What will happen to Russian-owned paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, and Van Gogh on exhibit in France?

PARIS—At some point next month, as more than 3 million Ukrainian refugees make their way west across Europe, a convoy of trucks with an armed escort will pass the other way, on the long drive from Paris to Moscow. Inside, a priceless collection of 200 artworks, including paintings by Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Picasso, which, until they went on display in Paris in September, had rarely, if ever, been seen outside Russia. They are said to be worth almost $2 billion, though it is hard to know for sure, since most of them have not been sold since the first decade of the 20th century.

At least, the paintings’ immediate return to Moscow has been the plan. Whether that’s actually going to happen is a little less clear.

The invasion of Ukraine has brought relations between Russia and Europe to their lowest point in decades. Flights between Russia and the European Union are forbidden. Crushing sanctions and political pressure have closed most foreign businesses in Moscow. In France, the minister of the economy pledged to provoke the Russian economy’s total collapse and seize up to a trillion dollars in Russian assets.

Where does that leave the 200 works of French and Russian art in the Morozov Collection, which has been on loan from Russian state museums at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris since September? This spectacular exhibition, which closes on April 3, is close to becoming the most popular show in French history. It’s an instrument of Russian soft power that helps make Vladimir Putin look like a high-minded man of the arts—he wrote a preface to the catalog!—even as his army lays waste to Ukrainian hospitals and apartment buildings. But it’s also a loan from the Russian public, protected from seizure by French law and a French sense that agreements between museums, and perhaps the world of the arts in general, occupy a higher sphere than sordid geopolitics.

Impressionist painting of a man reading to a woman in a boat on water
In a Boat by Konstantin Korovin.
Morozov Collection/Fondation Louis Vuitton

The extent to which Russian art is contaminated by Russian politics has been a hot topic lately, especially for the nation’s musicians, dancers, and filmmakers, some of whom have found their work rejected by Western institutions in a dubious gesture of solidarity with Ukraine. The case for retaliating via the Morozov Collection is a bit stronger, and not only because most of it belongs to the Russian government.

The story of how this “once in a lifetime” exhibition arrived in Paris begins in 2016. That fall, Bernard Arnault, the CEO of the luxury conglomerate Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, or LVMH, welcomed an extraordinary exhibition of art to his brand-new, Frank Gehry–designed museum in a park on the city’s western edge. That show gathered the paintings owned by the Russian industrialist Sergei Shchukin, which had been nationalized after the Bolshevik Revolution and dissolved into museums in Moscow and St. Petersburg. More people attended the Shchukin exhibition than any in France since the treasures of King Tut arrived in 1967. Not bad for a 2-year-old museum.

Arnault and his adviser Jean-Paul Claverie traveled to Moscow to thank Vladimir Putin, and as Claverie remembered it, he said to the Russian leader, “You weren’t able to come to Paris for Shchukin—let’s create a new opportunity with your other extraordinary collection.” Putin thought for a moment, and said, “Jean-Paul? Yes.” The other collection was that of the Morozov brothers, a pair of Russian textile moguls who had scooped up some of France’s finest paintings before the French themselves realized their worth.

At the time of that meeting, two years after the annexation of Crimea, Putin was not viewed favorably in France. The Russian president’s planned visit to Paris to inaugurate the Shchukin Collection had been scuttled on account of the war in Syria, where Russia was propping up Bashar al-Assad and bombing civilians in Aleppo. But Putin still wrote the introduction for that catalog. “If one question should remain open, it’s culture,” he said that year. “Despite disagreements on the question of Syria and Ukraine,” said the French ambassador to Moscow at the time, “there was a firm commitment that cultural relations, from people to people, be pursued.”

Six years later, there’s another sensational exhibit from Russia closing in on French museum attendance records, another catalog introduced by Vladimir Putin, and a bit of a queasy feeling about the deal, as the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine grows worse day by day. The making of the show was widely, and indisputably, viewed as a symbol of rapprochement between France and Putin. It’s a little difficult, now, to claim it as an apolitical artifact.

In the course of planning the show, France’s ambassador in Moscow, recognizing “the value of this major exhibition from an artistic and political point of view,” leapt to secure visas for Russian museum employees, then gave them special dispensation to cross the border during coronavirus closures. Emmanuel Macron attended the opening; Putin missed it because he was isolating after a COVID-19 exposure. The exhibition, the French president said, “will permit us to convince millions of our fellow citizens of what is shared and inseparable” between the French and the Russians, and “obliges us to continue to work, despite the turpitudes of the present moment and the circumstances, to continue to bring the two countries together.”

All that said, the show might still have passed as a triumph of common culture and history, a demonstration of the principle of arts over politics, had not Vladimir Putin been so intimately involved in its creation and presentation. “Such significant events in the domain of culture and art,” he writes in his preface, “reaffirm the traditional special relationship between our countries and undoubtedly contribute to the pursuit of the development of bilateral cultural ties.” That rings different now. “The war in Ukraine has dampened the euphoria,” the editor-in-chief of Le Monde observed recently.

