Issue Number: 97
The fortunes of two of the world’s most important collections of modern French painting are as breathtaking as the paintings themselves. Hilary Spurling reveals how they survived Soviet Russia
Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Portrait of Doctor Rey’, 1889. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Photo @ Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
It is almost exactly 100 years since what was in all but name the world’s first museum of modern art opened its doors in Moscow’s Trubetskoy Palace. Exposed simultaneously for the first time to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism, the Russian public responded, as one observer said, like eskimos to a gramophone.
Ordinary citizens were appalled, disgusted or convulsed with laughter. The art world split in two. Academic painters like Ilya Repin and Valentin Serov, together with virtually all the other leading painters of the day, recoiled (as their French counterparts did in Paris) from works apparently designed to blow up the foundations of art itself. Overnight, the Trubetskoy Palace became the focus of revolt for a dissident younger generation headed by Kasimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, the Burlyuk brothers and Wassily Kandinsky.
The man responsible for this act of mayhem was Sergei Shchukin, a Moscow textile magnate who, with his friend Ivan Morosov, spent the early years of the twentieth century collecting modern art in Paris. Both were dismissed at the time as ignorant Kulaks ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous dealers. Always the more reckless of the two, Shchukin bought (and in many cases commissioned) almost all the great revolutionary paintings produced by Henri Matisse between 1908 and 1914. He was also Daniel Kahnweiler’s only regular customer for Cubist works by Pablo Picasso in the run-up to the First World War.
By August 1914, when the outbreak of hostilities finally cut short his buying, Shchukin had put together ‘the greatest collection, public or private, in the world’ of contemporary French painting. The words are those of his admirer, in some sense his direct successor, Alfred Barr, founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose collection (in particular Matisse’s Red Studio, the only major work rejected by Shchukin) produced an impact on young American Abstract Expressionists after the Second World War comparable in importance to the explosion of creative energy ignited by Shchukin in Moscow before the first.
But by 1951, when Barr paid tribute to his great predecessor, the collection he was writing about had disappeared. Shchukin’s paintings, nationalised by Lenin after the Revolution, were initially hung alongside Morosov’s in the Morosov mansion, now renamed the State Museum of Modern Western Art. For a brief period in the 1920s it looked as if the new museum might survive and flourish, even expand. Barr visited it in 1927, the year before he launched his own modern art museum in New York. But as the political climate changed in Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s, the French paintings began to look more threatening, remaining on show primarily as a teaching aid to demonstrate the bourgeois decadence of the West.
In 1941, the State Museum was closed down, and the paintings sent to Siberia. A decade later, they were still locked up in Soviet cellars. All enquiries from abroad were blocked. The first sign that the collections remained intact came when 36 of Shchukin’s Picassos turned up in Italy on loan to an exhibition in 1953, the year of Stalin’s death. A year later, they reached Paris. Matisse died that autumn without knowing whether or not his pictures had survived.
Shchukin and Morosov had long since died in exile. Both were obliterated from the Soviet record and would remain ‘non-persons’ for decades after the works they had once owned started to resurface, a few at a time, in inconspicuous back rooms at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (then Leningrad) and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The French paintings were shown at first only to foreigners, who were dazzled by their brilliance and power, and no less mystified as to how they got there.
In 1964, an Intourist guide in Leningrad admitted to a persistent New Yorker that the pictures came from a collector. ‘One collector?’ asked the incredulous tourist, whose name was Beverly Whitney Kean. Her guide admitted that there were two collectors but provided no further information than their names. Access to museum archives was forbidden. Back in Manhattan, Kean asked Barr at MoMA if it might be possible to write an article about these two mysterious textile merchants. ‘Why not a book?’ said Barr.
Kean’s All the Empty Palaces, published in 1983, remains the seminal work on Moscow’s merchant collectors. Authoritative, revelatory, richly detailed, it bypassed official sources to open up territory hitherto inaccessible to more orthodox historians. With Barr’s backing, Kean secured eyewitness testimony from Shchukin’s family and Matisse’s, as well as from dealers, friends and fellow collectors. Shchukin’s eldest son Ivan, who had emigrated to Lebanon, reluctantly agreed to grant her 30 minutes, naming a date six months ahead and a meeting point in Beirut public library. ‘I told him I’d be there, and I was,’ said Kean.
Ivan Shchukin had grown up in the Trubetskoy Palace, and was present at his father’s first encounter with Matisse. He had never talked publicly about his father until his interview with Kean, which spread over the better part of a week and ended with his offering her his family papers. She refused to take advantage of his munificent impulse, accepting only half the papers and promising to return a year later to collect the rest, if he still wanted her to have them (this second meeting never took place because Ivan Shchukin was dead by then, killed at the age of 90 by a terrorist bomb).
When All the Empty Palaces was published, virtually all the copies that reached Russia were confiscated by the KGB. By the end of the 1980s, there were said to be half a dozen smuggled copies circulating among museum curators, passed from hand to hand ‘like gold bricks’, as one of them said to me when I visited Russia in the early days of perestroika with Kean’s book as my guide.
