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Museum of New Western Art likely to be recreated in Moscow only virtually

May 29, 2013, 16:46 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, May 29 (Itar-Tass) - The idea of recreating what was once Moscow’s Museum of New Western Art, which boasted a truly unique collection of paintings by impressionists and post-impressionists, painstakingly pieced together by wealthy Russian art lovers only to be eliminated on orders from Stalin, has failed to get wide support from either museum workers or officials. That initiative by the head of Moscow’s main fine arts museum was confined to transferring part of the collection of new Western art, handed over to St. Petersburg’s Hermitage during Stalin’s rule, back to the Russian capital.

On the face of it the possibility of re-creating the museum by pooling masterpieces authored by Picasso, Matisse and Renoir, currently exhibited in Russia’s two largest cities, looks lucrative. However, the Hermitage is emphatically reluctant to give the paintings away, and in this it relies on the opinion of the residents and authorities of St. Petersburg. Experts fear there may be created a precedent capable of triggering a chain reaction of demands and conflicts in the museum community. It looks liked the proposal for re-establishing the museum physically has been dropped, but it may be restored in a virtual reality.

The director of the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, Irina Antonova, addressed President Putin during last April’s live question-and-answer session with a proposal for restoring the Museum of New Western Art in Moscow and for returning to Moscow paintings by impressionists and post-impressionists that were handed over to the Hermitage Museum in the middle of last century.

“The Hermitage will always be the Hermitage,” Antonova told the daily Izvestia in an interview afterwards. “Moscow is worth giving thought to.”

Putin promised that he would support any decision regarding the restoration of the museum, but only after preliminary research by the professional community.

The Museum of New Western Art was created in Moscow in 1923 on the basis of two pre-revolutionary collections of modernist art, nationalized by the Bolsheviks. One belonged to Sergei Shchukin, and the other, to Ivan Morozov. The museum consisted of paintings by Monet, Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse and other artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before the revolution Moscow’s collectors were considered far more advanced than their counterparts in St. Petersburg, the then capital of Russia. When Shchukin in 1906 ordered what would become Matisse’s world-famous works, including Dance and Music, he was ridiculed as someone out of his mind and a garbage collector.

As a result, Soviet Russia in 1923 created the world’s first Museum of New Art (New York’s Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, would appear five years later, in 1928). The Moscow museum of new art became a place of pilgrimage by foreign tourists and a reliable source of much-needed foreign currency. This is one of the reasons why the museum for a long time remained intact, although the question of this “den of bourgeois art” was raised many a time during its existence.

In 1948 the museum was eliminated on personal orders from Joseph Stalin as a “center of adulation of the decadent bourgeois culture,” and the most precious exhibits were split between the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and the Hermitage. Now the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts keeps 291 paintings from the collections of Shchukin and Morozov. The Hermitage has about 335 of them. If put together again, the collection would deservedly take a worthy place next to the world’s top museums alongside the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery.

The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, gave the idea of his Moscow counterpart the cold shoulder. “I am ashamed museum affairs are discussed in a hot line question-and-answer session with the president,” he added.

St. Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko sent a letter of support to Mikhail Piotrovsky. The impressionists’ works should not leave St. Petersburg, Poltavchenko said.

The campaign We Shall Not Give Away Our Dear Impressionists has begun to gain momentum in St. Petersburg. Signatures are being collected to a message of protest against the transfer of part of the Hermitage collection to Moscow.

The Hermitage has published a special statement on its website saying that at a certain moment in its history the collection of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts was expanded at the expense of Leningrad collections. “By installments the Pushkin museum received over 500 paintings taken out of the main Hermitage stock,” St. Petersburg’s main museum said on its website. “Among them there were first-class works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyke, Jordan, Poussin, Watteau, and Titian.

The Hermitage staff recall with a touch of injured price that when the collection was split up, the Pushkin museum enjoyed the priority of choice. Most of the works by impressionists and post-impressionists were transferred to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. For instance, of Monet’s 15 paintings the Hermitage got four, and Moscow, 11. Of the eight works by Renoir the Hermitage received three, and the Pushkin Museum, five, etc. Moscow did not lay claim to masterpieces by Matisse, Picasso and Derain, so the Hermitage got Shchukin’s whole collection of cubistic paintings by Picasso.

The Ministry of Culture last week held an enlarged meeting of the expert council, which discussed the idea of recreating the Museum of New Western Art.

At the meeting Irina Antonova had to defend her idea all alone. She said that the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts was prepared to share part of the paintings with a future museum, which might be created just opposite the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, currently meant for building a special exhibition hall Museum Town under the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

All others who took the floor at the Ministry of Culture’s council meeting opposed the idea, because the current collection of the Hermitage Museum would be split.

The director of the State Institute of Art Studies, Natalya Sipovskaya asked the minister of culture and the members of the council to pay attention to the fact that the country “has long had no major convertible exhibition projects.” She called for spending money on them, and not on moving paintings from one big city to another.

Mikhail Piotrovsky suggested holding joint exhibitions and creating a virtual museum, which would be an excellent monument to the Museum of New Western Art.

The recreation of the Museum of New Western Art may prove a mistake, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, warned.

“Frankly speaking, I am certain that in 1948 a big mistake was committed. The museum should not have been eliminated. But now I am not certain that attempts to correct that mistake will not prove a still greater mistake,” Medinsky said. Correcting mistakes is always painful and grave, he added.

Medinsky backed Piotrovsky’s idea of a virtual museum.

“I have signed an instruction to open a virtual museum of New Western Art this year,” Medinsky said.

“We may embark on a very treacherous path. Any museum may now feel free to demand to have back everything that was taken away in the Stalinist years,” the research activities deputy director of the Museum of History of St. Petersburg, Yulia Demidenko, told the portal Online812 in an interview. “So what? Entering into litigations over demands for returning everything? After these actions one may surely forget about any joint activity of Russian museums.

Under the government’s resolution the question of recreating the State Museum of New Western Art will continue to be discussed up to June 3 with the Piotrovsky-led Union of Museums of Russia taking part.