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As the Met reclassifies Russian art as Ukrainian, not everyone is convinced

<span>Photograph: Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Erik Pendzich/REX/Shutterstock

Questions of attribution are constantly under review by art scholars, but rarely are they so topical or heated as institutional efforts underway in the US and in Europe to reclassify art once described as Russian as Ukrainian.

In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has quietly changed the name of an 1899 painting by the French Impressionist Edgar Degas from Russian Dancer to Dancer in Ukrainian Dress.

The Met also holds works by Arkhyp Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin, a 19th-century painter who was born in what is now Ukraine. The artists were previously listed as Russian and are now categorized as Ukrainian.

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But seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky, whom the Met had also changed from Russian to Ukrainian, was abruptly relisted as Armenian on Thursday, after an outcry from New York’s Armenian community.

The Armenian-American news outlet Asbarez objected to the painter’s reattribution and noted that the Met had acknowledged that Aivazovsky was “born into an Armenian family in the Crimean port city of Feodosia on the Black Sea”.

Separately, an article in Hyperallergic described the Met’s attribution changes as “misguided”. “We should not replace the ignorance shown in the previous identification with a new type of ignorance,” its author Vartan Matiossian wrote.

The reattributions in New York follow moves at the National Gallery in London last year to change the name of another of Degas’ dancer series from Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers, since the subjects of Degas’ work, judged by their costumes, likely came from what is now Ukraine, which was then part of the Russian empire.

The National Gallery told the Guardian last year that it was “an appropriate moment to update the painting’s title to better reflect the subject of the painting”.

Similar decisions have been made regarding other artists like Kazimir Malevich, Ilya Kabakov, Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Louise Nevelson, who were also born in modern-day Ukraine when it was under the control of the Russian empire.

The moves are described by some as part of an effort to correctly attribute the contribution of Ukrainian artists to art history. But they have also been denounced by others. Last week, Mikhail Shvydkoy, the international culture envoy to Russian President Vladimir Putin, hit out at the alterations, describing them as politically motivated.

“This lame political gesture has trumped all legitimate cultural considerations,” Shvydkoy said in remarks obtained by Newsweek. “The history of renaming world-famous paintings and the disassociation of great artists from the word Russia, commenced a little less than a year ago, when the process of abolishing Russian culture was gaining momentum.”

In a statement, Max Hollein, the director of the Met, said: “The Met’s curators and experts are continually researching and examining objects in the collection in order to determine the most appropriate and accurate way to catalogue and present them.

“In the case of these works – which have been updated following research conducted in collaboration with experts in the field – scholarly thinking is evolving quickly, because of the increased awareness of and attention to Ukrainian culture and history since the Russian invasion started in 2022,” he added.

The question of whether Degas considered his subjects Russian or Ukrainian has also come into question. By some accounts, the Russian attribution was given by his dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who bought one of the series from the painter in 1906.

The Met has reportedly been considering the update since last summer to align with “efforts to continually research and examine objects in its collection”. Degas’ The Russian Dancer was identified as “women in Russian costumes” in a journal entry in 1899.

“However, several scholars demonstrated that the costumes are, in fact, traditional Ukrainian folk dress, although it has not been established if the dancers were themselves from Ukraine,” the website entry says.

Regarding the Degas’ paintings, Shvydkoy said that “cultural, bureaucratic London justified its decision on the basis of its own ideas about beauty and the stance of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United Kingdom”, the outlet reported.

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The dispute, Shvydkoy notes, could now travel farther into literature, pointing to Russian poet Alexander Pushkin’s African ancestry, Mikhail Lermontov’s Scottish ancestry and German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s birthplace in Königsberg, now Kaliningrad, once a German city but later part of the Soviet Union and now of the Russian Federation.

At least some of reattributions are credited to Oksana Semenik, formerly a researcher at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who was in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha last March when it was attacked by Russian forces.

Semenik began a campaign to correct attributions of artists listed as Russian in the university collection that she considered Ukrainian. “I realized that a lot of Ukrainian artists were in the Russian collection. Of 900 so-called Russian artists, 70 were Ukrainians and 18 were from other countries,” she told CNN.

Semenik found a similar pattern at major US institutions. She complained and received noncommittal responses. “Then I got really mad,” she told the outlet. Semenik, who has since returned to Ukraine, was not immediately available for comment.

One person involved in the campaign told the Guardian that they had heard some institutions had come under pressure to maintain Russian attributions from the wives of oligarchs who sit on museum boards.

How far the campaign can go in reattributing Russian artists as Ukrainian, in some cases, is an issue better assigned to art scholarship than to whim of political gesture, given that it has long experience in reattributing works assigned to artists, or artists of certain nationalities, as more becomes known.

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“As with so many rational decisions, making it more accurate also brings confusion,” notes Charles Stuckey, who has served as curator in major US museums including the Art Institute of Chicago.

“Museums change titles of their works all the time based upon investigations,” Stuckey said. “The timing is suspicious. Are they just dong this at this particular time?”

For the Degas titles to have been changed, he says, “someone would have had to have shown the Degas specialists that they hadn’t been as precise as they could have been over all those years”.

At the same time, he points out, it is unlikely that someone passing by the work who happened to be a specialist on costumes circa 1900 could say, “well, not exactly Russian, more likely Ukrainian” and convince curators on that basis.

“It has to be backed up by some kind of rational to make the change. The field is already very familiar with situations like this because of reattributions of old master art. It does slightly complicate research but so what?”