Tortured by Memories I.

Salon Henri Matisse in the house of collector Sergei Shchukin, Moscow, 1913

Moscow, declared the art critic Alexandre Benois, is “the city of Gauguin, Cézanne, and Matisse”. It was 1912, and this was no idle boast: within the once and future capital’s walls lay one of the greatest and most accessible private collections of Modernist art ever assembled. Each Sunday, the Trubetskoy Palace was opened to the public for free. Visitors would be struck by the enormous works by Matisse, La Danse and La Musique, that greeted them from above the main staircase. Elsewhere, a wall of Gauguins was hung so thick the frames overlapped and the paintings appeared to be “one big fresco”. Scores of pictures by Cézanne, Monet and Derain clustered the walls and obscured the Catherine the Great-era furnishings. And on the eve of World War One, the last of an astonishing fifty Picassos was finally welcomed into its new home. Over the preceding six years, the Palace had played host to a steady stream of artists, intellectuals and social elites. Early on, the Sunday salons crackled with controversy. The writer Andrei Bely recalled that when one of Monet’s haystacks was first displayed in Moscow it was described as “an absolutely shocking scandal”. When a haystack arrived in the Trubetskoy, it met with a similar reaction: the curator had to intervene to stop a visitor scribbling on a canvas in fury, and Shchukin’s tastes were rubbished in print. But the paintings generated their adherents too. A catwalk of the Russian avant-garde passed through its galleries – Tatlin, Larionov, Rodchenko – and Malevich would construct part of his programmatic method for interpreting art with reference to Picasso’s, Femme à l’éventail (après le bal). Trubetskoy Palace, in the words of Pavel Muratov, another critic, “exercises a decisive influence on the destiny of Russian painting”.

S. Schukin with “The Woman in Green” by A. Matisse from his collection.

The Muscovite Maecenas behind this ensemble was Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin, and his impact was the focus of a recent exhibition at the new Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Icons of Modern Art: the Shchukin Collection (22 October 2016 – 20 February 2017). The catalogue also provides us with a glimpse of the buoyant fortunes of the Russian upper classes during the belle époque, and their subsequent collapse. Shchukin was born in 1854 into the higher reaches of Moscow’s merchant class, the kupechestvo. His family were Old Believers. It was envisaged that he, like his elder brothers, would go into the family textile company. These apparently unpropitious beginnings for a collector of such aesthetic flair were in fact in keeping with the social transformations of the age. His family’s wealth gave him membership of an exclusive set of highly successful businessmen and industrialists that rose to prominence in the second half of the nineteenth century, for whom acquiring art was a popular and prestigious activity. One of Shchukin’s cousins would marry Pavel Tretyakov. Another cousin was a member of the Post-Impressionist group Les Nabis. His mother’s family – the Botkins – were tea merchants who became important patrons in their own right, and his father counted Soldatenkov among his friends, the “Medici” of Moscow. As this epithet implies, there was a certain amount of dynastic jockeying behind the salons that emerged from the mid-1800s. The Shchukins were not above such rivalries. His father, as though by design, was buried in a stately family tomb he had commissioned at the Pokrovsky Monastery that had been completed only months before his death. But this attitude was tempered with a sense of art’s role in public education, as Tretyakov made clear in 1892 when, following the death of his younger brother, he offered the city of Moscow the family collection. Long before the contents of Shchukin’s own mansion were expropriated by the Bolsheviks he had done the same. There are echoes of their Western European near-contemporaries here, Henry Tate and François Depeaux, who each made donations to national museums of private art collections financed by lucrative family businesses. II.

Sergei Schchukin

Although the class to which he belonged was already enamoured of art and aspired to patronage, Shchukin’s personal talents and character were critical in his rise to pre-eminence. For one thing, he was not afraid to start late. Shchukin’s first purchases of French artists were made on a trip to Paris in 1898, when he was already forty-four years old. He had recently disposed of several dozen Russian works that hung in the Palace Trubetskoy and decided to begin afresh. A younger brother, Ivan, suggested Shchukin visit him in his apartment on the Avenue Wagram, where he played host to artists such as Degas, Renoir and Rodin, and a stream of Russian travellers to France that included Chekhov. Ivan quickly introduced him to the dealers Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard, from whom he bought some of his earliest pieces. In the view of Yakov Tugendhold, author of the first critical essays on Shchukin, this new venture was not an immediate success, however: the paintings were “middle of the road stuff, untouched by the rushing torrent of Modernity”. (Tugendhold would know – he later became Shchukin’s curator, and it was he who fought off the would-be scribbler on Monet’s haystack.) Instead, Shchukin’s manner was marked by a slow finding of his feet and a somewhat elliptical movement towards focusing on the great artists who would make his name. In the meantime he frequented the Louvre, where he drew parallels between the exhibits in the Ancient Egyptian wing and the peasant figures of Cézanne. Once Shchukin had resolved to collect the work of a particular artist his conviction was remarkable. Wherever possible, he pushed the dealer aside and forged his own personal relationships. He drove to that great secular monastery, Giverny, and persuaded Monet to part with a frameful of white waterlilies. He got Vollard to introduce him to Matisse, to whom he devoted so much energy that Anne Baldassari, the recent Paris exhibition’s curator, argues a sort of “moral contract” was formed between them. “Kindly write to me if you have made more easel paints” said Shchukin in a letter to the artist in early 1909. “You have promised to inform me of every canvas you are making.” A similar tenacity can be observed in his letters to Kahnweiler, through whom he bought most of his Picassos.

