Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The Shchukin Collection: Icons Of Modern Art, Paris

 Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin - 1854-1936

So there I was in Paris at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, at what was for me the exhibition of the year, if not one of the best that I have ever visited. The show - The Shchukin Collection: Icons Of Modern Art - is an absolute blockbuster of an exhibition which showcases 130 important masterpieces of art and some small pieces of African sculpture collected by the Russian aesthete and patron of the arts - Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin. The collection is important because it contains many iconic works of such good quality, from a variety of movements within early 20th century european art that were created by artists who were at significant stages in their careers.

Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936), was a very successful Russian businessman from a well-to-do family who became an art collector, amassing one of the greatest collections (258 paintings), of Impressionist, Modernist and Suprematist and Constructivist art which graced the walls of his mansion (the Troubetzkoy Palace), in Moscow. Shchukin would generously open his mansion on Sundays so that the general public could have access to his collection and acquaint themselves with trends in avant-garde painting. Despite this modern art was not well recieved or appreciated by many critics or the general public. Shchukin was roundly mocked at the time, because it was thought that a series of personal family tragedies made him emotionally vulnerable, and therefore susceptible to being exploited by French art dealers such as Ambroise Vollard and Paul Durand-Ruel. Even the Louvre, which had the opportunity to purchase most of these important works rejected them as being 'too modern'.

Pictures of the collection in Shchukin's Moscow mansion

Sadly after the October revolution in Russia, Shchukin fearing for his life, was forced to board a train and flee to Paris, leaving his amazing collection behind. Lenin's government then appropriated Shchukin's collection, and merged it with the collection of another well known Russian patron of the arts - Ivan Morozov. Both collections were considered bourgeois by both Lenin and Stalin who broke up the collection, eventually dispatching it to both the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. This is the first time most of the collection has been allowed to travel en masse to the West because of insurance and funding issues.

The exhibition occupies all floors of the Vuitton Foundation and is absolutely incredible.  Thankfully though they haven't attempted to display them salon style the way Shchukin did in his mansion (above). Here they are given the breathing space they deserve - the better to observe and savour them. Certain pieces from the collection such as Matisse's Pink Studio, haven't travelled outside of Russia for sixty years. There are so many famous works of such good quality that it is like a series of exhibitions within an exhibition. The works cover most genres in art at that period of time such as portraits, still lifes and abstracts. The following are some of the pieces amongst the many in the collection that for one reason or another particularly stood out for me.

Self-Portrait, (1879) - Cezanne

Portrait of Dr Rey, (1889) - Van Gogh

The Pipe Smoker, (1890-93) - Cezanne

Seagulls over The Houses of Parliament, (1904) - Monet

Dejeuner Sur L'herbe, (1866) - Monet

Femme Se Penchant Sur Une Table, (1893) - Eugène Carrière

Woman Sleeping Under A Tree, (1900-1) - Odilon Redon

La Danseuse Chez Le Photographer, (1902) - Edgar Degas

Majorcan Woman, (1905) - Picasso

Dryad, Nude In The Forest, (1911-13) - Picasso

 Trois Femmes, (1908) - Picasso

Femme Au Cafe/Absinthe Drinker, (1901-2) - Picasso 

Self-Portrait, (1890-94) - Gauguin

Mardi Gras Pierrot et Arlequin, (1888-90) - Cezanne

Woman With A Rake, (1932) - Malevich

Two Circles (1902), - Rodchenko

As good as the above pieces were, my personal favourite rooms of the exhibition were on the ground and first floors. The ground floor contained a room devoted to the paintings of Paul Gauguin, which along with the Matisse room upstairs on the first floor were absolutely stunning. I would have gladly paid the entrance fee to gain entrance to either of these rooms alone because the works they contained were, to my eyes, that amazing. Gauguin by all accounts was supposed to have been a very difficult and dislikeable character in life, but the Tahiti paintings here collected by Shchukine are so sublime. I liked the way Gauguin would use artistic licence to contrast the darker tones of the skin of the Tahitian natives against the vibrant pinks and yellows of the background landscape, or fabrics. I was in absolute raptures in this room. Apparently Shchukin had the Gauguins displayed in his dining room as a large fresco to resemble a series of Russian Orthodox icons (an iconostasis), and had to hide them behind a curtain, as displaying them in this way was regarded as blasphemous and scandalous in czarist Russia. 

Ruperupe, (1899) - Gauguin

Her Name Is Vairaumati, (1892) - Gauguin

Man Picking Fruit, 1897 - Gauguin

Couple Sitting In A Room With A Cat, (1896) - Gauguin

Crossing The River, (1901) - Gauguin

Maternity, (1899) - Gauguin

Scene Of Tahitian Life, (1901) - Gauguin

What Are You Jealous? (1892) - Gauguin

My other favourite room in this exhibition was the Matisse. Again it is mindblowing that one man had both the funds and foresight to acquire and commission these icons of the art world from perhaps the only serious artistic rival to Picasso at the time. Sadly we didn't get to see the iconic paintings The Dance, or Music, by Matisse which Shchukin commissioned especially for his mansion, and didn't actually like or understand. 

"The public is against you now," he wrote to Matisse in 1910... Overall I find the panels interesting and hope to like them one day. I have total confidence in you. The future is yours." 

However the works that we do get in this room from Matisse (below), are still an embarrasment of riches. It was fantastic to be able to finally examine these works up close in the flesh, rather than online or in art books, therefore getting a true estimation of their scale and colours. Although we didn't get Matisse's The Dance or Music paintings, there is a space in the lower galleries of the Fondation building which contains a multimedia installation, a 'visual dance poem' by Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway which makes reference to these works. Unfortunately this room was too claustrophobic and crowded with other visitors so I didn't stay in there too long.

The Dessert/Harmony In Red,  (1908) - Matisse

Goldfishes, (1912) - Matisse

The Pink Studio, (1911) - Matisse

Les Capucines à La Danse(1912) - Matisse

Arums, Iris and Mimosas, (1913) - Matisse

It is so fantastic that Bernard Arnault, the owner of LVMH group has the means to bring these these paintings to the West, (apparently most major galleries in the West are unable to afford to insure the collection for travel, which is why it hasn't been done before), and showcase them in his Vuitton Foundation gallery. With this show Arnault pays homage to fellow collector Shchukin, and also demonstrates that he is serious about using the Foundation as a showcase for the best in art, and that the Foundaton has the potential to be one of the major forces amongst galleries in the art world. Apparently the Vuitton Foundation are currently in negotiations with New York's Metropolitan Museum to bring the cream of their collection to Paris next autumn. That sounds like the perfect excuse (if ever one were needed), for me to pay a return visit to the City of Light.

If you get the chance to visit this exhibition then do book online beforehand as it will save you queueing for a long time as I had to. The show is still very popular (Matisse room picture above), and very crowded. I foolishly thought most people had seen it so that there would be no queues in winter, but there were many Brits, Americans and Italians etc. who had all travelled to Paris specifically to see this exhibition. It is though, worth the journey and queue times. Prepare to be amazed!

 The poster doesn't lie!

The Shchukin Collection: Icons of Modern Art
until 20th February 2017
Foundation Louis Vuitton
8 Avenue du Mahatma Gandhi