Museums Rename Artworks and Artists as Ukrainian, Not Russian
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York changed the name of one of its Edgar Degas pastels Friday morning from “Russian Dancers” to “Dancers in Ukrainian Dress,” the second Degas it has reclassified since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The National Gallery in London renamed one of its Degas pastels “Ukrainian Dancers” from “Russian Dancers” last year. And the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles updated an old item on its website to note that Degas’s dancers were Ukrainian, not Russian.
The adjustments reflect a movement that is currently underway at museums all over the world, spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many are re-examining — and, in a growing number of cases, relabeling — artworks and artists from the former Russian Empire and the former Soviet Union to better reflect their Ukrainian origins.
“Scholarly thinking is evolving quickly,” Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said in a statement, “because of the increased awareness of and attention to Ukrainian culture and history since the Russian invasion started in 2022.”
But the process is not always straightforward, particularly when museums try to reflect the nationality of artists, and not just where they were born. The Met recently revised how it classifies three 19th-century painters previously described as Russian — Illia Repin, Arkhyp Kuindzhi and Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky — to draw attention to their Ukrainian roots.
It updated two of the names with their Ukrainian transliteration, followed by the Russian name: Illia Repin (Ilia Efimovich Repin) and Arkhyp Kuindzhi (Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi).
The State of the War
But after the Met changed the description of Aivazovsky from “Russian” to “Ukrainian” on its website, some critics pounced, pointing out that he was in fact Armenian. (“The Met Shouldn’t Have Reclassified Ivan Aivazovsky as “Ukrainian,” an essay in Hyperallergic argued.) So the Met re-reclassified him: Aivazovsky is now described as “Armenian, born Russian Empire [now Ukraine].”
Activists and art historians have been pressuring museums to rethink how they label art and artists, arguing that given Ukraine's history of subjugation under the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, its culture should not be conflated with that of its rulers. Museums in the United States and Europe are complicit in its colonization, the critics argue, if they don’t honor the artistic contributions of Ukrainians.