A French treasure-trove from Russia returns home

NUSHIN ELAHI went to see a ground-breaking exhibition in Paris, Icons of Modern Art – The Shchukin Collection which reunites of one of the great art collections of the early twentieth century.



Sergei Shchukin – the Russian who collected French art

One of the world’s most magnificent Impressionist collections is in Russia. The reason for this was a rich yet self-effacing man, Sergei Shchukin. He loved French art, and bought everything he could lay his hands on, at times getting artists like Matisse to come and paint in situ for his palace in Moscow. The intervening century has seen the artwork appropriated by the Russian government, and then split between the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, so even in Russia it is not possible to enjoy the full scale of what Shchukin collected.

For a brief moment, courtesy of one of the top luxury brands, the collection has been reunited and Paris is once again the place to view this wealth of French art. Icons of Modern Art – The Shchukin Collection is a massive exhibition in the colourful Fondation Louis Vuitton building in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne which runs until the end of February. This is a chance in a lifetime to see so many fine masterpieces together, and I know I wasn’t the only Londoner who had made the trip to view it.


Matisse’s The Red Room

Shchukin managed to collect many of the major artworks of the early twentieth century, and it is not easy to describe the thrill of seeing paintings known so well from reproduction actually on the wall in front of you. Matisse’s luminous colour enchanted me, particularly in The Red Room, but there were many others by Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin and Picasso in particular that drew a gasp of delight. Not everything was magical though, even works by artists one normally admires. This was particularly the case with Shchukin’s more conventional early collection. There were also some pastel coloured Monets that made me wince, sketchy Gauguins, unfinished Matisses and hideously ugly Picassos, but then there was such a treasure-trove of gorgeous, glorious paintings you skipped over those and went back to the ones that you loved.


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The exhibition is hung in 14 galleries over four floors and curated by Anne Baldassari, former head of the Picasso Museum in Paris. It opens with a roomful of portraits, among them self-portraits by Cézanne and Gauguin. The early collection shows Shchukin’s interest from the outset in the play of light which resulted in the purchase of interesting Vuillards as well as a luridly sentimental Maurice Denis, The Sacred Grove. Cleverly positioned across from Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass, this large oil presents a triad of nymphs prancing in artificial pink light, a sharp reminder of the norm against which the Impressionists rebelled.


The early Impressionist works Shchukin acquired are a symphony on the changing light of the seasons. Pissarro creates the fresh lime green of spring bursting into life on a Paris square, the sleet and its reflections decorating the Avenue Opera, Monet the harsh summer sun in a formal garden and London’s winter fog, Sisley the autumn shadows along the River Seine. This landscape section also includes Picasso’s Cubist views of houses and factories in rich orange hues, an early and much less successful version of the National Gallery’s Rousseau, Surpris!, Matisse riverside scenes that could have been done by Andre Derain and some beautiful lush green Cézannes.


There are three sections devoted to individual artists: Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, as well as themed rooms on still-life, nudes and portraits. The exhibition is also at pains to show how all these French artists influenced the way the Russian avant-garde developed. The result is at times slightly confusing, because the Russian and French artworks are hung together. In fact, if it wasn’t French, Shchukin didn’t collect it. Personally, I would rather have seen another twenty paintings from the original collection. While one may not see work by Malevich and his peers regularly, that is a whole other exhibition in itself. The work is not hung chronologically and the galleries at times feel awkward physical spaces, but once you get the hang of it and you know where to duck past the crowds reading wall text, there is nothing but the joy of revelling in these true icons of modern art.


The exhibition benefits hugely from a second visit, where the first gasp of recognition is replaced with a studied pleasure in the genius of the greats. I know I kept coming back to the Matisse room, which is dominated by his The Red Room. This is counterpoised by other large-scale depictions of his studio and the vivid colours and textures of the fabrics with which he loved to surround himself. The gallery glows with Matisse’s love of pattern and colour, and every wall is a feast for the eyes.


It is also a bigger, brighter space than Gauguin’s vivid Tahitian work enjoys, so despite that artist’s overtly sensual themes, this island idyll didn’t have quite the same impact as Matisse’s work. That said, the languorous nudes in What, Are You Jealous? are a wonderful example of Gauguin’s style. Picasso’s work is threaded throughout the exhibition, from early, and rather unusual Cubist landscapes, through to the better known still-lives at the end, which hang side by side with similar Russian paintings. Five monumental African-inspired nudes, including Three Women, have a knockout effect in their autumnal tones in the final section of the show. The curator is then at pains to demonstrate the links with works such as Picasso’s large lumpy peasant women and those done by Malevich, placing Cézanne and Picasso in the final room alongside Malevich’s iconic Black Square. The Russian artworks are on loan from museums such as the Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow and the Russian Museum in St Petersburg.




One of the major drawbacks of this exhibition is the public’s desire to photograph everything and often look at nothing, so not only are there crowds, but you are battling to get closer to a work while everyone around you is taking photos of it. Give me a blanket ban on gallery photography any day!


The Fondation Louis Vuitton is housed in the delightfully fanciful building designed by Frank Gehry which opens out at the top into terraces where the coloured glass sails capture unique views of Paris. It is perhaps unsurprising that it takes the wealth of private money to bring the viewing public the riches of this great art collector. No public museum today would have the funds to organise an exhibition on this scale. It is indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Catch it if you can.


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