Safe From Seizure, Works Go to Britain

APA Royal Academy staff member posing Tuesday in front of a work by Matisse.
LONDON -- From Russia -- with qualms.

Works by Matisse, Van Gogh, Cezanne and other masterpieces from Russian museums are finally hanging in a London gallery after high-level reassurances and a last-minute legal change eased Moscow's fears that the paintings could be seized in legal action if they traveled to Britain.

The Royal Academy of Arts' blockbuster exhibition "From Russia" gathers 120 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works -- many seized by the Soviet state after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The show, which took years to assemble, was canceled last month by Russian authorities, who said families of the paintings' original owners might go to court to get them back while they were in London.

The exhibition was saved when the British government agreed to rush into effect a law giving loaned foreign artworks immunity from seizure.

"It was a little bit of a cliffhanger from our point of view," lead curator Norman Rosenthal said Tuesday, standing in front of the show's most famous painting -- Henri Matisse's huge "Dance II," an exuberant painting of five naked figures dancing hand in hand. "We didn't have a backup plan."

Rosenthal said the show, one of the biggest in the academy's history, captures an "extraordinary outburst" of cross-fertilizing creativity between Russia and France. It covers the tumultuous period from 1870 to 1925, when European society underwent wars and revolutions and painting moved from rural realism to the radical perspective-shattering of Cubism and Futurism.

But the exhibition has been overshadowed by international tensions between Britain and Russia. Strained by the 2006 killing in London of former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko, relations have worsened with Russia's decision this month to shut down two offices of a British cultural organization, the British Council.

"It would be a disaster if cultural relations were in some way affected between our two countries, because they run very, very deep," Rosenthal said. "We have to collaborate for all of us to survive, particularly in the cultural field."

At the exhibition's heart are paintings gathered by two Russian collectors, Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin. Rich textile merchants with a passion for French art, each amassed an extraordinary collection: Morozov owned 18 Cezannes, Shchukin more than 50 Picassos.

The works were seized by Vladimir Lenin for the Soviet state after the Revolution, and the collectors' descendants have led a long campaign for compensation. Shchukin's grandson, Andre-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, and Morozov's great-grandson, Pierre Konowaloff, say they do not want the paintings back, but do want acknowledgment of their loss and financial compensation.

The two stood outside the museum Tuesday and spoke to reporters coming to review the exhibit.

"We are not enemies of the Royal Academy," said Delocque-Fourcaud, 66, who came from his home in France. "We didn't want to jeopardize the exhibition" -- which has, they say, drawn new attention to the families' cause.

The works in "From Russia" run from 19th-century realism through French innovators including Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Auguste Renoir, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and the experimental Russian and Soviet artists they inspired: Marc Chagall, Vassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and others.

Each of the nine rooms is crammed with great paintings, including Cezanne's "Haystacks at Giverny" and Picasso's angular female nude "Dryad." Later comes a treasure trove of avant-garde Russian work: Nathan Altman's cubist-inspired portrait of poet Anna Akhmatova, Pavel Filonov's fractured Cubo-Futurist war painting "The German War" and Malevich's abstract "Black Circle," "Black Square" and "Black Cross."

"Russian artists were always looking to the latest developments in Paris, which was the center of the art world," said co-curator Ann Dumas.

"Increasingly they found their own voice, and they emerge at the end as leaders of the avant-garde."

Rosenthal, whose Jewish parents came to Britain as refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, has little sympathy for the families of the paintings' pre-Revolutionary owners.

"I think history is history, and we have to live with the consequences of history," he said. "In 1917, the Revolution took place, and, for better or for worse, we can't turn the clock back."