Major museums around the world silently categorize works from Russian to Ukrainian

Written by Tim Lister, CNN

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has quietly reclassified some of his paintings. Two artists once labeled Russian are now categorized as Ukrainian, and a painting by French Impressionist Edgar Degas has been retitled from ‘Russian Dancer’ to ‘Dancer in Ukrainian Costume’.

For a woman in Kiev, Ukraine, these changes are a kind of justification. Oksana Semenik, a journalist and historian, has led a month-long campaign to persuade institutions in the United States to rename the historical artworks they say are misrepresented as Russian.

At the Met, these include works by Ilya Repin and Arkhip Kuindzhi, artists whose native language was Ukrainian, who depicted many Ukrainian scenes, even though the region was part of the Russian Empire in their day.

repina renowned 19th-century painter born in present-day Ukraine was renamed “Ukrainian, born Russian Empire” in the Met catalogue, with the beginning of every description of his works now reading: “Repin was born in the rural Ukrainian town Chuguiv (Chuguyev) when it was part of the Russian Empire.”
On Semenik’s Twitter account Ukrainian art historywho has over 17,000 followers, she wrote that “All [Repin’s] famous landscapes were about Ukraine, Dnipro and steppes. But also about the Ukrainian people.”

“Dancer in Ukrainian Costume” by Edgar Degas (1899). Credit: From the Met

One of Repin’s lesser-known contemporaries, Kuindzhi was born in Mariupol in 1842, when the Ukrainian city was also part of the Russian Empire, his nationality was also updated. The lyrics for Kuindzhi’s “Red Sunset” at the Met were updated to state that “in March 2022, the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol, Ukraine was destroyed in a Russian airstrike”.

Regarding the recent renaming process, the Met told CNN in a statement that the institution “continuously researches and examines objects in its collection to determine the most appropriate and accurate way to catalog and present them.” The cataloging of these works has been updated as a result of research carried out in collaboration with scholars in the field.”

When asked in January about the Degas work, now called “Dancers in Ukrainian Dress,” a spokesman for Semenik said that they “in collaboration with scholars in the field are in the process of researching the so-called Degas Russian Dancers and identifying the.” most appropriate and accurate way to present the work.

“We value insights from visitors. Your valuable feedback contributes to this process.”

A personal mission

Semenik told CNN that she channeled her anger at the Russian invasion into her efforts to identify and promote Ukraine’s art heritage, using her Twitter account to showcase Ukrainian art to the world.

Semenik is lucky to be alive. Trapped for weeks in the Kiev suburb of Bucha when Russian troops ravaged the area last March, she hid in the basement of a kindergarten before eventually walking about 12 miles to safety with her husband and cat in tow.

She began her campaign after attending Rutgers University in New Jersey last year. While helping curators there, she was surprised to see artists she always considered Ukrainian being labeled as Russian.

"Ukrainian dancers" by Edgar Degas (1899).

“Ukrainian Dancers” by Edgar Degas (1899). Credit: From the National Portrait Gallery

“I noticed that there are many Ukrainian artists in the Russian collection. Out of 900 so-called Russian artists, 70 were Ukrainians and 18 from other countries,” she said.

Semenik studied collections in the US – at the Met and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and in Philadelphia – and found a similar pattern: Ukrainian artists and scenes labeled Russian.

And she started writing to museums and galleries. The answers were initially pro forma, non-binding. “Then I got really mad,” she said. Months of dialogue with curators followed.

Related video: Watch the incredible journey to bring this work of art from Ukraine

“Why on earth is she Russian?”

Semenik is not a singular voice, as other Ukrainians are making their own public calls for change. Last year, Olesya Khromeychuk, whose brother was killed on the front lines in eastern Ukraine in 2017, wrote in the German newspaper Der Spiegel that “any visit to a gallery or museum in London with exhibits related to Soviet Union art or cinema is an intentional or merely… a lazy misinterpretation of the region as an endless Russia; as the current President of the Russian Federation would like to see.

Under pressure from several Ukrainian academics, the National Gallery in London changed the title of one of its own works by Edgar Degas, Russian Dancers, which depicts two women wearing yellow and blue ribbons, the national colors of Ukraine, to Ukrainian Dancers. The institution told the Guardian in April last year that it was “an opportune moment to update the painting’s title to better reflect the painting’s subject.”

Semenik says she’s still pressuring the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where a spokesman told CNN they welcome information about all the works in the collection. “Descriptions of nationality can be very complex, particularly when posthumous attributions are made,” the spokesman said. “We apply rigorous research best practices and approach the descriptions with sensitivity when it comes to the artist’s recorded nationality at death and birth, emigration and immigration dynamics, and shifting geopolitical boundaries.”

"Red sunset" by Arkhyp Kuindzhi (1905-8).

“Red Sunset” by Arkhyp Kuindzhi (1905-8). Credit: From the Met

Semenik would like to see an update on the information on Alexandra Exter listed as Russian on the MoMA website.

“She lived in Moscow from 1920 to 1924. She lived in Ukraine from 1885 to 1920, that is 35 years, and 25 years in France.

“Why on earth is she Russian?” She said.

According to Semenik, her campaign has drawn a lot of online insults from Russians, but she takes it as a compliment. In her eyes, her work is her own resistance to the Russian invasion.

There is still a long way to go, said Semenik. There are dozens of books on Russian art and many Russian studies courses in US universities, but very few studies on Ukraine’s artistic heritage.

Semenik believes her grueling experience at the start of the invasion fueled her resolve.

Semenik, who has now relocated to Kiev, examines how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster affected Ukrainian art. But she also continues to urge Western art collections to acknowledge Ukraine’s distinct artistic heritage, with the quiet persistence that has already helped change the mind of the powerful Met.

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