As Big Shows of Russian Art End in Europe, Some Wonder What’s Next

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A blockbuster show at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, on the outskirts of Paris, has been seen by over a million people since it opened in November. Known as the Morozov collection, it includes paintings by Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir and Van Gogh, as well as some of Russian’s most renowned painters. The collection, which had never before been seen outside Russia, is so important to the country that President Vladimir V. Putin personally signed off on the works traveling to France.

In more normal times, the works would be packed into boxes and returned to Russian museums after the exhibition closes on April 3. Now, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is unclear when those works will get home.

Jean-Paul Claverie, a special adviser to Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH, the luxury conglomerate that created and runs the Louis Vuitton Foundation, said in a telephone interview that the curators from three of Russia’s major museums, who would normally oversee the works being removed, may not be able to travel easily to France because of ever-changing restrictions on flights leaving Russia.

Most European nations have banned Russian airlines entering their airspace, while many European carriers have suspended flights to and from Russia.

More complicated than how the Russian curators might get to Paris, however, is the question of how the works can be returned safely. The Louis Vuitton Foundation, in coordination with the respective Russian institutions, was investigating what to do “if we have a problem” crossing borders, Claverie said. “Maybe we will have to put the works in storage, or store in an embassy, or keep the collection in the security and safety box we have in the Foundation.” He added, “The security of the paintings is our only objective.”

As the war in Ukraine continues, museums across Europe are having to grapple with a range of questions — logistical, moral and diplomatic — about how they should deal with their Russian counterparts. That includes working out how to safely return artworks, but also what to do with future exhibitions that are meant to involve Russian loans.

“The Morozov Collection” isn’t the only high-profile show facing these dilemmas. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has 13 items from Russian museums in its sold-out exhibition on the jeweler Fabergé, which is on view until May 8. Those include a Fabergé egg that Putin presented to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, as well as items belonging to the Link of Times Foundation, whose founder, Viktor Vekselberg, is on the British government’s sanctions list.

A spokeswoman for the museum, commonly known as the V&A, declined to explain in detail what will happen to the 13 items when the exhibition closes. And a spokesman for Britain’s culture ministry said in an email that it “will work with the V&A to see how we can return the Fabergé eggs to Russia at the right time.”

Russian museums are grappling with these issues, too. At the start of March, officials from the Hermitage Museum wrote to several Italian museums saying that, under orders from Russia’s Ministry of Culture, it was recalling all loans worldwide by March 31.

Then, last week, the museum performed a U-turn, saying in a statement that “considering the problems of safety and logistics” it would not be recalling the items after all.

Raffaele Curi, the artistic director of the Alda Fendi Foundation, which is showing Picasso’s “Young Woman 1909” in Rome, on loan from the Hermitage until May 15, said in a telephone interview that the U-turn was perhaps “convenient” for Russia, since it was hard to see how the paintings could be returned at the moment.

The Picasso had traveled through Ukraine by truck on its way to Rome, Curi said, adding “it would have been very difficult from a logistical point of view” to make that return journey now.

Robert Read, the head of fine art at Hiscox, a specialist insurer that often works with European museums, said in a telephone interview that the issues around returning works were likely logistical, rather than political. Frederic de Weck, the head of the Russian arm of the art logistics firm ESI, agreed, saying the reason paintings and artworks might remain in Western Europe is the lack of direct flights to Russia, with museums not wanting to send their work via connecting flights given the additional risks.

De Weck said he had recently spoken with officials at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow who said its paintings in the Morozov Collection would “stay in France” until direct flights were possible.

Sending the artworks by truck was not a great option given ongoing tensions, he added. Some trucks with Russian number plates had been attacked while traveling through Europe, so on recent journeys his drivers had taken to covering up any signage indicating they were from Russia whenever they parked overnight.

Any suggestion the work might be seized is baseless, he added, since all international loans occurred under agreements that prevented them being seized by a foreign government.

Governments and museums would not want to be seen refusing to send artwork back as that would “upset the entire system” of international loans, Read said. The paintings at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, for example, are covered by a French law known as the “arrêté d’insaisissabilité,” which protects cultural objects from being seized by a foreign government.

Some freight companies, including FedEx, have suspended their deliveries to Russia, but it is unclear if any specialist art movers have done so. Several specialist firms including Momart and Cadogan Tate did not respond to requests for comment.

The impact of the invasion on long-term collaborations between Russian and European museums is unclear. Since 2011, Russian state museums have refused to lend artworks to museums in the United States, fearing they might be confiscated.

Some European art scholars fear a similar freeze might now occur between Russian museums and those in Western Europe. The governments of Austria, Britain, the Netherlands and Spain have asked cultural organizations not to collaborate with Russian state museums, even if they have been planning exhibitions with them for years, while Russia has also stopped some international collaborations.

Those moves are having an impact, with shows being canceled and exhibition tours to Russia stopped. Karina Iwe, a curator at the State Archaeological Museum in Chemnitz, Germany, said in a telephone interview that for over two years she had been working on an exhibition on body art, scheduled to open on April 1, the highlight of which was to be a Siberian horseman’s preserved body, covered in tattoos. The Siberian branch of Russia’s Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography had approved the loan. But at the start of March, the institute told her the body would not be leaving Russia. “I’m afraid with each day of the war it becomes more and more difficult for future collaboration,” Iwe said.

Natalia Murray, a curator at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London who was born in St. Petersburg, said in an email that “a ban on loans and exhibitions will firmly close the door to Russian culture which will be very difficult to open again.”

For years, art exhibitions had helped “build bridges” with Russia as political relations had been breaking down, she said. Even if the desire not to work with Russia was understandable, the ongoing wave of cancellations “burn these last remaining bridges between our countries.”

Such moves, she added, “cut the last threads of hope for some understanding of the people and culture ‘on the other side.’”

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