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A blockbuster exhibition torn in half by the Russian war

Every day this week, hundreds of visitors to London’s National Gallery marveled at ‘After Impressionism’ – an acclaimed exhibition exploring the works of the likes of Van Gogh, Cézanne and Picasso at the turn of the 20th century How painters pushed art in bold new directions.

So art lovers, too, visit an institution 1,700 miles away: Moscow’s Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two museums are collaborating on a “Post-Impressionism” exhibition that will bring together masterpieces from each institution’s vast museum collections. The exhibition will open in London before heading to Moscow. Now the show is divorced; the National Gallery version of Cézanne’s The Bathers will only be shown in London, while Henri Matisse’s The Pink Studio is a brightly colored and decorated 1911 Lively and important paintings, which will remain in Moscow.

Over the past year, National Gallery curators have scoured the globe for paintings and sculptures to replace the 15 masterpieces expected to come from Russia. In turn, curators at the Pushkin Museum refocused “Post-Impressionism,” which opened on Tuesday, on Russian artists. Last year, Russia’s culture minister, Olga Lyubimova, said it was vital that exhibitions held in partnership with foreign museums go ahead, even if those museums now refuse to loan works to Russia.

As Western opera houses and concert halls grapple with whether to resume work with Russian singers and musicians, the forked “After Impressions” exhibition shows that Western museums are firmly determined to sever Russian state institutions before the end of the war. Despite colleagues on both sides Telephone calls continue, but the Russian museum is otherwise insulated from Western influence and partnerships.

In recent statements, Russia’s culture ministry has played down the impact of isolation and touted potential cultural cooperation with countries that have not condemned the war, including China, Oman and even Cuba.

Mary Anne Stevens, chief curator of “After Impressionism” at the National Gallery, said in an interview that the situation feels like a throwback to the ’70s, when Westerners struggled to borrow from Russia’s incredible art collection. , and hampered in academic research. “It’s very frustrating and sad,” she said.

That sense of Russia being shut down has only intensified in recent weeks, as the government changed the leadership of some of Moscow’s largest museums, ousting directors who pushed for joint projects with Western institutions.

Last month, Marina Loshak, Pushkin’s longtime director and the driving force behind “After the Impressionists” co-star, stepped down after 10 years in the role.

In a statement on Puskin’s social media accounts, she said it was time for a new director “to come with new energy, new ideas and new ambitions”. But for many in Russia, Losak’s position is no longer tenable because her daughter, Anna Mongayt, is an opposition journalist who opposes the war. In an interview with the Russian art newspaper, Loshak said that she wanted to leave Pushkin on her own terms. Loshak was replaced by Elizaveta Likhacheva, former director of Russia’s Shchusev Architecture Museum.

Another major museum in Moscow, the State Tretyakov Gallery, underwent a similar changing of the guard in February, when the culture ministry announced the sudden dismissal of the independent director of the Tretyakov Gallery since 2015. Zelfira Tregulova. She was replaced by Elena Pronicheva, who previously ran the Polytechnic Museum of Science Collections in Moscow.

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

Both Loshak and Tregulova declined interview requests for this article; the Pushkin Museum and the Tretyakov Museum did not respond to similar requests.

Catherine Phillips, a British art historian who has worked at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg since the 1990s, said in an interview that while the changes were noticeable, they appeared to be more a result of the government’s desire to demonstrate its commitment to culture. The power to live, rather than seek to change the museum’s content or “micromanage the culture”.

Over the past decade, however, some of Russia’s museums, especially its military and historical institutions, have seen a more patriotic shift. Over the past year, Culture Minister Lyubimova has visited and praised several such exhibitions, including a Moscow exhibition that honors the Russian warrior saint. According to a press release, she said the show may have been conceived “with a different message in a completely different setting,” but “opening the show today is more like providence.”

Of all the museums in Russia, the Hermitage has the strongest ties to Western Europe. The Winter Palace was founded in the 18th century by the German princess Catherine the Great, who later became Empress of Russia. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the Hermitage Museum took back a number of items on loan, including a Faberge egg from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, a painting from the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris and a portrait of Picasso from the Italian museum.

The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, stayed on. Piotrovsky, the museum’s director since 1990, is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin and has issued statements in support of the Russian invasion. In an interview with a Russian newspaper last year, Piotrovsky said he felt “stabbed in the back” when foreign museums severed ties with his institution.

In an emailed statement, Piotrovsky said the “blockade of museums in Russia” has forced museums to change the way they operate. “We’re always looking for opportunities to have private collections and friendly country exhibitions,” he said.

The museum is struggling to maintain its global presence amid a drop in international visitors. Piotrovsky said the Hermitage has become more active online, a move that includes offering virtual museum tours. In March, the museum began broadcasting two of its greatest modern masterpieces — Matisse’s “Dance” and “Music” — live from trained webcams so art lovers outside Russia can still see them they.

The museum will also work outside Russia, with events in Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, Piotrovsky said, without explaining what those events would involve.

The official line is that museums in Russia may now be looking east, but Vladimir Opredelenov, the former deputy director of the Pushkin Museum, who left after the Russian invasion, said in an email interview, Museums in the West and Russia are still collaborating, only in the “more hidden and bizarre realm of form” rather than through official channels.

Once the war is over, “we’ll see that museums will lead by 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 the international community understands and accepts this.”

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