PARIS – Sometimes we aspire to the beauty of little things: the haiku, the string quartet, miniature engraving. And then other times tovarishch, you need your beauty as big as the motherland.
“The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art”, which opened its doors last week at the Louis Vuitton Foundation here, brings to Paris an explosion of French and Russian painting on a “War and Peace” scale – and brings together , for the first time since 1918, one of the two most important art collections in pre-revolutionary Russia.
While the French bourgeoisie still despised the Parisian avant-garde, young Russian textile magnates Ivan and Mikhail Morozov were buying the city’s most innovative paintings – and buying in bulk. Gauguin, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso: all their work came from the East, and will inspire two generations of Russian successors. Alongside their fellow textile boss and friendly rival collector Sergei Shchukin, the Morozovs made Moscow the offshore capital of French modern art in the 1900s.
Then came the October Revolution, when the 200 paintings here were expropriated for the national collection. Ivan Morozov goes into exile. Under Stalin, the paintings were suppressed and scattered as far as Siberia.
Today, the Morozov collection has been mainly absorbed by the collections of the State Pushkin Museum and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Their reassembly here, on four whole floors of Frank Gehry’s glass sailboat in the Bois de Boulogne, is legitimately historic in a way few shows can really claim: as if a whole lost world could be entered, from room to room. .
Just bring your vaccination passport and go! Nearly a decade in the works, twice delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, “The Morozov Collection” is what touts like to call “once in a lifetime” – or, perhaps, twice in a lifetime. Five years ago, the Vuitton Foundation brought together the Shchukin collection in another museum filling exhibition, whose scholarly weight was matched by its massive popularity.
“The blockbuster of blockbusters,” as I awkwardly dubbed the Shchukin show when I reviewed it in 2016, has attracted over 1.2 million visitors, more than any Parisian exhibition since the arrival of the King Tut’s horde in 1967. It is not known whether he will be in the lead. this record, but in all other respects Morozov’s presentation is the equal of the Shchukin showcase and perhaps would have been even more difficult to achieve.
Like its predecessor, this one was curated with cool precision by Anne Baldassari, the former director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, and comes with a back-breaking catalog – indeed, both are almost the same size, for avoid the troubles of the descendants.
Like its predecessor, it required a colossal diplomatic effort, with the assurance that French law would protect Russian museums against any claims from the descendants of the Morozovs, and a personal signature for loans from President Vladimir V. Putin.
Like its predecessor, it had a colossal budget, again undisclosed. Insurance alone would run into the millions. Reframing, new glass: another important cost center. The Vuitton Foundation also funded an ephemeral conservation workshop in Russia to restore numerous works there, such as a suite of decorations (or murals) by Maurice Denis hanging in Ivan Morozov’s music room. Complain if you want a lot of money in the art world, but sometimes it’s not that bad to have the third richest person on Earth to pay your bills.
The show begins in the basement, with nearly two dozen photos of the Morozov family, including several fascinating portraits of Russian painter Valentin Serov. His full-length portrait of Mikhail shows him in a morning robe, round and confident. Mikhail had a strong taste for the Parisian cabaret and, above all, its showgirls. (He would die young, at 33.)
Ivan, whose best portrait of Serov would appear later, with the Matisses, was more pragmatic and Muscovite, but no less experimental in his artistic tastes. They were old believers and relatively new money: their great-grandfather was a serf who had bought his freedom with his wife’s dowry of five rubles.
Like most of Moscow’s high society, the Morozov brothers were also French-speaking – and found in Paris a cultural realm in which they could immerse themselves and bring home. The first highlight of the exhibition is a mural-scale landscape room by Pierre Bonnard, commissioned for the staircase of Ivan Morozov’s mansion in Moscow. The largest are over 3 meters high and are full of Mediterranean colors that must have surprised the beautiful Russian world at aperitif time. Gauguin was another source of brilliant color, and a dozen Tahitian images of astounding quality permeate their own gallery here.
The Shchukin presentation also had an entirely Gauguin room, and this show and this one both feature incredible portions of Cezanne, Monet, and Matisse. But the Russians were different collectors – “Morozov walked in the shadows, Shchukin in the light,” said one of their contemporaries – and so these are different shows.
Shchukin was more daring, especially in Picasso’s collection, but Ivan Morozov had the better eye. Shchukin relies on French art, while the Morozovs also collect Russian artists; here’s a bright pairing of an airy party photo by Renoir and an outdoor boat scene by Russian painter Konstantin Korovin. (He also taught the Morozovs to paint when they were young.) Shchukin bought on a whim; Ivan Morozov could wait a whole year and conceived of his collection as a museum in the making.
And “The Morozov Collection” emphasizes this systematic and serial approach to the collection, grouping the paintings into thematic sets where French and Russian artists rub shoulders. A crisp painting of an acrobat from Picasso’s Pink Period, acquired after Leo and Gertrude Stein went their separate ways, confronts an indecently sexy double portrait, by Ilia Mashkov, of him and another artist posing with dumbbells and musical instruments. (Healthy mind, healthy body.) The landscapes of Van Gogh and André Derain mingle with those of Natalia Goncharova, who will become an essential figure of the Soviet avant-garde
The exhibition breaks with this thematic approach only once, for one of the most legendary paintings in the Morozov collection: Van Gogh’s stripped “The prison yard”, produced in the last year of his life. at the Saint-Rémy asylum. On loan from the Pushkins, he was hung away from the other Van Goghs of the Morozovs in a dark room, under a spotlight – to increase his discouragement, I guess, although to me the lighting seemed more appropriate for a review. of the Moulin Rouge.
They amaze the Shchukin and Morozov collections in equal parts, yet the two shows of the Vuitton Foundation have radically different tones in their final acts. The last ended with the shock of novelty: abstract paintings by Malevich, Rodchenko and other Soviet innovators, taking up the banner of modernism in the new Soviet Union. This show ends with a requiem for the past, in the form of Morozov’s music room, reconstituted as it was in 1909. The Denis sets, painted on site in Moscow, illustrate the myth of Cupid and Psyche with a lysergic palette of pinks and blues. The commissioner even chose to play light music, as if the ghosts of the last days of the Romanovs were still among us.
A century ago, Denis’ decorations sparked a heated debate among intellectuals and connoisseurs of Czarism in Moscow. Now, they appear rather as a minor interlude before the great upheaval to come. No dynasty lasts forever: not that of the Morozovs, and certainly not the one that nationalized their mansion. Eventually, the culture changes – the paintings return to Paris and Louis Vuitton opens a concession on Place Rouge.
The Morozov collection: icons of modern art
Until February 22 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; fondationlouisvuitton.fr.