PARIS (AFP): While relations between Russia and France can often feel as frosty as the Siberian tundra, there is one area where diplomacy is working better than ever: art.
Taking the lead is the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, owned by luxury group LVMH, which has staged two blockbuster shows pulled from Russian collections.
Sergei Shchukin’s horde of classic paintings brought a record-breaking 1.3 million visitors to the museum in 2017.
And the even-more illustrious Morozov Collection — replete with some 200 treasures by the likes of Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse and Monet — has been another huge hit since opening in September.
In a sign of the wider import of the show, the catalogue features prefaces by both Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin.
The Russian leader writes of “the bridges that artists and art-lovers have built between our countries”, while Macron says they “underline our traditional special relationship”.
It is a rare bit of bonhomie between two leaders, more normally seen butting heads over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, political interference and cyber-attacks.
“Culture and art occupy a special place in the diverse and intense relations between Russia and France, in spite of all the historical twists and turns, and the serious differences between our countries,” a spokesman for the foreign ministry in Moscow told AFP.
– Historical ties –
Russia and France have long fancied themselves as the twin pillars of European culture.
From Enlightenment philosopher Denis Diderot’s friendship with Catherine the Great, to Tsar Nicholas II laying the foundation stone for the Alexander III bridge in Paris, today’s players like the sense that they are building on a long history of cultural exchanges.
Catherine Pegard, who runs the Chateau de Versailles, admits she was well aware of the diplomatic significance when she organised an exhibition around the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s visit to Paris.
The event ended up being an excuse for Putin to visit France himself in 2017, during which a freshly elected Macron took the opportunity to launch a new round of business talks.
As ever, it is personal relationships that grease the wheels behind the scenes.
Jean-Paul Claverie, an advisor to LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, happened to be personal friends with Shchukin’s grandson from their days working at the French culture ministry.
But vast amounts of money were also a crucial ingredient.
Unlike public institutions, LVMH could afford the vast insurance premiums and restoration costs needed to stage the Shchukin and Morozov shows (the latter’s centrepiece Van Gogh, “The Prison Courtyard”, had not previously been on general display due to its tattered condition).
You also need some very healthy cash reserves to swallow the risk of the shows falling apart at the last minute.
“Both projects almost didn’t happen,” Claverie told AFP.
It took a personal meeting between his boss and Putin in 2016 to seal the deal, and win the unprecedented cooperation of the Hermitage and Pushkin museums, and Tretiakov Gallery.