A. Matisse, “La Musique”, 1910.

Nonetheless, as he began not just to buy from galleries but to buy on the basis of photographs (a Kahnweiler sales technique) and to commission pictures, Shchukin’s convictions could wobble.His skill was to stick with the artists he loved, despite his own misgivings. Uncertainty characterised even his most successful relationships. Again and again we read not of the “infallible eye” that Matisse was to ascribe to him (that quote is perhaps best read in the context of the letter mentioned above), but of doubts followed by drawn-out conversions. His first response on seeing Matisse’s monumental La Danse and La Musique was “I hope that I will eventually get used to them”. (The genitals of the violinist in the latter work proved too risqué however, and were discreetly painted over.) Tradition holds that he had to struggle “with himself” to overcome his initial aversion to Femme à l’éventail, and as late as 1914, Tugendhold records, Shchukin could be heard murmuring of his four dozen Picassos “I am sure he is right, and not me”. III. It is tempting to try and trace an arc through Shchukin’s life that links his view of the world, his personal experiences and his collection. His intensely private identification with some of the pieces he owned should caution against such projections – he once told Matisse that he used to look at the Café arabe hung in his dressing room for an hour every day – but in opening Trubetskoy Palace to the public in 1908 which of his peers can have resisted speculating at the man behind it all, to say nothing of posterity? By then he had become a figure of melancholy to Muscovite society. The prosperous, middle-aged man who had energetically struck out onto the Parisian art scene a decade earlier had been beset by family tragedy in the intervening years. In November 1905, at the height of the civil unrest then gripping the country, his son Seriozha had gone missing. For months Shchukin and his wife Lydia had worried, until in April Seriozha’s body was pulled from the newly unfrozen River Moskva. Then in January 1907, still heartbroken at the death of her son, Lydia died in the middle of the night. A year later Ivan committed suicide, and two years after that – on the third anniversary of Lydia’s death – another son, Grigory, also killed himself. Moscow began to talk of ‘the curse of the Shchukins’. Seeking solace in collecting appears to have been an immediate and compulsive response to these losses. Only a few months after Seriozha’s death was confirmed Shchukin met Matisse for the first time in Paris. Matisse later recalled him as being “extremely sober”, impelled by his search for “the profound and tranquil pleasures”. Shchukin would begin buying Matisse that autumn. When his wife died in January, Shchukin remade his will the next day. In it, he left his entire collection to the city of Moscow and the Tretyakov Gallery. As Baldessari argues in a cogent essay on Shchukin’s development as a collector, this period saw a growing self-confidence and commitment to his collection – in her words, to “the activist dimension of his role”. The Sunday openings were one thing. But in addition, Shchukin began to think of the Trubetskoy Palace and the artworks within it holistically, as a grand laboratory for his visual and spatial experiments. Matisse was his most willing collaborator. He travelled to Moscow in November 1911 at Shchukin’s invitation. At about the same time that Western European artistic circles were asking whether or not his Fauvist movement had been supplanted by the Cubists, he spent days hanging and rehanging his works in the Trubetskoy. Upstairs, in the Pink Room, he arranged several paintings according to a chromatic scheme intended to underpin his “conception of an overall space inhabited by pure colour”. Unsurprisingly, artists and academics found a spiritual dimension to Shchukin’s undertaking. Yet this was religiosity of singularly Modernist leanings. Bewildered at the loss of his son and wife in quick succession, in late 1907 he had journeyed in a caravan of twenty dromedaries to the Orthodox monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai. Aiming to “forget all the external conditions of our lives” in peaceful contemplation, he instead found himself “tortured” by his memories. In place of meditation, he focused on a study of the 17th century icons in the monastery. His desire “to find a new purpose in life” seemed to deliver him ineluctably back to the consideration of art.

Trubetskoy Palace in 1914

The icons on Sinai were emblematic of his preoccupation with older forms of Russian and Byzantine art throughout his career. Like his brother Pyotr, another collector, he was interested in exploring hybrid representations of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ cultures. Gauguin was his lodestar in this respect. Likening his canvases to fin de siècle icons, Shchukin constructed an ‘iconostasis’ in his dining room with a care for the placement of individual images that mirrored the approach taken in the Pink Room. In doing so, argues Mikhail Piotrovsky, the current director of the Hermitage, he ascribed new value to the traditional devotional form, and thus stands as “the first in Russia to have appreciated the artistic qualities of the icon”. He didn’t stop at Gauguin: compact Picassos were referred to as the collection’s ‘black icons’, and the critic Benois described the culmination of a visit to Trubetskoy Palace as entry into the Cubist “chapel” where they were hung. Icons of Modern Art thus makes the case for the need to interpret the reception of Modernism in Moscow at least in part with reference to the heart of the Russian canon. Please see Part II of the article here.