Coming Home: Modernism and the Shchukin Collection

HENRI MATISSE’S Harmony in Red is one of those famous paintings few have actually seen with their own eyes. Well known is its deluge of patterned carmine, its dizzying conflation of space, and its importance to the artist’s development. Less well known is the fact that the painting was supposed to be blue. The Russian aristocrat Sergei Shchukin requested the color when he commissioned the painting in 1908, but Matisse overruled him; in the end, Shchukin accepted the red Harmony, installing it in his Moscow home. A decade later authorities seized the work, and it eventually entered the State Hermitage Museum. But last fall, Harmony traveled to Paris, where it anchored the Fondation Luis Vuitton’s megashow, Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection. The show featured 130 French canvases — almost half of Shchukin’s former holdings. This was the first time the paintings left Russia en masse.

For many Parisians, attendance at Icons was de rigueur. Of course, with 14 galleries showcasing French modernism’s biggest names (Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Cézanne, Derain, Vuillard, Monet, and more) the show’s success was inevitable. Many of the paintings are masterpieces; all, like Harmony, came from Russia’s Pushkin and Hermitage Museums, where they have resided for the past 70 years. And their movement from Parisian ateliers to Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace, then to Russian museums, and finally to the foundation, is almost as interesting as the paintings themselves. It also exposes one of the show’s greatest frictions. The death of Shchukin’s collection at the hands of communist revolutionaries and its resurrection at the hands of Vladimir Putin and the Fondation Louis Vuitton constitute a kind of dramatic irony.

Shchukin collected in a blur. In just 15 years, he amassed all his paintings and installed them in what he assumed would be their permanent home — Trubetskoy Palace, which was Moscow’s former governor’s mansion. But the Bolshevik Revolution changed everything. Shchukin fled, leaving everything behind. All 274 artworks were nationalized in 1918, and for the next three decades they were shuttled, stored, or hidden, until Stalin split the collection between the Pushkin State Museum and the State Hermitage Museum. Icons’s curator, Anne Baldassari, studied the collection’s history and made a laudable effort to fold it into the presentation. Notably, Baldassari included numerous large photographs of Trubetskoy Palace’s interior. They are blown up to life-size and show the collection in situ, thus giving the visitor a sense of the original hang. The contrast created between Shchukin’s presentation and Baldassari’s re-presentation is both profitable and significant.

Consider Trubetskoy Palace’s dining room, where Shchukin famously packed at least 12 of Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes (filled with the naked, indigenous bodies that the artist fetishized) into a tight cluster. Here and elsewhere, Shchukin preferred what is known as the “salon hang,” closely arranging paintings above and below one another. So did his friends and rival collectors, Gertrude and Leo Stein, who built a similar collection in their Parisian apartment on rue de Fleurus. But at Icons, the salon hang is abandoned; the Gauguin works, like all the rest, are regularly spaced — allowed to breathe, one might say. There are other niggling differences too, but ones that imply a much larger shift. The works are spotlit in a typically French manner. Many Parisian museums do this. The effect is dramatic and theatrical, but because of the angle of the lights, a visitor cannot closely inspect many works without casting her own shadow onto the canvas. At Icons this meant a denial of intimacy, which would not have occurred at rue de Fleurus or Trubetskoy Palace, where guests could have scrutinized the art with their noses nearly pressed against the scumbled paint. One can almost imagine a proud Shchukin rapping a tightly stretched Gauguin during a meal while extolling its radical virtues. What was really lost in translation, then, was not intimacy, but domesticity.

