Are you rich enough to commission your own Matisse ? Or fill the walls of your palace with art so dense that it will be a challenge to distinguish one painting from another ? The man who answered positively to both questions was named Sergei Shchukin, a turn of the century Russian business magnate who became an early patron saint to the Impressionists.
The last time we were in Paris we visited the Fondation Louise Vuitton (FLV) to see the exhibition: Icons of Modern Art : The Shchukin Collection, to learn about a man and his passion for art, of which a large portion could be viewed under one roof for the first time since the Russian revolution.
Coming from a rich merchant family, Shchukin was not a stranger to the art world. Two of his brothers were serious collectors, one in the Russian ancient artefacts and the other in Old Masters.
But Shchukin was drawn to the reactionary and the modern, and no one were more reactionary than Matisse, Picasso & Co. in late 19th cc.
Shortly after purchasing his first experimental Monet in 1897, Shchukin was introduced to a French art dealer called Paul-Durand Ruel, who might be the first person to believe in impressionists when the whole art world regarded them as artistically challenged lunatics creating ugly and sometimes unethical pieces. When they were laughed at by the curators at Louvre or refused an admission to the Salon de Paris, Paul Durand Ruel was the only dealer brave enough to promote these radical artists, helping them with their bills, finding them decent studios to work in and even paying their rent; most often than not he was their only customer.
Last year I went to an exhibition called Inventing Impressionism at the National Gallery in London where the curators did a superb job of making the public see these exceptional but very much accepted masterpieces from the eyes of Durand-Ruel so that we can appreciate just how modern and radical those artists were when they were first trying to make their voices heard.
Nowadays we get so used to seeing Renoir’s plump beauties, Monet’s dreamy landscapes, Van Gogh’s starry nights and Picasso’s solid geometrical nudes in museums, posters, mouse pads and even on our coffee mugs that we can’t possibly contemplate the reaction and refusals they must have faced in their early years. They dared to challenge a public whose aesthetic views were shaped by Renaissance-inspired paintings and the Old Masters. In hindsight, it’s not surprising that they were at their creative best in years prior to the WW1, when revolutionary ideas started to shake the foundations of the old empires.
Apart from being a visionary, Durand-Ruel was also a clever salesman. As well as organising shows in his galleries in London, Paris and New York, he was exhibiting some of these artworks at his home to potential clients once a week, so that Parisians could see just how tres chic this new art looked in the setting of a bourgeois family apartment.
Like his dealer, when Shchukin compiled a sizeable collection of an impressive 258 pieces of art – Monet, Manet, Picasso, Pissaro, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Rousseau were his favourites but he was also collecting the works of slightly lesser known French and Russian artists – he opened his palatial home to the public. Matisse was a personal friend as well as Monet, and those two had introduced Shchukin to other artists.
That was in 1910 when Matisse had just finished La Dance, the first of a two-painting commission that he was creating for the staircase of Shchukin’s palace; the other part being La Musique.
It must have been quite a shock to the Moscow society who were just getting used to the idea of impressionism to walk into a room to see Picasso’s Trois Femme with their challenging , not one care in the world nudity or walk into L’Atelier Rose to see the colourful and child-like world of Matisse. At the time the impressionists were still publicly regarded as mad and one appalled visitor had no trouble scribbling his protests on a Monet that Shchukin had put out on display.
Some pieces were too much even for Shchukin, although he continued to collect them. He had sixteen Gauguins of the Tahitian period, but he was keeping them under a heavy curtain and only displayed them to his most trusted guests. ‘ A madman painted them and another madman bought them‘ he was fond of saying.
He had a special place for Picasso both in his mind and in his house. His collection featured over fifty pieces of canvases from Picasso’s Blue,Pink, African and Cubist periods. But it wasn’t clear whether he understood or even liked some of them, he just knew Picasso’s work one day would be important. About this L’Espagnol enfant terrible, Shchukin once said ‘ I am sure he’s right and not me‘.
But even he had limits, and when Picasso showed him his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon , Shchukin refused to buy the piece, calling it a wasted piece of canvas. He wasn’t the only one, almost everybody hated the painting, but many kept coming back to the ideas it inspired. Today Les Demoiselles is regarded as the painting that gave birth to modern art.
Being a visionary and a clever industrialist, Shchukin saw the Russian revolution coming, sold his business interests and flew to Paris, leaving behind his beloved canvases. While he leaved a quite comfortable life there, his collection was nationalised, merged with other private collections and divided between the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museums.
However later on Stalin found the collection as “ideologically inadequate, anti-working class and politically harmful” and signed a decree for its destruction. Luckily most of the pieces got conveniently lost or misplaced by unnamed heroic curators. Finally, with the death of Stalin, the paintings began their journey back to the public eye.
To my amateur eye, Impressionism is happy art. There are dancing couples, people laughing at picnics, beautiful sunsets and crazy moons, a lot of cafes and lots and lots of drinking. A celebration of colour and movement, a welcome pause from the daily life. So I am grateful for a long line of art patrons and curators to make this superb exhibition possible.
Dedicated solely to contemporary art exhibitions, Fondation Louise Vuitton building is an artwork in itself. Designed by Frank Gehry, it is shaped like a dream vessel with huge glass sails. Some 13,500 square meter of them. Located at the outskirts of Paris near La Defense, it is a glass and steel building at the hearth of the Bois de Boulogne. We climbed up to its terraces to view Paris from afar. From the terraces it’s also easier to examine the complexity of the architecture.
The design is definitely exciting but the construction phase must have been both a nightmare and a challenge in innovative technologies to the people who actually built it.
As such, it provided a fitting background for such an interesting exhibition.
The pictures of the paintings were taken by me at the exhibition – courtesy of FLV.