Apart from a single article in a learned journal published ten years before, the first attempt to rehabilitate Shchukin in public was a profile in the Moscow paper Orgonok in November, 1990. The following spring, I flew to Moscow to find the author of that article, Natalia Semyonova. ‘It was not always necessary to kill someone,’ she said when we met, ‘only to forget him.’
Semyonova was already working on the first biography of Shchukin. I had just started research for a life of Henri Matisse. We exchanged notes in mutual debriefing sessions in the tiny kitchen of her two-room Moscow flat. Semyonova, just one year old when Stalin died, had been a student on the first art history course offered by Moscow University in 1968. At that stage, Shchukin’s name was not so much unspeakable as literally unthinkable for a generation that had never heard of Impressionism, let alone Fauvism or Cubism, and for whom the concept of a collector – an individual buying artwork to suit private inclinations without reference to institutional authority or state decree – was almost impossible to grasp.
For Semyonova, it was a rare copy of another contraband book passed round in the USSR – Four Americans in Paris, MoMA’s catalogue for an exhibition devoted in 1970 to the collectors Michael, Sarah, Leo and Gertrude Stein – that supplied the key to a lost world. Even then it was hard to credit that Russia herself could have produced a collector before the First World War to match and outstrip the Steins. Students of art history assumed that, like everything else, museums and their contents had been provided by the Soviet government for the benefit of Soviet people. ‘We knew nothing,’ said Semyonova. ‘All things were covered in silence.’
Memories were still fresh of the era when curators lived under threat, both to themselves and to the paintings in their charge. The most subversive of the French canvases only narrowly escaped destruction after a notorious visit paid in 1948 to the disused State Museum of Modern Western Art by Marshall Voroshilov, the general entrusted by Stalin after the war with purging Soviet culture. Matisse’s The Dance and Music were unrolled and laid out on the floor for his inspection. When Voroshilov snickered, his entire retinuejoined in. ‘It was years ago, but I still have that laughter echoing in my ears,’ wrote N. Yavorskaya, one of the senior curators, recalling in her memoirs the day that decided the fate of the collection: ‘It is hard to describe the state the museum staff were in at that time.’
It took nerve to paint these pictures, and nerve to buy them, as Matisse once famously observed. But in the post-war years in Russia it took nerve to curate them, too. As late as 1962, the staff of the Hermitage were officially warned to take down their Matisses and Picassos. At the Pushkin, Alexandra Andreevna Demskaya, the museum’s future historian, secretly collected and preserved documents, photographs and reminiscences of the two Moscow collectors.
Oral testimony from people who remembered them had to be committed to memory (Demskaya eventually confided her private archive to Semyonova, who worked under her at the Pushkin). The Trubetskoy Palace, which had once housed Shchukin and his collection, was occupied by the Soviet army. When Gorbachev instituted his programme of political relaxation, Shchukin’s grandson flew to Moscow but was turned away by armed guards from his family’s former home. Matisse’s grandson was refused admittance the year after.
Demskaya, the first person from the art world permitted to enter the Trubetskoy Palace in 1990, was received with Semyonova by military top brass seated round a conference table in the room once filled with Shchukin’s Monets. The painted Rose drawing room, hung by Matisse himself with more than 30 of his canvases, had been stripped and subdivided by plastic partitions into four office cubicles. The small Renoir room now contained an exercise bicycle for the generals’ leisure use.
If it was hard for Yavorskaya to articulate the despair of 1948, it isn’t easy, either, to describe how it felt to be present more than 40 years later as a witness when Shchukin and Morosov finally reappeared from behind a wall of silence. Everyone I met in Russia in 1991 had lived and worked in the shadow of that wall. In the autumn of the same year, tanks massed outside Moscow in an attempted coup by old-guard Communists aiming to oust the deputies from the White House, where a defiant Boris Yeltsin addressed the crowd of protestors camped out overnight. Semyonova, who was in the Orgonok tent that night, flew to London two days later to meet Kean as Communism fell. Although Kean’s book was familiar to everyone involved with the French paintings, this was the first time anyone from Soviet Russia made contact with its author. Once again we compared notes, pooled information and answered one another’s questions before toasting the collectors who, in Kean’s words, ‘built a slender bridge of paint and canvas from Russia to the rest of the world, one which outlasted the government that banished them.’
The situation changed rapidly after that. Semyonova’s biography of Shchukin was published in Russia in 1993, followed by a life of Morosov (French editions of both are currently in preparation). Kean’s book was reissued in 1997 as French Painters, Russian Collectors, an edition updated with the help of Albert Kostenevich, Keeper of Modern Western Paintings at the Hermitage, who has probably done more than anyone in the past fifteen years to retrieve and record the history of the collections in his care.
Kostenevich himself collaborated with Semyonova on Collecting Matisse (1993), a definitive and scrupulously documented work of rehabilitation and reparation to the two collectors history forgot. The Royal Academy exhibition celebrates not only the paintings themselves but all those who protected and preserved them through a turbulent century.
© Hilary Spurling 2007
Hilary Spurling, Beverly Kean and Natalia Semyonova take part in the panel discussion on Shchukin and Morosov, 'All the Empty Palaces: The Patrons Who Brought Modern Art to Russia', on 29 February 2008. Click here for booking information .