Patrick Legant is an independent art advisor in London for 19th and 20th Century art as well as specializing in German & Austrian Expressionism. This essay is based upon the show “Icons of Modern Art. The Shchukin Collection” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris (Oct 22, 2016 to Feb 20, 2017.) Subscribers to AMMpro may read the entire work. All subscriptions begin with a free month, so feel free to register to read and cancel as you see fit.
“I am ashamed of my weakness and lack of courage. One must not desert the battlefield without trying to fight. For this reason, I am resolved to exhibit your panels. People will shout and people will laugh, but since I am convinced you are on the right path, maybe time will be my ally. And I will achieve victory in the end.”
Shchukin in a letter to Matisse
Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936), a textile merchant, was one of the most important contemporary art collectors in Russia, if not Europe, until the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917. It is his “art of collecting” that is as fascinating to observe and to experience as it is to learn about the developments of the French and Russian avant-garde during the first decades of the 20th Century.
The recently opened, sensational exhibition “Icons of Modern Art. The Shchukin Collection” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris is an overwhelming experience to see one of the most iconic collections re-united again with holdings of masterpieces from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to understand and realise the genius and magic of one of the most extraordinary collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern Art of the early 20th Century. It ranges from Paul Cézanne’s major Mardi gras (Pierrot et Arlequin) of 1888-90 and his Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue des Lauves (1904-05) to Claude Monet’s monumental Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1866) to Paul Gauguin’s Aha oé fee? (Eh quo, tu es jalousie?) (1892) to Picasso’s early major Cubist oil Trois femmes (1907 or 1908), to name only a few stand-out works.
The current exhibition can be seen as the mapping of a collecting journey. It starts off with Shchukin’s so-called “First Collection” (gathered between 1898 and 1905). It clearly represents the approach of a well-to-do, successful businessman who collects art for its decorative value as it was expected of his class. The works ranged from a large and decorative Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones tapestry to a pleasant Armand Guillaumin Impressionist landscape painting. The decorative and the narrative were clearly the guiding points throughout his “First Collection”.
The year 1905, however, appears to mark a significant turning point in Shchukin’s collecting habits. The tragic loss of his son changed his view of life as well as his approach to collecting art. The man who appreciated art for its decorative purpose suddenly turned to the most daring avant-garde art of the highest quality. It was in 1906 that Shchukin came to Matisse’s studio in search of the latest, most genius art he could acquire for his collection. The Russian businessman paid handsomely. Matisse, who gained the reputation as a “wild beast” (fauve) during his outing as an avant-garde artist in 1905 and was rejected by the official Salon in Paris, obviously must have impressed the contemporary art collector who recognised the quality and genius of his work and was prepared and happy to pay prices that were usually reserved for the celebrated and recognised Salon painters of the time. He acquired spectacular works dating from the painter’s Fauve years such as the important Vue de Collioure (1905) and milestone works that followed later, such as the stunning Harmonie rouge, La Chamber rouge of 1908 and the significant masterpiece La Danse of 1910.
The Paris art world could not believe it and was shocked to see what happened to the market of “young” contemporary artists such as Matisse. But it was the long-term view and the appreciation and guidance by the celebrated American collectors Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo Stein that helped Shchukin to find his path and train his eye as a collector of contemporary art.
Matisse took his Russian patron to Picasso’s studio at the now legendary Le Bateau-Lavoir a few years later in 1908. Shchukin must have felt overwhelmed and mesmerised at the same time when he saw Picasso’s early Cubist works. He recognised the new, revolutionary painterly language and bought a number of oils, such as Femme à l’éventail (Après le ball) (1908) and Femme new assist (Méditation) (1908). Back in Moscow, he created a so-called “Picasso cell” where he hung all of his Cubist oils. It must have been quite an otherworldly experience in those days to step into that space.
At the same time, Shchukin decided to open up his collection. Since the summer of 1908, it could be seen and studied by appointment. And it cannot be underestimated what impact the art in his collection had on the development of the Russian avant-garde during the 1910 years – evidenced by the works in the collection by painters such as Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin and Natalia Goncharova. For many who were craving to see the latest developments of painting in Paris, to come to Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace in Moscow was the “ticket” to do so. For example, Malevitch’s Bather from 1911 can certainly be regarded as a direct outcome of seeing Matisse’s “Nymphe et satyre from 1908 at the collection. And Goncharova was possibly inspired by Picasso’s Cubist painting La Fermière (en pied) (1908) when she painted Paysans cueillant des pommes in 1911.
The Russian businessman is therefore not only recognised as a legend for being an important and revolutionary collector in his own right but also for being an educator, for sharing the works in his collection with the young generation of Russian artists and intellectuals. It was Shchukin’s most extraordinary and personal achievement to turn from a decorative collector into a visionary, milestone setting collector who even influenced the development of the avant-garde in his own country and mesmerises us still today. The current exhibition leads the viewer from Shchukin’s very beginnings as a collector into the realm of the most powerful tour de force of the French and Russian avant-garde masterpieces. It represents the essence of the ‘art of being a great and visionary collector’ – to keep an open mind and keep learning and looking with true passion. It is this habit that distinguishes legendary collectors such as Shchukin.