The exhibit that almost wasn't.
The Royal Academy of Arts exhibit titled From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870–1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg opened last weekend and runs through April 18th. Demand for tickets has been very high, and many of the planned events are already sold out. Despite the recent controveries between the UK and Russian Federation, the unprecedented exhibit opened with few complications, and has outstanding reviews, as it brings together some of the great paintings of the late 19th and early 20th century. From the RA website:
This landmark exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts presents modern masterpieces drawn from Russia’s principal collections: the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. For the first time, works from these museums have been gathered for a single exhibition.The exhibit will also included various events, including evening lectures, lunch-time lectures, and workshops. There is even a contest to win a FREE trip for two to St. Petersburg (open to residents of UK and Northern Ireland only - I checked). Entries for the contest are accepted until April 18th and the winners will be contacted on April 21st.
Over 120 paintings by Russian and French artists working between 1870 and 1925 will be displayed together in an exhibition which surveys the main directions of modern art from Realism and Impressionism to Non-Objective painting. Works will include paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Matisse together with those by Kandinsky, Tatlin and Malevich.
For those of you unaware of some of the complications with making the exhibit possible, the Russian government wanted assurances that the paintings would not be siezed and possibly returned to heirs of the former owners. Many of the paintings had been in the private collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov prior to the Russian Revolution. However, as explained in the Time's Online article by Mark Stephens:
The Russian Government took no good title to the pictures, leaving the legitimate owners, and now their heirs, every right to claim what should have been theirs. That right to have stolen cultural property returned is embodied in our domestic law as well as being a modern cultural and civilised norm that has crystallised into international law.
Perversely, Russian law prevents reclamation of looted art in government hands. This means that the only opportunity to recover stolen artworks is when they travel abroad — hence the controversy about whether the works would actually be sent for exhibition.
The Russians could have lawfully “nationalised” the cultural objects taken during the revolution. The difference between the thieving State and the legitimate compulsory purchase is not a fine one. The State must pay compensation to anyone from whom it takes assets — a bit like the compulsory purchase powers exercised by local authorities. The absence of compensation makes the acquisitions by Russia illegal.
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