Museums Controversies Russian Federation

Pushkin and Hermitage dispute over Modernist collection rumbles on

Culture ministry’s suggestion of creating a “virtual museum” meets mostly with silence from museum directors

The Picasso Room in the Shchukin Mansion in Moscow. Photo: Orlov, 1913

A row over Modernist masterpieces (The Art Newspaper, June 2013, p30) continues to simmer between the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, with no resolution in sight until at least mid-June, when the Russian government is expected to give its final word.

The dispute involves dozens of works from the collections of Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, including paintings by Renoir, Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso, once housed in the State Museum of New Western Art in Moscow. These were distributed between the Pushkin and the Hermitage after the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin shut down the museum in 1948 on ideological grounds.

Russia’s culture minister Vladimir Medinsky told journalists in Moscow on Tuesday that he had handed over recommendations by experts on what should be done with the collections. Medinsky was curt, saying only “I have already done this”, and refusing to reveal the details of the recommendations, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

The row started in April, when Irina Antonova—the Pushkin’s formidable director, who at 91 is one of the few in the Russian art world to have seen the original State Museum of New Western Art—appealed to President Vladimir Putin on live television, asking him to recreate the institution in Moscow.

Last month, Medinsky signed a decree ordering the Pushkin and Hermitage to create a “virtual museum” from the collections that would go online later this year. Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, who publically lashed out at Antonova’s proposal, initially spoke in favour of this plan. On 6 June, Antonova told the Interfax news agency that a “virtual museum” does not solve the problem. Referring to the troubled history of the State Museum of New Western Art, she said: “This museum, as we know, was repressed, and must now be rehabilitated and restored.”

There has been some confusion over the deadline for settling the conflict. Originally, Putin had said an agreement must be reached by 15 June, but Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev had ordered a report by 3 June.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, said last month that this is a question for the culture ministry to decide with the museum directors, and that the president would not interfere. At the same time, however, he added that chances of the paintings being transferred from the Hermitage to the Pushkin “are significantly decreased” by the Kremlin’s knowledge of Piotrovsky’s “extremely negative” opinion of Antonova’s proposal.

“The expert advice seems to be all on the Hermitage side—but you never know,” Geraldine Norman, an advisor to Piotrovsky, told The Art Newspaper.

UPDATE: This article was updated on 17 June to include Irina Antonova's comments on the virtual museum plan.

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