Importance of Cultural Exchange with Russia during Political Frost

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Even during the height of the Cold War with its threat of Nuclear Armageddon, the cultural exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union never ground to a halt. But in the last few years, because of the "boomerang effect of a rancorous legal battle between the Russian government and the Chassidic Jewish group, Chabad" (LA Times 1/17/13), Russia imposed a ban on all art loans to American museums. This legal case is based on Chabad’s decades-long effort to recover religious books and manuscripts that the Russians expropriated after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.

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Henri Matisse, "La Danse," 1909-1910
Fondation Louis Vuitton. On loan from The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Photograph courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum

Visiting some major museum exhibitions in Paris this past April, I thought about this unfortunate freeze on art exchange between America and Russia. The traveling exhibition, Keys to a Passion, currently on display at Fondation Louis Vuitton, proudly displays one of the most famous paintings by Matisse, La Danse (1909-10), on loan from The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. At the same time, the impressive retrospective of paintings by Pierre Bonnard at Musée d’Orsay displays with particular reverence the largest and most famous triptych by the artist, La Méditerranée (1911), which is also on loan from The Hermitage Museum. The Bonnard exhibition is scheduled to travel to San Francisco next February, but this famous triptych, in all probability, will not be allowed to be included on the American leg of this traveling exhibition.

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Pierre Bonnard, "La Méditerranée," 1911
Musée d'Orsay
Photograph by Edward Goldman

With all the above, I was glad to read in The New York Times that last week, Carnegie Hall was the site of a Russia Day concert by the renowned St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra. And this weekend, we in Los Angeles are welcoming the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, which is bringing to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion its performance of Rodin. Seeing a prior production of this company, one expects this upcoming production to be very theatrical and very emotional in its telling of the dramatic relationship between Rodin and his student and mistress, Camille Claudel.

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Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg’s "Rodin"
Photograph by Gene Schiavone

A few weeks ago, while reporting about my trip to France, I spoke about a surprise trove of photographs and sculptures by Camille Claudel that I came across at the St. Croix Museum in the city of Poitiers. There I was, in a far-away cozy corner of France, interacting with Camille and Rodin. Now, in Los Angeles, I am looking forward to reconnecting with them again through a Russian ballet company –– a good example of how art and culture create welcome connections, in this case, between Russia, France, and America.

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(L) Photograph of Camille Claudel in her studio
(R) Camille Claudel. L’Abandon (1888). Bronze
Photographs by Edward Goldman

In the last few days, prompted by the opening of the new Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published in-depth articles about the state of Russia’s art world.

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OMA - Garage Center for Contemporary Culture Gorky Park – Proposal 08
Photo: Forgemind Archimedia

Among special installations commissioned for the opening are works by famous Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama and German artist Katharina Grosse. Among the high-profile guests scheduled to appear are a team of curators from MOMA, Metropolitan Museum Director Thomas P. Campbell, LA collector and philanthropist Eli Broad, and movie producer Harvey Weinstein.

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Katharina Grosse. yes no why later, 2015. Acrylic on fabric, soil and trees
Garage Museum of Contemporary Art
Photograph courtesy Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

One hopes that all this cultural exchange will bring a degree of understanding that might somewhat defrost the current winter of discontent between Russia and the US.