Around 1899, Edgar Degas was working on a series of paintings depicting folk dancers from the Russian Empire. While the French Impressionist is best known for painting the graceful, disciplined ballerinas of Paris, this foray into folk dancing allowed him to explore dynamic movement and vibrant color.
Until last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City called its piece from this series Russian Dancers. The dancers, however, were probably from Ukraine—which was part of the Russian Empire at the time.
Now, facing pressure from the art world, the Met has officially renamed the piece Dancers in Ukrainian Dress. The museum is following the example of London’s National Gallery, which changed the name of another painting in the series from Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers last year.
The Met has also reidentified several painters as Ukrainian rather than Russian. These artists are now listed by their Ukrainian names, with their Russian names in parentheses.
The renamings at the Met mark another victory for advocates in the Ukrainian art community who pushed for these changes.
“Putin has one of the largest armies in the world, but he has other weapons too. Culture and history take a prominent place in his arsenal,” wrote Olesya Khromeychuk, the director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, in the German publication Der Spiegel last year. She adds, “Every trip to a gallery or museum in London with exhibits on art or cinema from the USSR reveals deliberate or just lazy misinterpretation of the region as one endless Russia; much like the current president of the Russian Federation would like to see it.”
Oksana Semenik, an art historian in Kyiv, runs a Twitter account called “Ukrainian Art History,” which has been outspoken in its calls for name changes at major museums.
“It’s like stealing heritage,” Semenik tells Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times. “How you can find your identity? How you can find your culture?”
We met with @TimListerCNN in Kyiv to discuss decolonization, Ukrainian art history, and my experience at the occupied Bucha. I'm grateful to Tim because that topic really matters. https://t.co/C1fOmzlYBV— Ukrainian Art History (@ukr_arthistory) March 14, 2023
Semenik will continue to push for changes at other museums. In a January letter to the Brooklyn Museum, she wrote, “Ukraine is not the former Russian Empire. It was colonized by Russia centuries ago.”
Reclassification, however, is far from simple. Take the 19th-century seascape painter Ivan Aivazovsky, who was born in Crimea to an Armenian family. When the Met reclassified him as a Ukrainian artist, some in the Armenian community protested, and the Met quickly pivoted. According to the Guardian’s Edward Helmore, the Met has now clarified that Aivazovsky was “born into an Armenian family in the Crimean port city of Feodosia on the Black Sea.”
One of those critics is Vartan Matiossian, a scholar of Armenian history and culture. He believes that acknowledging ignorance in the original classifications can easily lead to a “new type of ignorance” that still misconstrues the truth, he writes in Hyperallergic.
“Russian imperialism over Ukraine and its culture, and former Soviet peoples in general, does not deserve any praise for quite good reasons,” he adds, “but misplaced decolonization efforts should not be praised either.”
The Met, however, has stood by its decision, which it had been considering since last summer, working with its own scholars and outside consultants. In a statement to the Times, the museum says that “the changes align with the Met’s efforts to continually research and examine objects in its collection.”