PARIS — Russia’s war on Ukraine has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the future of one of its biggest collections of artwork and of the fledgling cultural diplomacy between Paris and Moscow.
The Morozov collection — which features 200 masterpieces, including works by Picasso, Monet, Van Gogh and Cézanne, belonging to Russian museums and oligarchs — is being exhibited in Paris until Sunday. It’s the first time the collection has left Russia, and the exhibition has seen a record-high number of visitors.
However, as the war in Ukraine continues and diplomatic tensions between Russia and the West mount, it is unclear what will happen to those paintings and, more broadly, to the Franco-Russian cultural dialogue.
At the opening of the exhibition in September 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for making it possible. “There is a clear sign here that Russia is a great European power. We have common projects, despite what separates us,” Macron said at the time.
Macron and Putin even wrote the preface for the exhibition’s catalog. Putin wrote that the exhibition “strengthened the traditionally special relationship between our countries.”
The Morozov exhibition is not the first attempt to boost Franco-Russian diplomacy through stronger cultural ties. In 2017, when Macron and Putin met in person for the first time, the first thing they did was to launch an art exhibition on Russian czar Peter I at the Palace of Versailles, and to start the so-called Trianon Dialogue, an initiative to intensify cultural and economic ties between Paris and Moscow. The initiative is currently on hold.
Six months on from the opening of the Morozov exhibit, economic sanctions against Russia and Russian oligarchs have led to questions in France on whether the exhibition should be kept going or whether the government could even seize the paintings.
The art of diplomacy
But a French official stressed that the Morozov collection could not be seized and that there is “a false debate” around it.
French law prohibits the seizure of artworks loaned by foreign cultural institutions to be exhibited in France. The government confirmed that paintings owned by museums and foundations and displayed at the Morozov exhibition are covered by that protection.
But that does not cover paintings owned by Russian individuals. For example, the collection includes one of the four self-portraits by Piotr Kontchalovski, which belongs to Petr Olegovich Aven, “one of Vladimir Putin’s closest oligarchs.” Aven is on the EU’s sanctions list.
However, French authorities usually provide the owner of the painting with guarantees that it will be protected, said Julien Anfruns, an art lawyer and a former official at France’s culture ministry.
The French culture ministry declined to comment on the issue, noting that it was “premature” to take a position.
Any action by Paris against the Morozov paintings would undermine trust between art institutions around the world, Anfruns warned. “It would be very damaging, especially as we are already in a situation in which private collectors and public institutions are already reluctant to lend to museums in a foreign country,” he said.
Catherine Morin-Desailly, a lawmaker from the French Senate’s culture committee, said the government must take a clear stance on this issue and hoped that art would be left out of the conflict. “The course of action must be established at a high level. The minister of culture must make a clear statement on these subjects,” she said.
“An art collection is not like an oligarch’s yacht. There is the value of the work of art that transcends everything else.”
Even if the collection is safe from government sanctions, it is still unclear how and when the artwork could safely travel back to Moscow.
A spokesperson for the Louis Vuitton Foundation, which organized the exhibition, said Wednesday that the paintings “will be taken down on Sunday evening” and that “everything follows its normal course.”
They declined to explain whether the collection would be stored in the foundation’s vault, returned to the Russian embassy in Paris, or immediately sent back to Russia.
Earlier this month, Russian Ambassador to France Alexeï Mechkov told reporters that Russian authorities were working on how to repatriate the collection and acknowledged that “in the current situation, with all the drastic measures that have been taken, for example the suspension of flights between Russia and France, problems have emerged.”
A spokesperson for the Russian embassy declined to comment but noted that, since the beginning of the exhibition, the Louis Vuitton Foundation has been in touch with Russian museums to organize the return of the collection to Russia.