A simmering row between the directors of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow has escalated into a full-blown confrontation after President Putin was dragged into the dispute. At issue is the future of a collection of paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and other modern masters, which has been on display at the Hermitage for nearly 70 years and is one of the institution’s major tourist attractions.
Irina Antonova, 91, who has been at the helm of the Pushkin Museum for over half a century, made an on-air appeal to President Putin during his annual call-in television show in April. She asked for the collection to be removed from the Hermitage and sent to Moscow, to help recreate a museum that was shut down by Stalin in 1948 as part of an anti-Western campaign.
The Museum of New Western Art had been established in Moscow in 1923 from the seminal collections assembled by Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, which were nationalised by the Bolsheviks. The wealthy pre-revolutionary art buyers were among the first to amass in-depth holdings of work by artists such as Matisse and Picasso. In a reshuffling of art after the Revolution, hundreds of Old Masters, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Poussin, were removed from the Hermitage and sent to the Pushkin. As compensation, 93 of the modern paintings from the Museum of New Western Art were transferred to the St Petersburg museum.
In her appeal to Putin in April, Antonova said the museum had been a pioneering institution, created five years before the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She suggested it should be restored in Moscow, as a point of Russian national pride.
Answering Antonova live on air, President Putin said he “would support any decision connected with the restoration of the museum,” but that any such effort “must result from discussion in the museum community itself, among specialists”.
He also indicated that it shouldn’t be too hard to sort out: “We are not talking, thank God, about returning works from abroad or handing works over to other countries. The issues here are all domestic.” Moving to resolve things quickly, the Russian government later said that the dispute must be settled this month.
The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, says he is determined to fight back. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, he says: “For any museum, the loss of a work of art is a tragedy. A museum is not a warehouse; it is not a collection; it is an organism that must not be destroyed. Maybe the Museum of New Western Art should not have been destroyed, but it happened… The [Morozov and Shchukin works]… are connected with all the other collections of the Hermitage, so any violation of this will cause damage.”
He also says that Antonova’s actions threaten to open the floodgates of restitution claims against all of the country’s museums, which Piotrovsky represents as the chairman of the Russian Union of Museums. His point is reiterated in a strongly worded and far-reaching statement issued by the Hermitage as we were going to press. It says Antonova’s claim will “lead to the destruction of traditional museum ties and… to the destruction of existing museum collections… and to a [barrage of] claims against Russian museums by countries abroad.”
Piotrovsky declined to say whether he has spoken directly with the president about the issue since the call-in television show. The Hermitage director was one of several hundred leading cultural figures who served as campaign representatives for Putin in last year’s presidential election,
Antonova has been talking about recreating the Museum of New Western Art in Moscow for years and she has made public claims on the Morozov and Shchukin collections in the Hermitage before, which have been summarily dismissed. However, this is the first time the idea to re-establish the museum is being discussed at the top levels of government as a realistic possibility .
For his part, Piotrovsky says he is willing to recreate the Museum of New Western Art within the Hermitage. The Morozov and Shchukin paintings, which have been on display on the third floor of the museum’s main building in the Winter Palace, will be moved this summer to the fourth floor of the General Staff building, which has been renovated as the Hermitage’s modern art wing. “We have galleries there in honour of Shchukin and Morozov,” he says. “I think this counts as a revival of the Museum of New Western Art.”
The Hermitage also says in its statement that, like the Pushkin, it is prepared to help set up a new museum, but it would be one devoted to contemporary art with a collection that is not “based on already existing ones. Serious effort of the State is required for the creation of such a museum… primarily for the purchase of contemporary art (as was done in the times of the Museum of New Western Art)”.
It is hard to say whether President Putin will personally intervene in the matter again and, if he does, whether he would favour Antonova’s proposal or Piotrovsky’s but commentators note that the Pushkin director is unlikely to have made a direct appeal to him live on air unless she had allies in the Kremlin encouraging her. Speaking on a Moscow radio station, Nikolai Svanidze, a political commentator, said: “The president’s administration and the president himself could not care less if the collection of Modern art will be kept in Moscow or in St Petersburg,” suggesting Putin only really cares about the public seeing him as a leader capable of resolving issues brought to his attention. If Piotrovsky had approached Putin about the issue first, said Svanidze, “the question would have been solved differently”.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Hermitage and Pushkin in war of words'