‘Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” on view at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, is not just a show, it’s arguably the most extravagant exhibition on view anywhere today. Recently extended to March 5, it comes at a strange moment for Russia’s relations with the world, as pressing questions about the role of the super-rich in international politics and finance roil public life. Sergei Shchukin’s collection of dozens of Matisses and Picassos was seized by Lenin for the state in 1918, and kept as prized illustrations of capitalist decadence. In total, the paintings are worth an estimated $10 billion, and curator Anne Baldassari has put some 130 exemplary ones from this group on view, many leaving Russia for the first time since they departed France almost a century ago.
The Fondation Louis Vuitton, designed by Frank Gehry, is located in the Bois de Boulogne, a park in Neuilly, the bourgeois enclave of Paris. The structure’s billowing glass sails were recently fitted out with multicolored panels, a site-specific artwork by Daniel Buren—the effect is impressive. Upon entry, you encounter a large study for Claude Monet’s Luncheon on the Grass (1866), a good Mont Sainte-Victoire (1905) by Paul Cézanne, and several Cubist landscapes by both Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. There’s a terrific Pierre Puvis de Chavannes study for The Poor Fisherman (1879), a nice Edouard Vuillard interior, and a wonderful Henri Rousseau painting of a biplane, a balloon, and a dirigible floating over a river in Saint-Cloud. (There’s also a Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke film commissioned for the exhibition that stages an imaginary dialogue between Shchukin and Matisse that you should just ignore.) Here, the show is good, but not yet rapturously so: Fauve-era Henri Matisse landscapes featuring jewel-toned trees and pink-and-orange houses hint at what’s to come.
A timeline relates each of Shchukin’s purchases to events in his personal life. A textile manufacturer, he bought art on business trips to Paris between 1898 and 1914, and during the period of his most avid collecting, his son was found drowned in a frozen river (1906), his wife died (1907), and his brother and a second son killed themselves (1908, 1909). “The collection shows art’s power to give meaning to life,” the wall text suggests. “This guy must have been a really unbearable jerk,” said a skeptical woman standing next to me.
The French pack the galleries. These are some of the best paintings their culture has produced, and their reappearance in Paris is something of a national event; timed tickets regulate the crowds. One room is studded with a dozen tightly hung, rarely seen Tahitian-period Gauguins depicting lounging women smoking indolently, green-skinned people and wine-toned horses, mangoes and sunflowers. Do not work (1896), one is titled. Why haven’t you seen them before in person? They belong to Russian museums—mainly the Pushkin and the Hermitage—and are seldom seen internationally. In part, this is because Shchukin’s heirs sue for their return when the paintings travel. Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France, who is CEO of Vuitton and the founder of this museum, had to insure the paintings, and an agreement not to file for their restitution was coordinated before the show was finalized—we’ll see if it holds through the works’ return.
Upstairs, the true scope of the collection becomes clear. A single room in which 13 vast Matisse paintings hang is the highlight of the exhibition. These are only a fraction of Shchukin’s 43 Matisses, but each is a knockout: In Still Life with Blue Tablecloth (1908–9), the ground rides up behind the still-life objects—a green beaker, a plate of peaches—as though the actual canvas had a bend or fold in it. The pink walls with thin bluish stripes and the salmon carpet of L’Atelier Rose (1911) play fin-de-siècle color theory with your retina at a scale that anticipates the engulfing field of a Rothko. The quirkiest of the bunch is Seville Still Life (1910–11), which features geraniums on a table but also a couch and chair covered in wildly decorative fabrics—the pink flamingos on the green sofa made me smile. Every wall here is hung with three or four of the best Matisses you will ever see, including Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, that standard of college dorm-room posters; the painting plays a similar game of figuration/decoration representing tablecloth and wallpaper. Within it, we glimpse an orchard of blossoming fruit trees framed by a painted picture window such that the sight might be a painting within a painting on the overburdened wall. It’s dizzying.
Elsewhere, Picasso’s critical influence on the Russian avant-garde is on full view. Young Russian artists including Vladimir Tatlin and Aleksandr Rodchenko saw the collection’s some 50 Picassos in the 1910s, and you see how French Cubism (and Fauvism) had a direct effect on the that movement’s simplification of forms and shapes, and their approach to pure abstraction. There aren’t a lot of steps between a wild 1911 Kazimir Malevich bather who’s been thrown through Fauve color (red and green patches outlined in black lines) and Cubist form, to Rodchenko’s severe Construction no. 127 (Two Circles) of 1920.
It’s tempting to see Shchukin as a kind of Russian Gertrude Stein, collecting art ahead of his time from a cadre of young artists—the two collectors shared artists and dealers—but there are crucial differences. While Stein lived alongside those painters in Paris and worked as a writer in a form that mirrored their experimentation, Shchukin had a vision of collecting that was intimately tied to his position at the top of the Russian financial system. His collecting was the work of an enlightened plutocrat—he intended his paintings to educate the Russian public on new directions in advanced art. He seemed unsurprised when the Russian State took it all away, as though he had never bought it for himself, anyway. Consciously or not, maybe his collecting and showing this work was meant to forestall the inevitable collapse of a system in which the very few controlled most of the resources. If so, that mission failed in 1917. Shchukin fled to Paris without his paintings, and died there in 1936. He didn’t continue to collect.
It is intriguing, and perhaps telling, that in our own age of global plutocracy—in which most of the power and money are held by a tiny elite, and the ten richest people in the world reportedly have as much money as the bottom 50 percent—we have occasion to consider again the display of these fine works, which amounted to a last-gasp attempt by the very rich to placate the masses before political upheaval reordered the system.
A slideshow of additional works included in “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” 2016–17, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, follows below.