The domestic element in Shchukin’s collecting practice, and in modernism more generally, should not be underestimated, and this was one of the shows greatest gifts and biggest shortcomings: it laid bare the domesticity that was often bound to modern art, but it did so somewhat inadvertently. Baldassari’s large photographs show modernism’s typically cluttered and gilded existence. The Trubetskoy Palace’s rooms, after all, were not white cubes, and they were certainly not the foundation’s hyper-slick interiors, ensconced within the dry-docked sailboat of a building that Frank Gehry designed in 2006. Most rooms in Shchukin’s palace, like the dining hall, were explosions of molding, gold, mirrors, and ornament. But this is something most people, even curators, tend to forget. And modernism itself, like its environs, was not hard edged, sterile, or spare; it had a more claw-footed reality.

Matisse understood modernism’s relation to the domestic (a great many of his paintings are interior scenes); he certainly understood the relationship before visiting Trubetskoy Palace in 1911, when he installed and curated his paintings for Shchukin’s “pink room.” In doing so, Matisse filled a domestic space with his domestic spaces. He also expressed his creativity in a more immaterial way — through curation. And Shchukin, like the Steins and numerous others who formed modernist communities, performed a similar immaterial creativity. Their labor did not manifest in physical objects, like paintings and sculptures, but in environments and spaces that could cultivate a community, and thus nurture and support other artistic productions. Shchukin did not have a painterly practice, but he did have a collection practice, and this, alongside his later impulse to build a public community around his artworks, represents a true creativity. To say instead that Shchukin collected to his tastes and then showed off his exotic purchases would be incorrect. In fact, Shchukin regularly collected art that ran against his taste, that he did not like or understand, at which he may even have bristled, but which he purchased because he was told, or simply intuited, that it would become important.

For me, the aesthetic-pedagogical value of Shchukin’s creative act first revealed itself in Icons’s fifth room, which Baldassari dedicated to Cézanne’s landscapes and their influence. A wall text from Yakov Tugendhold’s 1914 review introduces the space:

If, with Claude Monet, everything flows, Picasso’s hand makes everything solid: Monet transforms Rouen Cathedral into stone dust, Picasso condenses clouds into piles of stones. Where, in Matisse’s work, there are just silhouettes, in Picasso, there are just volumes.

But this fascinating idea — that Monet evanesces, Picasso condenses, and Matisse silhouettes — invites the question: What, then, was Shchukin? A flow-er? A masser? A shadowy lurker? He certainly did things with painterly forms, just like the others, but what, and why? The man’s collection holds a clue. Shchukin acquired several crucial modernist depictions of that classic theater figure, the harlequin. He owned both a study for Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques (1905), which would ultimately include the painter-as-harlequin, and Cézanne’s Mardi Gras (1888), where the harlequin reappears in his typical lozenge-patterned suit. Mardi Gras’s appearance in Icons’s last room balances a similar painting in Icons’s first room. In the latter, the lesser-known Norwegian painter Xan Krohn painted Shchukin before a wall of orange-and-white lozenges, thus giving the textile industrialist the patterning that he so fastidiously collected, and transforming him into the character with whom he so closely identified. This may strike the reader as odd, because today the harlequin is remembered as a clown-like figure. But in the commedia dell’arte tradition, he was, before all else, a conscientious servant. And this is precisely what Icons said, again and again, without saying it: that Shchukin was modernism’s loyal subject, or, as one wall text puts it, a “collector-hero.” But a modernist-harlequin must be more than servile. Unlike today, the public — even Shchukin, at times — was wary of modern art. And so, like many other figures who established similar communities, Shchukin used his collection as a teaching tool. In 1908, he opened his home every week to artists and intellectuals, and his collection became a heuristic device, a new community’s raison d’être. Modernism and teaching, like modernism and the domestic, often went hand in hand. And this communal generosity may be the collection’s defining feature. Icons does not so much abandon this attitude as reinvent it for a contemporary public.

