Major museums all over the world are quietly recategorizing works from Russian to Ukrainian

Written by Tim Lister, CNN

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has quietly reclassified a few of its work. Two artists, as soon as labeled Russian, at the moment are categorized as Ukrainian and a portray by the French Impressionist Edgar Degas has been renamed from “Russian Dancer” to “Dancer in Ukrainian Dress.”

For one lady in Kyiv, Ukraine, these modifications are a vindication of types. Oksana Semenik, a journalist and historian, has been working a months-long marketing campaign to steer establishments within the United States to relabel the historic artistic endeavors she believes are wrongly offered as Russian.

At the Met, they embody work by Ilya Repin and Arkhip Kuindzhi, artists whose mother-tongue was Ukrainian and who depicted many Ukrainian scenes, even when the area was of their day a part of the Russian empire.

Repin, a famend nineteenth century painter who was born in what’s now Ukraine, has been relabeled on the Met’s catalog as “Ukrainian, born Russian Empire” with the beginning of every description of his works now studying, “Repin was born in the rural Ukrainian town of Chuhuiv (Chuguev) when it was part of the Russian Empire.”
On Semenik’s Twitter account, Ukrainian Art History, which has over 17,000 followers, she wrote that “All [Repin’s] famous landscapes were about Ukraine, Dnipro, and steppes. But also about Ukrainian people.”

“Dancer in Ukrainian Dress” 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 metropolis was additionally a part of the Russian Empire, his nationality has additionally been up to date. The textual content for Kuindzhi’s “Red Sunset” on the Met has been up to date to incorporate that “in March 2022, the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol, Ukraine, was destroyed in a Russian airstrike.”

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In reference to the latest relabeling course of, the Met informed CNN in an announcement that the establishment, “continually researches and examines objects in its collection in order to determine the most appropriate and accurate way to catalogue and present them. The cataloguing of these works has been updated following research conducted in collaboration with scholars in the field.”

Back in January, when requested in regards to the Degas work, now known as “Dancer in Ukrainian Dress,” a spokesperson informed Semenik that they had been “in the process of researching the so-called Degas Russian Dancers, in collaboration with scholars in the field, and determining the most appropriate and accurate way to present the work.

“We recognize insights from guests. Your invaluable suggestions contributes to this course of.”

A personal mission

Semenik told CNN that she channeled her anger about 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 herself lucky to be alive. She was trapped in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha for weeks as Russian forces laid waste to the area last March, hiding out in the basement of a kindergarten before eventually walking some 12 miles to safety with her husband and their cat in tow.

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

"Ukrainian Dancers" by Edgar Degas (1899).

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

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“I noticed that numerous Ukrainian artists had been within the Russian assortment. Of 900 so-called Russian artists, 70 had been Ukrainians and 18 had been from different nations,” 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 as Russian.

And she began to write to museums and galleries. To begin with the replies were pro forma, non-committal. “Then I obtained actually mad,” she said. There followed a months-long dialogue with curators.

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‘Why on earth is she Russian?’

Semenik is not a singular voice, with other Ukrainians making their own public calls for change. Last year, Olesya Khromeychuk, whose brother was killed fighting on the frontline in eastern Ukraine in 2017, wrote in German newspaper Der Spiegel that “each journey to a gallery or museum in London with displays on artwork or cinema from the Soviet Union reveals deliberate or simply lazy misinterpretation of the area as one countless Russia; very like the present president of the Russian Federation wish to see it.”

As pressure mounted from several Ukrainian academics, The National Gallery in London changed the title of one of its own Edgar Degas works, “Russian Dancers,” which depicts two women in yellow and blue ribbons, Ukraine’s national colors, to “Ukrainian Dancers.” The institution told the Guardian in April last year that it was “an acceptable second to replace the portray’s title to higher mirror the topic of the portray.”

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Semenik says she is still putting pressure on the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where a spokesperson told CNN that they welcome information about all of the works in the collection. “Nationality descriptions will be very advanced, particularly when making posthumous attributions, the spokesperson mentioned. “We apply rigorous research best practices and approach the descriptions with sensitivity to the recorded nationality of the artist at death and birth, emigration and immigration dynamics, and changing geo-political boundaries.”

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

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

Semenik wish to see an replace made to the details about Alexandra Exter, who’s listed as Russian on the MoMA web site.

“She lived in Moscow from 1920 until 1924. She lived In Ukraine from 1885-1920, which is 35 years and in France for 25 years.

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

According to Semenik, her campaign has drawn plenty of online abuse from Russians, but she takes that as a back-handed compliment. In her eyes, her work is her own act of resistance to the Russian invasion.

There is a long way to go, said Semenik. There are dozens of books about Russian art and many Russian Studies courses in US universities, but very little study of the artistic heritage of Ukraine.

Semenik believes her grueling experience at the beginning of the invasion fuels her determination.

Now resettled in Kyiv, Semenik is exploring how the Chernobyl nuclear disaster impacted Ukrainian art. But she also continues to badger western art collections to recognize Ukraine’s distinct artistic heritage, with the quiet persistence that has already helped change minds at the mighty Met.