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A South Korean Museum Is Refusing to Return Loaned Art to Russia Amid the Ukrainian War

The institution declined a request to return 63 works to the Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts in Russia.

Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation No. 217. Grey Oval Courtesy of Katerinburg Museum of Fine Arts

Above: Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation No. 217. Grey Oval, 1927.

A museum in Seoul, South Korea has declined a request to return a group of 63 works by Russian avant-garde artists on loan from the Ekaterinburg Museum of Fine Arts in Russia. It is the latest tension to arise between international cultural institutions and their counterparts in Russia following the country’s war on Ukraine.

The traveling exhibition for which the works were loaned, “Kandinsky, Malevich & Russian Avant-Garde,” is currently at its final stop in Korea at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, after going on view throughout Europe at the end of December. It will remain open as scheduled until April 17, according to the Korea Times, which first reported the news. 

Similar situations have arisen across Europe since Russia launched its war on Ukraine in late February.

In Milan, more than 20 works were loaned to a museum owned by Italian bank Intesa Sanpaolo from the Russian state-backed network of Hermitage museums for an exhibition tilted “Grand Tour: The dream of Italy from Venice to Pompeii.” Additionally, two paintings were loaned to the city’s Palazzo Reale for its ‘Titian and the image of women in 16th century Venice” exhibition. Russia’s Ministry of Culture requested the return of those works and others in elsewhere in Italy, which those institutions have acquiesed to.

“When I read the letter I felt bitter because culture should be protected from war but these are difficult times,” Palazzo Reale director Domenico Piraina told Reuters earlier this month.

In Paris, the Foundation Louis Vuitton refused to close an exhibition dedicated to modern art from the holdings of late 19th century Russian collectors Mikhail and Ivan Abramovich Morozov, citing logistical obstacles related to the war. The collection is prized in Russia and was approved by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to be sent to France.

The Seoul exhibition features a range of Russian artists, from abstraction painters Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich to Natalia Goncharova and Alexander Rodchenko, whose works span photography and design. 

The showcase was the first to bring many key Russian art historical figures to public view in Korea. It drew support from Russian officials, including the Kremlin’s Korean ambassador Andrey Kulik, who praised the exhibition during an opening ceremony in Seoul in December. In his remarks, Kulik noted that cultural exchange has long forged links between the two countries. 

At the end of February, Kulik warned that ties made with Korea over the past 30 years could “change course,” in a statement after Seoul’s government announced it would join an international sanctions effort to punish the Russian Federation for its invasion in Ukraine. As part of the action, Seoul’s foreign ministry said it would bar export of key materials to Russia and freeze access to seven of Russia’s largest banks.

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