Russian show is masterstroke of art and politics

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More than a hundred masterpieces by artists such as Gauguin, Cezanne and Chagall, many which have never before been seen in Britain, are to be lent to the Royal Academy by Russia's most prominent museums it was announced yesterday.

Organisers hope the landmark exhibition, which will include Matisse's celebrated The Dance, will ease diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Some of the paintings were seized from wealthy collectors in the 1917 Russian revolution and the Russian government has been reluctant to loan paintings to Britain, where they would be vulnerable to restitution claims due to the lack of legislation granting immunity from seizures from descendants of the original owners.

Although new British legislation preventing the seizure of disputed art works is planned, it was largely left to Norman Rosenthal, exhibition secretary at the Royal Academy and the show's co-curator, to persuade the State Hermitage, the state Russian Museum in St Petersburg, the State Tretyakov in Moscow and the State Pushkin Museum, to lend 120 of their finest 19th and 20th century French and Russian works to Britain.

Mr Rosenthal, who has been in negotiations lasting almost three years with the museums, hoped it would be a "blockbuster" exhibition which was seen as "contributing to Anglo-Russian relationships in a good way". The British government has also written a "letter of comfort" to the museums reassuring them against the threat of seizure while their works are on loan.

Gordon Brown and Vladimir Putin have been invited to the show's opening in January. Charles Saumarez Smith, the Royal Academy's chief executive, added that the exhibition was "supported by both governments" with a catalogue introduction written by the Russian President and another anticipated to be penned by Mr Brown.

The exhibition, focusing on a time when Russia was at a creative high point, reveals how the pioneering collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov, became the most daring of their day, scouting around Paris to build extraordinary Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections which matched those of their wealthiest French counterparts.

Their collections were nationalised in the revolution and Shchukin's grandson spent years trying to reclaim works once owned by his grandfather, a textile merchant who single-handedly championed Matisse's career at a time when he had no clients.

One of the show's highlights is Matisse's The Dance, which has never been shown in Britain. When it was bought by Shchukin in 1910, at a time when the artist was struggling for recognition. It caused a sensation among bourgeois society with its bold nudity.

Ann Dumas, co-curator of the show, said it was Shchukin who "launched Matisse's career", commissioning this work among others as part of a bold scheme to decorate the grand staircase of his Moscow mansion.

"After he commissioned The Dance, he temporarily got cold feet because he feared the painting would shock bourgeois society and his two daughters, but changed his mind and hung it in the grand staircase of his Moscow mansion. He wrote to Matisse saying 'you are a brave painter and I am a brave collector'," Ms Dumas said.

He dedicated his vast dining room wall to displaying his Parisian purchases, which included 16 Gauguins and 50 Picassos.

While Morosov and Shchukin bought a wealth of fresh work by French artists to Russia, home-grown avant garde artists such as Chagall, Kandinsky, Natalia Goncharova, Tatlin and Malevich, were also producing cutting edge work on display in the exhibition. "They were a huge community of artists who were almost like the Young British Artists in the progressive material they were producing and the way in which they were supporting each other," said Mr Rosenthal.

The show will also feature a large scale portrait of Sergei Diaghilev, who played a vital role in presenting modern French art to Russia and also in taking Russian art to the West.

From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870 – 1925 From Moscow and St Petersburg, opens on 26 January until 18 April 2008.