While major exhibitions of Russian art end in Europe, some wonder what will be next

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. It is known as the Morozov Collection and includes paintings by Picasso, Gauguin, Renoir and Van Gogh as well as some of Russia’s most famous painters. The collection, which had never been seen outside of Russia before, is so important to the country that President Vladimir V. Putin personally acknowledged the works that traveled to France.

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

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

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

More complicated than how the Russian curators can get to Paris is the question of how the works can be returned safely. The Louis Vuitton Foundation, in coordination with the respective Russian institutions, examined what they should do, “if we have a problem” with crossing borders, Claverie said. “Maybe we need to keep the works or store at an embassy or keep the collection in the safety and security box we have in the fund.” He added: “The safety of the paintings is our only goal.”

As the war in Ukraine continues, museums across Europe have to contend with a series of questions – logistical, moral and diplomatic – about how to deal with their Russian counterparts. It includes figuring out how to safely return works of art, but also what to do with future exhibitions designed to involve Russian loans.

“The Morozov Collection” is not the only high-profile show facing these dilemmas. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has 13 objects from Russian museums in its sold-out exhibition on the jeweler Fabergé, which can be seen until 8 May. Among them is a Fabergé egg that Putin presented to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Russia, as well as objects 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 objects when the exhibition closes. And a spokesman for Britain’s Ministry of Culture said in an email that it “will work with V&A to see how we can return the Fabergé eggs to Russia at the right time.”

Russian museums are also struggling with these problems. In early March, officials from the Hermitage Museum wrote to several Italian museums, saying that by order of Russia’s Ministry of Culture, it had withdrawn all loans worldwide by March 31.

So last week, the museum made a U-turn and said in a statement that “given the security and logistics issues” it would still not be to recall the items.

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

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

Robert Read, the head of art at Hiscox, a specialist insurance company that often works with European museums, said in a telephone interview that questions about returning works were probably logistical rather than political. Frederic de Weck, head of the Russian branch of the art logistics company ESI, agreed, saying that the reason paintings and works of art might remain in Western Europe is the lack of direct flights to Russia, where museums do not want to send their work via connecting flights in view of the additional risks.

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

Sending the artworks by truck was not a good option given the persistent tensions, he added. Some trucks with Russian license plates had been attacked while driving through Europe, so on recent trips, his drivers had taken to cover any sign indicating that they were from Russia every time they parked overnight.

Any suggestion that the work could be seized is unfounded, he added, as all international loans were made under agreements that prevented them from being seized by a foreign government.

Governments and museums do not want to be seen refusing to send works of art back as it would “disrupt the whole system” of international loans, Read said. The paintings of the Louis Vuitton Foundation, for example, are subject to 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 specialized movers have done so. Several specialized 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 works of art to museums in the United States for fear they could be confiscated.

Some European art scholars fear that a similar freeze may 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 cooperate with Russian state museums, even though they have been planning exhibitions with them for years, while Russia has also stopped some international cooperation.

These movements have an impact where shows are canceled and exhibition trips to Russia stopped. Karina Iwe, curator at the State Archaeological Museum in Chemnitz, Germany, said in a telephone interview that she had been working for over two years on an exhibition on body art scheduled to open on April 1, culminating in being a Siberian rider’s preserved body, covered with tattoos. The Siberian branch of Russia’s Institute of Archeology and Ethnography had approved the loan. But in early March, the institute told her the body would not leave Russia. “I’m afraid that with each day of the war, it’s getting more and more difficult for future cooperation,” 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 close the door to Russian culture, which will be very difficult to reopen.”

For years, art exhibitions had helped “build bridges” to Russia as political ties were about to collapse, she said. Although the desire not to work with Russia was understandable, “the ongoing wave of cancellations is burning the last remaining bridges between our countries.”

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

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