And the show’s final rooms, like Shchukin’s, may have been Baldassari’s most intellectually generous. They were certainly her most daring. Here, Shchukin’s Picasso paintings, including the stunning Three Women (which Shchukin purchased from the Steins), bleed into a postscript: two rooms filled with Soviet avant-garde works. Included here is Kasimir Malevich’s Four Squares from 1915 (whose checkerboard pattern Baldassari keys to Mardi Gras’s nearby lozenges). This was an interesting turn, because some scholars have noted Malevich’s indebtedness to Picasso, but Baldassari grounds that argument in historical specificity: Shchukin’s Picasso works directly influenced the Russian. What could this mean for the latter’s body of work, and, by extension, for the show? Picasso once famously described his painterly practice as “my struggle to break with the two-dimensional aspect.” Malevich struggled too, but his rebellion was much more sweeping. He wanted to evacuate the entire tradition of Western art. As his student El Lissitsky would later explain (and diagram), Malevich saw his monumental 1915 work Black Square as the zero point in the history of art. Black Square was an obligatory passage point through which the entire canon would be funneled — obliterated and made anew. On the other side of Black Square, then, would emerge a radically new tradition, or, as Lissitsky tries to explain, there would be a shift from a painterly culture to a material culture. And so, what was a perspectival struggle for Picasso became a historical struggle for Malevich — a cultural expurgation by means of absorption, so much so that even the light that limns his black square’s edges seems to buckle. That Malevich carefully studied Picasso’s Three Women, that he took inspiration from its radicalism, and that one project could then give way to the other, is a powerful revelation. Incidentally, the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently exhibited four large diagrams by Malevich, where he maps modern aesthetic development from Picasso’s cubism to his own suprematism. There we see the artist effectively perform Baldassari’s argument. And it is specific historical connections like this that mark the Shchukin collection’s influence, and the significance of Icons.

But Icons embodied numerous tensions. And nowhere was tension more evident than in the contrast between the collection’s loss and its later reconciliation. Shchukin lost his artworks — not to mention the domestic space that housed them — in the wake of a people’s revolt. But this was more than a revolt against a monarchy. Socialist principles energized Russia’s revolutionary base; what these rebels wanted more than anything else was a classless society, and the redistribution of wealth. This is a social model that has no place for aristocratic art lovers. In many ways, the expropriation and exile of Shchukin and his ilk marked the start of one of the greatest, and most disastrous, political experiments of the 20th century.

As many reviewers have noted, a near-opposite set of terms governs the exhibition. Because of its enormous costs, Icons of Modern Art could have only occurred in the private sector. Prohibitively expensive for any public institution, it required the reach and scope of Bernard Arnault — the president of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the chairman and CEO of the 60-subsidiary conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), and France’s king billionaire. The show’s success also hinged on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who allowed the works to travel, wrote an introduction to the catalog, and had intended to open the exhibition. And President Putin, like Arnault, is no ideologue: the only forces that the Russian leader feels beholden to are those of the market and the neoliberal policies that have helped him secure and maintain his kleptocratic influence. And so, of all the contradictions that Icons of Modern Art stages, this one is perhaps the most dizzying: Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin was the fin de siècle equivalent of Bernard Arnault, and his collection represented an intensely personal, pedagogical, and domestic project, but the man made one miscalculation. Yes, he supported the rise and perpetuation of modern art; yes, he brought the avant-garde to Russia; and yes, his collection inspired numerous artists. But these same artists would soon support a people’s revolt that would dispossess Shchukin of the elitist project that he had once so generously offered them. The people took the power (and the paintings), and they destroyed Shchukin’s status and wealth. A century later, a nearly inverse political climate birthed Icons. That the Shchukin collection could only resurrect itself under the banner of international corporatist influence, and the neoliberal policies that make private companies more powerful than public institutions, is not only telling — it is deeply unsettling. And here lies the discomfort that I felt while walking the show. Ascending Icons’s four floors was like transgressing a whole spectrum of emotions. I entered in wonder, rose in awe, and left in fear.


Matthew Jeffrey Abrams is a Los Angeles–born, New York–based writer, scholar, and critic. He completed his PhD in the history of art at Yale University, where he specialized in the history and sociology of modernism.