Cubist painting of a man with downcast eyes
Portrait of Ambroise Vollard by Pablo Picasso.
Morozov Collection/Fondation Louis Vuitton

But then there is the art itself, which is a worthier symbol of the rich relationship between France and Russia than the negotiations between the dictator and the Champagne magnate that brought it here. Mikhail and Ivan Morozov started buying French art in the 1890s. Mikhail acquired a pied-à-terre in Paris, where he felt he “ceased to be a tourist and became a human being.” His brother Ivan was more efficient in his approach to collecting: “Barely off the train, he settled himself into the easy chairs of the art galleries, the ones that are deep and low, so the collector did not have to get up to see the succession of paintings that were passed before him like frames of a film,” the art critic Félix Fénéon wrote of Ivan’s methods in 1923. “Having engaged his particularly discerning eye, Mr. Morozov was too tired in the evening to even go to the theater. After days at this pace, he left for Moscow having seen only paintings, taking a few chosen pieces with him.”

Each of the brothers had a great eye and great timing. Mikhail died in 1903, but Ivan continued to buy from both Russian and French artists for the next 10 years. The Paris exhibition includes shimmering Monet landscapes the size of blackboards; a Van Gogh of the sea so thick with paint the spray reaches into the room; a five-canvas portrait of the spring, summer, and fall by Pierre Bonnard. Those all hung in Ivan Morozov’s house in Moscow, where canvases were stacked vertically up the wall, as in the galleries of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, with the higher paintings jutting out to make them easier to see. The house was open to all comers on Sunday mornings—and to artists and critics all week long.

The brothers were the first to show painters like Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, and Picasso in Russia, where they in turn inspired Russian artists like Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. Zelfira Tregulova, who runs the Tretyakov Gallery, where Mikhail’s collection was donated in 1910, writes in the catalog that the “radical formulas of this country’s avant-garde could never have been conceived without these magnificent ensembles of French modern art.” According to the exhibition’s chief curator, Anne Baldassari, the brothers’ display of nude paintings and sculptures was particularly unusual and influential in conservative Moscow.

You can feel this interplay in the exhibition: Malevich’s bright, chopped-up Portrait of Mikhail Matyushin, from 1914, hangs next a solemn Cubist masterpiece, Picasso’s Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, from 1910. A lush Montmartre garden party by Renoir, from 1875, is on the same wall as the tranquil, verdant In a Boat, which shows a man reading to a woman in a dinghy and was painted by the Russian impressionist Konstantin Korovin in 1888, three years after his trip to Paris. (Korovin later taught art classes to the Morozovs.)

The collections maintained this function after the Bolshevik Revolution, too, where (though ultimately divided across various museums, sold off, or hidden according to the official doctrine of the moment) they offered isolated Russian artists—and Russians generally—direct contact with some of the world’s most celebrated works of art. Morozov was made the deputy manager of his old house, nationalized as the “Second Museum of Western Art.” Visitors during this period, he remarked, seemed to have the same favorite painter he did: Paul Cézanne.

So far, the idea of seizing the Morozov Collection has been thoroughly discussed in the French press but has no real support beyond social media. Jean-Paul Claverie, the adviser who got Putin to “yes” on the concept of the exhibit, said the idea was “absurd.” There’s a special French law that protects foreign art in the country, and an additional decree specific to this exhibition. Furthermore, art lawyers say, holding the paintings would have a small effect on Russia’s economy, but an enormous effect on French museums’ ability to loan and borrow works. (To say nothing of the fate of a handful of works from the Louvre on loan in Russia, which France has just requested back.)

But that doesn’t mean the paintings will go back to Moscow right away, either. “It is not a secret that, given the current situation and all the drastic measures that have been taken, including on flights between Russia and France, there are problems,” Russia’s ambassador to France, Aleksey Meshkov, told reporters at a press conference Tuesday. Claverie said recently, “If the conditions for them to travel safely prove to be insufficient, we’ll wait.” And in the magazine Marianne, one reporter suggested the government is thinking of the paintings as a kind of unspoken collateral, to make sure no harm befalls French citizens in Russia.

When the exhibition was conceived, it was part of a diplomatic program made up of projects like the “Trianon Dialogue,” an initiative Macron and Putin announced in 2017 that was intended to bring French and Russian civil society closer together. Recalling this time of creative ferment between France and Russia—just as the paintings traveled east, in the early 20th century, so works by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky stunned Paris—might have helped the French feel more connected to Russia. Instead, the history serves as a reminder of Russia’s present isolation, and the scene at the Louis Vuitton Foundation feels like the end of more than just an exhibition. The galleries are thronged with a reverent audience, knowing they’re seeing something they may never see again. And when the paintings find their way back across the Russian border, they will once again serve as a link to a world that feels very far away.