Hermitage responds to public feud
At national museums, arguments are usually settled in private. Not so in Russia
By Geraldine Norman. Web only
Published online: 01 July 2013
Can you imagine the directors of the National Gallery and the British Museum having a public spat over who should own what? At that level, however violent the emotions or bitter the resentment, arguments are settled in private. Not so in Russia.
Irina Antonova, the 91-year-old director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, took advantage of President Putin’s five hour “question and answer” marathon, televised on 25 April, to ask the president if he would revive the Moscow Museum of New Western Art closed by Stalin in 1948. This would involve the “restoration” to Moscow of the great Matisses, Picassos and other Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings currently housed in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.
Putin asked if Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, was on line and asked for his comment. Piotrovsky didn’t realise—on the spur of the moment— that this was a serious bid to remove the great Modern collection from the Hermitage and commented that the Modern pictures came to the Hermitage as compensation for more than 200 Old Masters the Hermitage had given to the Pushkin. Putin instructed that expert advice must be gathered.
By the time Piotrovsky realised that the many—and wealthy—supporters of Moscow versus St Petersburg (in the manner of Oxford versus Cambridge) saw this as an opportunity to campaign for a “greater” museum in Moscow and grind the upstart Petersburg (which has supplied Moscow with a government for the past 14 years) into the dust, he started to shout as loud as any of them.
The attempt to rob the Hermitage was, Piotrovsky says, a “crime against the stability of all Russia’s museums”. It was against the law of the “Museums Fund” —effectively the contents of all state museums taken together—introduced by President Yeltsin in 1996 and would open a whole can of worms on who should own what. Russian museums are based on the nationalisation of private collections in 1918 and contain “trophy art” removed as compensation from Germany after the Second World War. There are plenty of grounds for competitive claims of “ownership”.
He continued: “Unfortunately, behind the slogan of 'a just revival' we clearly see an opportunity of gaining greater prominence for the expensive real estate around the Kremlin and for the capital's tourist industry. And that has led to aggression on a scale worthy of the Arab Spring.”
So what it is all about? At the time of Revolution in 1917 two great textile merchants, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, had built themselves palaces in Moscow and filled them with extraordinary Modern paintings. Shchukin was one of the first collectors anywhere who appreciated the work of Matisse and Picasso. After the Revolution both collections were nationalised and initially both palaces were open to the public; then, in 1923, they were combined with numerous “proletarian” and other paintings in Morozov’s home as the Museum of New Western Art.
After the war the paintings were dubbed decadent and corrupting and were divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage museums—with the Hermitage taking the most avant-garde because the curator at the time, Antonina Izergina, understood them and didn’t mind keeping them in storage.
For the past 60 plus years, they have belonged to the Hermitage, have been gradually put on show, and have grown into one of the museum’s main attractions. The vast new wing of the museum, due to be opened next year in the general staff building, a former ministry block facing the Winter Place across Palace Square, has top lit galleries especially built for the Shchukin and Morozov paintings. The renovation of the building cost around £300m and was paid for by the World Bank and the Russian State.
Two major meetings took place to discuss the battle on May 22 and 23. The first was a joint meeting of the Ministry of Culture and the Union of Museums— Antonova was in a minority of one. The minister of culture, Vladimir Medinsky, commented that it might have been a mistake to close the Museum of New Western art in 1948, but it would be an even greater mistake to re-open it now. He suggested creating a virtual museum of the Shchukin and Morozov collections.
The second meeting was at President Putin's administration, called by his adviser on culture and art, Vladimir Tolstoy. He had invited people from all walks of life and Antonova got a little more support, notably from the television presenter Vladimir Pozner and the chairman of Alpha Bank, the famous collector Peter Aven—who suggested the Hermitage open a branch in Moscow and be given the Pushkin’s half of the paintings for it!
Since then, a Facebook appeal against the return of the paintings to Moscow has garnered around 40,000 signatures and the governor of St Petersburg has thrown his weight behind it. Piotrovsky’s final word: “The transfer would be wrong museologically, legally and morally.”
The writer is the adviser to the director of the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg
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