on to become the basis of the modern Ukrainian flag only “first appeared some fifteen years after Edgar Degas completed the work in 1914 at the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko,” a poet and artist born in modern-day Ukraine whose body of work is widely associated with the foundation of modern Ukrainian literature.

Other scholarly sources place the introduction of the blue and yellow flag as taking place during the 1848 series of European revolutions known as the Springtime of Nations, during which Ukraine was divided between the Russian and Austrian Empires.

The flag was first put to official use as the Ukrainian state symbol during the Ukrainian People’s Republic that existed from 1917 to 1919, before the country was annexed by the Soviet Union and began to adopt a largely red flag with a yellow hammer and sickle and blue stripe running through the bottom.

As Shvydkoy argued, however, “Edgar Degas could have seen a Ukrainian dance performed only by actresses from the Russian Empire, since Ukraine had not yet come into existence on the map of the world.”

“Inside the Russian Empire there was no legal division of citizens according to ethnicity, instead such differentiation was made by confession of faith,” Shvydkoy said. “Self-identification was associated with religion and culture. For this reason, to convert retroactively artists, the majority of whom are long deceased, from one nationality to another, needless to say, without their own knowledge and consent, is certainly no divine enterprise .”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s international culture envoy has slammed decisions taken by major galleries in the United Kingdom and the United States to switch references from Russia to Ukraine, describing the moves as politically motivated.

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