Absinthe, Paris and Shchukin

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Maria Sidelnikova

Foundation Louis Vuitton presents the exhibition ‘Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection’

The works of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces from the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts will be exhibited in Paris until February 20, and the Tretyakov State Gallery has exhibited works of avant-garde artists: in this exhibition it is the concealed genius of the Russian collector Sergei Shchukin, who had not only the great power of intuition but who was also a visionary, which is revealed.

The advisor to the President of the Foundation Jean-Paul Claverie told us about the new exhibition.

–The historical reunification of the Shchukin Collection is taking place in France rather than in Russia. Why Paris? And why the Foundation Louis Vuitton?

– The Shchukin Collection had its beginnings in Paris. Shchukin visited Paris several times a year to buy works of Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse. They were the artists whom we, the French people, could not understand and did not want to. Consequently, when we got the idea to organize an exhibition, neither us nor our friends and colleagues from the Pushkin Museum or the Hermitage challenged the venue. If the collection was to be reunified after all these years, it should be done here in Paris.

Moreover, Sergei Shchukin’s relations desired that it should be so. His grandson, André-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, is my old-established friend and former colleague (from the Ministry of Culture where we had worked together in the office of Jack Lang over 20 years ago). He maintains close relations with Russian museums. When he proposed exhibiting the Shchukin Collection, we immediately supported him.

To accept an exhibition of such a scale is a great honour and responsibility for the Foundation Louis Vuitton because it means working with the national treasures of Russia. On the one hand, the Foundation is aimed at the popularization of modern art, but on the other, we have to reveal the XXth century’s art history to the public, and mainly to a young audience. We must show them its relevance now. With this approach, it has worked out successfully from every perspective.

– It is well-known that Shchukin did not think much of Russian painters. — Why, then, did the curator, Anne Baldassari, add the works of the Russian avant-garde artists: Malevich, Tatlin and Larionov to the Collection?

– It was because Bernard Arnault (LVMH owner and the President of the Foundation Louis Vuitton. – Editorial comment.) wanted it. The introduction of works of avant-garde artists such as Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse, Degas and Cézanne to their contemporary public and, more importantly, to students of the art schools of Moscow at that time, had a great influence on the Russian art scene and on the formation of the Russian avant-garde. Our intention was to show this. The exhibit ends with a dialogue between Malevich and Cézanne under the glass vaulted ceilings of the Foundation Louis Vuitton, with its bright-colour patterns designed by the modern artist Daniel Buren. For me, within this exhibition hall a century of art, and all its inter-relations, effects and confrontations, can be seen.

– How was the exhibition viewed by Bernard Arnault? Can we say that the Russian collector himself influenced his patronage? Can we compare them?

– Bernard Arnault accepted the project with great enthusiasm and approved it immediately. The exhibition is Arnault’s homage to the businessman, Sergei Shchukin, who has entered history due to his interest in the arts and because of his collection. We cannot forget that without private collectors there might not be so many state museum collections, nor would so many masterpieces be created, and the history of art might have developed in another way.

Shchukin was one of the major Russian manufacturers of the early XX century. As an educated and discerning person, he selected a unique collection of French avant-garde masterpieces, he opened his residence in Moscow’s Bolshoi Znamensky pereulok to the public and, finally, he left the collection to the city of Moscow. Even by today’s standards, when collectors the world-over support state collections, and found private museums, this marks an unparalleled generosity, and in those days it was exceptional.

Bernard Arnault is a founder of the international group LVMH which includes the best brands of the famed French art de vivre; he is a man of considerable culture and one of the major modern philanthropists of France. He sponsors large-scale exhibitions all over the world, including in Russia. He commissioned the great architect, Frank Gehr, to design the Foundation Louis Vuitton building. It was an ambitious choice and, after 50 years, the building will be transferred to the ownership of Paris. Of course, the collectors’ stories have much in common with each other, even if they belong to different époques.

– Arnault is also an admirer of Picasso’s work. But, in contrast to Shchukin, who could not tolerate Picasso’s paintings for any length of time, Arnault has no trouble with them. Isn’t that right?

– No trouble at all. — As far as I know, they co-exist in perfect harmony! But for Shchukin it was a real challenge. He needed time to become accustomed to them, and to understand and accept them. After all, Picasso turned the standards of beauty up side down. According to the standards of those days, there was no beauty in his paintings.

– The exhibition was prepared like a covert operation at a time when legal actions threatened Yukos and economic sanctions appeared. What kind of warranties did you provide to Russia?

– The maximum. The French Government adopted special decrees on the inviolability of the Russian masterpieces. This is the strongest official warranty for their safety – they may not be threatened with seizure or by lawyers. I remember that last year we had the same preconditions for our exhibition: ‘The Keys to Passion’, in which The Dance by Matisse was shown.

– The opening took place against the background of complicated political relations between Russia and France…

– I would rather not speak about politics as it is so changeable. Initially we secured the support of the presidents of France and of Russia, because without their consent nothing would succeed. François Hollande and Vladimir Putin wrote introductory words for the exhibition catalogue. And I believe that the cultural relations which we share are much stronger and greater than the problems which temporarily separate us. Russia has presented to us – I mean to the French people and all Europeans – a great and beautiful gift in the form of an exhibition, and we have to be thankful for this.

– What is the value of this gift?

– No doubt, the actual amount is impressive. But Arnault was more interested in the project, and its cost took a backseat. Feelings are incalculable. I hope that we will be rewarded with the success of the exhibition, and with the feedback from visitors.

– Being a collector, what have you learned from Sergei Shchukin during your work on this project?

– As in politics, in business or in collecting, it is necessary to adhere to one’s own principles and assert them in life. You must never be afraid of your own style or your choices. Art demands from the collector that you be completely honest with yourself, because the masterpieces which you buy are not simply a mirror, they reflect your essence. You may find that the process of choosing the painting is very emotional, eccentric or even scary, because in that moment you understand something important about yourself. It is a face-to-face conversation, a very intimate dialogue between the collector, the artist, and his creation. And Shchukin conducted it continuously. He started collecting quite late, after his success in business. In choosing Matisse or Picasso, who were considered scandalous outcasts, he challenged himself. Bearing in mind that he was a famous and fine gentleman, he was perceived by the community as a crazy man, they laughed at him. But where are all these people now? Who remembers their names? The truth was on his side.

– At the beginning of this year, the Foundation Louis Vuitton, the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum signed a partnership agreement. Would you, please, describe what is at its core?

– We have been connected with the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum as friends and partners for a long time. This agreement confirmed our intentions to further develop our relations — primarily in the sphere of modern art. Both museums want to expand the presentation of contemporary art in their exhibition projects, and we are glad in the knowledge that these exhibitions will be held with our support, and that they will include masterpieces from the collection of the Foundation Louis Vuitton. That is why the exhibition of Jan Fabre, in the Hermitage, is also our joint project.

With the support of rbc.ru

Dmitri Melnikov, A portrait of Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin (1915)
Paul Gauguin, The Fruit Harvest (1899) (Collection: The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow)
© PRESS OFFICE OF THE PUSHKIN STATE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
Pablo Picasso, The Absinthe Drinker (1901) (Collection: The State Hermitage)
© PRESS OFFICE OF THE STATE HERMITAGE
M.F. Larionov. Spring. Seasons (1912)
© PRESS OFFICE OF THE TRETYAKOV STATE GALLERY
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