Precisely 100 years ago, the Russian Revolution was starting. February 1917. A revolution that changed Russia’s destiny and represents the end of a world. The world of tsars, the world of Chekhov’s characters, the world of private property and landlords…the whole world of 19th century bourgeoisie. Sergei Shchukin was one of them. Who was this man? What was the masterpiece of his life? Let me introduce you to him:
Xan Krohn, Portrait of Sergei Shchukin, 1915, Source here
I recently discovered his little-known story thanks to the Icons of Modern Art exhibition held at the Louis Vuitton Foundation. This visit was a revelation, an explosion of feelings! Few people heard of Shchukin simply because his name was completely hidden by the communists and his huge collection of 274 artworks of Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Monet, Derain, Rousseau, Gauguin – to name only few – was nationalized and split between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The paintings themselves are very well-known, they are among the best artworks of the best artists of the beginning of the XXth century whereas the name of their collector was forgotten.
Claude Monet, Une dame dans un jardin, 1899, Source here
Sergei Shchukin was born in 1854 in a Muscovite family of textile merchants. Because he was stuttering, his father didn’t believe much in his intellectual capacities but as it turned out, Sergei was a great business man and managed to flourish the company. He was traveling all over Asia in order to find beautiful, exotic patterns for his textiles. This is how he opened his eyes towards beauty.
Edward Burne-Jones, Adoration of the Magi, Tapestry by William Morris, 1902, Source here
At that time, it was a must for the Russian wealthy people to travel once a year to Paris, on the Orient Express, obviously. We can picture so well Shchukin and his dear wife Lydia staying at the Hotel du Louvre, going shopping at the best couturiers in Paris and discovering the art galleries. From his first trip, Shchukin bought this painting of Camille Pissaro, the view of the avenue de l’Opéra… as we can see it from the Hotel du Louvre.
Camille Pissaro, Avenue de l’Opéra, 1898, Source here
Shchukin fell in love with French painters and started collecting them despite all the voices who discouraged him back in Moscow. In the exhibition at the Fondation Vuitton they found an amazing way to present this hustle and bustle that rose around Shchukin’s collection. In the second exhibition room, bathed in the dark, five huge screens were showing simultaneously different images, a video installation created by Saskia Boddeke and Peter Greenaway. It was magic, we were transported in 1900. On the central screen, we could see Sergei Shchukin, yes, himself talking to us in a charming French with a slight Russian accent and of course, the stuttering… a deeply touching stuttering that hung me on every word going out of his mouth “Monsieeeuur Ma-M-Ma-tisse j’aim-me beau-cccou-coup votrre trav-vail”. Close-up on this mustached nice man, with his sparkling eyes and bling-bling fur. He – the actor of course – explains us how all the Muscovite fine society tried to discourage him, telling he was just a “bad taste nouveau riche” and that Parisian art dealers were fooling him and selling him only crap. Shchukin believed much, so much, so strong in his painters, that he didn’t give up and traveled again to Paris to enlarge his collection. He tied relationships with the big art dealers of that time, Ambroise Vollard, Paul Durand-Ruel, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Then switch on another screen, we see Matisse, explaining us that despite Shchukin’s apparent lack of taste he was his best patron and had an extraordinary sensitivity for art. Matisse and Shchukin exchanged many letters and the French artist sold up to 37 paintings to the Russian collector and also received the commission for these two masterpieces, that I saw many years ago in the Hermitage but unfortunately couldn’t see in the Louis Vuitton exhibition. They are much too fragile and wouldn’t resist a trip to Paris.
Henri Matisse, La danse, 1909, Source here
“There will be cries! There will be music!” that was inside Shchukin’s heart! His passion pushed him to collect hardly and he was so thirsty of looking at his paintings, observe them, that he was hanging them with no space in between, one stick to another, up to the ceiling. As if they were icons in an orthodox church. His very personal icons. Art was his religion.
Henri Matisse, La musique, 1909, Source here
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Shchukin had much beauty in his eyes. But Destiny, History, Time, these strong, ruthless concepts don’t spare anyone, even less at the Russian revolution’s eve. In 1905, one of the four sons of the collector decided to end his days, aged only 17. One year later, Shchukin’s wife died of sadness and in 1909 a second son committed suicide. The only thing that helped him dry his tears was Art. Back to Paris, Shchukin discovers young Picasso and has a visual choc. Such a choc that he will become the biggest Picasso collector with 49 paintings of the cubist painter.
Pablo Picasso, Dame à l’éventail, 1909, Source here
Shchukin wanted to share his passion and every Sunday he received visitors in his palace. As we can see it on one of the screens – the ones I told you about above – there were many artists visiting Shchukin… young Russian artists, no more and no less than those who were to become the Avant-garde Russe and some of them, soviet propaganda artists. Eisenstein: Choc! Tatline: Choc! Malevitch: Choc! Them and others educated their eyes at Shchukin’s. They were drawing their source of inspiration in there, they were observing, changing, hoping, making ambitious plans. And it gets me sad, not because these artists were politically engaged but because they admired Shchukin’s collection, it allowed them to see artists they didn’t have the chance to see otherwise in Russia and yet, they ended up serving through their art a regime who destroyed Shchukin, his collection and all elites in general. Who can judge if that was good or bad, knowing the terribly poor and unequal society of Russia at that time? But the story is undoubtedly ironic and very sad.
With a 274 artworks collection, wherein 38 Matisse, 49 Picasso, 16 Gaugin, 8 Cézanne, 7 Rousseau and so many others, Shchukine was forced in 1918 to flee abroad and leave forever his beloved collection. I imagine his heart broke at that moment and died. The man, Sergei Shchukin died in Paris in 1936. His collection was in a first time unified with Morozov’s collection and then split by Stalin between the Pouchkine Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. Now, in Paris, 100 years after Shchukin was dispossessed, the collection is again unified. Not fully, but many important works were brought together again and shown to the French public. Bookings in advance, long waiting queues for tickets, many people hurried to see this exhibition. They were right, it was all worth it.
In the end, Time became Shchukin’s allied and they vanquished together. The mean gossips of the Russian elite, the people who thought both Matisse and Shchukin were crazy, the harsh hateful spoliations during the communist regime and last but not least, Time helped Shchukin escape Oblivion. Shchukin finally vanquished.