Russia's great museums feud over revival plan

Russia's two greatest art museums were engaged Tuesday in an unsightly public feud over an idea to revive a Moscow museum of Western art that was shut down by Stalin in the late 1940s.

The State Museum of New Western Art gathered the impressionist and early modern art collected by renowned Russian art collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov in the late Tsarist era.

But it was closed on Stalin's orders in 1948 as the Soviet authorities rejected anything reeking of "cosmopolitanism" in an anti-Western drive. Its collection was divided between the broader Pushkin Art Museum in Moscow and the famed Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

The redoubtable director of the Pushkin Museum, Irina Antonova, 91, last week personally asked President Vladimir Putin during his annual phone-in with Russians to consider reopening the museum in Moscow with its original collection.

However the idea did not in the least impress the Hermitage museum, which under the plan could see some of its most prized Matisse, Degas and Picasso pictures transferred back to Moscow.

"This new attempt to break up the Hermitage is a crime against the stability of the whole museum landscape in Russia, whose unity and riches have been preserved with such difficulty," fumed Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky, quoted by the government Rossiiskaya Gazeta daily.

Antonova however launched a stout defence of her position saying the recreation of the museum was a question of "historical fairness".

"The state destroyed this museum. The state has the possibility to revive it. This is my opinion," she said.

In response to Antonova's request, Putin on Tuesday asked the government to draw up by June 15 a report on the viability of recreating the Western art museum in Moscow.

Morozov and Shchukin amassed two of the greatest collections anywhere of European art.

But like other private collections, their holdings were nationalised after the Russian revolution and used to form the basis of the Museum of New Western Art (GMNZI) which was founded in 1928.

Among the paintings transferred to the Hermitage after the Moscow museum's closure is possibly its most single famous picture -- the massive "Dance" by Henri Matisse which occupies an entire wall -- as well as a priceless collection of early Picasso.

Piotrovsky ridiculed the idea that recreating the museum could have anything to do with historical fairness, describing the moves as showing a "primitive attitude towards national culture."

As well as highlighting the rivalry between the Pushkin Museum and the Hermitage, the debate also shows the reluctance of the former capital Saint Petersburg to surrender its riches to Moscow.