The National Gallery in London has changed the title of a drawing by Edgar Degas in its collection of Russian dancers for Ukrainian dancers. The change, which came after pressure on social media, reflects continued pressure for institutions to be more accurate in their characterizations of Ukrainian and Russian culture.
The accuracy of the title “has been an ongoing topic of discussion for many years,” the National Gallery told the Guardianadding that an increase in attention since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted officials to “update the title of the chart to better reflect the topic.”
Degas likely encountered the dance troupe while performing near the artist’s home in Paris at venues such as the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergère. In the painting, the figures are loosely outlined so that they appear in motion, with the legs raised in mid-stride.
The dancers have long hair decorated with ribbons in the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow; their traditional folk costumes identify them as peasant dancers, not the classically trained ballerinas that appear in many of Degas’s works. The artist described this series, which he completed around 1899, as “orgies of color” that captured the unbridled spirit of the performers.
Tanya Kolotusha, a Ukrainian living in London, posted Degas’ painting on Instagram with a caption noting that Russia had and still is “appropriating many elements of Ukrainian culture.” The National Gallery responded directly in the comments to let them know the title had been updated. The work is currently not visible.
Historians have noted that titles and framing were often used as a tool to consolidate Russian influence. Olesya Khromeychuk, a historian and director of the London-based Ukrainian Institute, wrote: “Putin has one of the biggest armies in the world, but he has other weapons too. Culture and history figure prominently in his arsenal.
Khromeychuk, whose brother was killed in 2017 by shrapnel, noted that “every visit to a gallery or museum in London with exhibits of USSR art or film reveals a deliberate misinterpretation or just lazy about the region like an endless Russia; just as the current President of the Russian Federation would like to see.
The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston have pastels by Edgar Degas titled Russian dancer in their collections, and the Getty Museum organized the exhibition “Degas: Russian Dancers and the Art of Pastel” in 2016.
Neither the Met nor institution MFA Houston responded to inquiries about a future name change at press time.
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