At the height of La Belle Époque in the late 1890s, Eastern European dance troupes visited Paris and performed at its famed cabaret clubs: the Folies-Bergère, Moulin Rouge, and the Casino de Paris among them. One such show likely inspired a pastel drawing by Edgar Degas formerly known as “Russian Dancers” (circa 1899) and housed in London’s National Gallery. But the performers portrayed are “almost certainly Ukrainian rather than Russian,” according to the museum, which has renamed the work to acknowledge its true protagonists.
“Ukrainian Dancers,” as it will henceforth be titled, depicts a dynamic mass of dancers in traditional folk dress, donning hair ribbons and garlands, dotted in blue and yellow, in an apparent reference to the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Since the outset of the Russian invasion in February, calls for the Impressionist work to be renamed have multiplied on social media, led by Ukrainian voices denouncing Russia’s historic and ongoing appropriation of their nation’s culture. Mariam Naiem, a Ukrainian Afghan artist and activist, says she emailed the National Gallery on March 14 to request the title correction and describes the museum’s compliance as a “micro victory.”
“For cultures that have experienced oppression for centuries, the moment of understanding and developing their culture is vital,” Naiem told Hyperallergic. “Russian imperialism destroyed everything related to Ukrainian culture for centuries: the Ukrainian language was subject to linguicide, writers were exiled, poets were shot, and some artists were killed in unthinkable ways.”
“Even after Ukraine became independent, Russian culture remained hegemonic until 2014. More than ever, we must understand what each forgotten Ukrainian artifact, appropriated artist, or cultural object is worth to us,” Naiem added.
Tanya Kolotusha, a Ukrainian living in London, expressed her support for Naiem’s campaign, posting an image of the work on Instagram and writing: “One of the reasons Kremlin and their dictator invaded my country is a desire to own a history of Kyivan Rus! Should we wait for Ukraine to win the war before starting a grand change on the cultural front?”
President Vladimir Putin has consistently denied Ukraine’s statehood and cultural identity, notoriously referring to Russians and Ukrainians as “one people.” In an essay for Hyperallergic last month, Ukrainian film critic Daria Badior condemned this flattening of her country’s heritage, a deeply flawed narrative she says the art world and Western media often reinforce.
“In the media mainstream, few can discern whether an artwork was created in the Ukrainian, Georgian, Estonian, or the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic — it just seems, to the general public, like Soviet art and therefore Russian,” Badior wrote.
“The ‘Great Russian Culture’ everyone is referring to today is great precisely because of its diverse representatives from Ukraine and other communities, captured throughout Russia’s imperial history,” she added.
A spokesperson for the National Gallery told the Guardian that the title of the work “has been an ongoing point of discussion for many years.”
“However there has been increased focus on it over the past month due to the current situation so therefore we felt it was an appropriate moment to update the painting’s title to better reflect the subject of the painting,” the spokesperson said.
An essay published by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2016 on the occasion of its exhibition “Russian Dancers” and the Art of Pastel, which included a Degas work from the same series, recognized the title as a misnomer. Despite their unique dress and cultural markers, the performers depicted were generically labeled “Russian dancers” because Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire at the time, and subject to severe “Russification” policies that aimed to erase the nation’s art, language, and customs.
The drawing exhibited by the Getty was on loan from a private collection. It remains to be seen whether other institutions that hold works from the same group, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, will follow in the National Gallery’s footsteps.
“As a result of Russia’s policy, we Ukrainians need to recreate the image and understanding of ourselves,” Naiem told Hyperallergic. “Western politics or any other culture will not help us in this. This is our path, which we are starting now.”