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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 January 2008, 08:57 GMT
From Russia with love?
By Razia Iqbal
BBC News arts correspondent

Matisse's The Dance
Matisse's The Dance is the centrepiece of the show

The Royal Academy's exhibition From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings has been predicted to become one of the most important and memorable of the decade. And it almost didn't come to Britain.

Great Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings became political pawns in the ongoing row between London and Moscow.

The anxiety on the part of the Russians was connected to the possibility of claims being made on the paintings by descendants of the original owners.

Britain hurriedly pushed through legislation to protect them from seizure.

It was though, according to the chief curator of the show, Norman Rosenthal, a "cliffhanging moment" when in late December and right into January, the Royal Academy felt the show might still have to be abandoned.

It is a victory for the power of cultural diplomacy that the row was defused and the dazzling paintings will be seen when the show opens on 26 January.

Paul Gauguin's Vairaumati Tei Oa (Her Name is Vairaumati)
Gauguin works are part of the collection of two wealthy Russians

And as Mr Rosenthal is quick to point out: "It is a testament to the good relations between the four great State museums in Russia and the Royal Academy."

Some of the paintings have never been seen in the West, with many in Britain for the first time.

The most exciting of them is Matisse's Dance, its terracotta figures leaping elementally.

This is Matisse's second version; the first, is among the most prized possessions of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

But there are gems on every wall and in every room.

Corners of Cezannes; groups of Gauguins and Picassos; Monets, Renoirs, Kandinskys, Chagalls - the list is breathtaking.

The exhibition traces the relationship between Russian and French art between 1870 and 1925. In the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution easy cultural exchange ceased.

At the core of the exhibition is the remarkable story of two collectors: Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin.

They were wealthy textile industrialists who loved art and they spent their money with a passion, which is now on display in the show.

Ilya Repin painting
The Royal Academy is expecting half a million visitors for the show

They commissioned paintings from the biggest names in Impressionism and post-Impressionism.

By 1914, Shchukin had accumulated 37 Matisses, 16 Gauguins, four Van Goghs, eight Cezannes and 50 Picassos.

One critic noted that he was perhaps the only man to own more Picasso's than Picasso himself.

After the revolution, which put an end to private enterprise, the private art collections were nationalised.

The descendants of the two men have been to see the exhibition and have said they will not make claims on their ancestors property, but would like financial compensation.

Although the advance ticket sales are a mere 10,000, it is expected half a million people will walk through the salon rooms of the Royal Academy.

So while it may not be From Russia with Love, it will be a show that will be loved.

From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg runs from 26 January to 18 April.

SEE ALSO
Russia approves UK art exhibition
10 Jan 08 |  Entertainment
Russian art show gets green light
31 Dec 07 |  Entertainment
In pictures: Russian exhibition
20 Dec 07 |  In Pictures
Russian art show one step closer
31 Dec 07 |  Entertainment
Russian art exhibit 'to go ahead'
21 Dec 07 |  Entertainment
Russia halts London art display
20 Dec 07 |  Entertainment

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