A dazzling collection of Russia’s state art is heading for Britain, but only after a diplomatic row
In autumn it was being hailed as a unique cultural collaboration: the loan of a whole range of 19th and 20th-century masterpieces from Russian state collections – with Matisse, Picasso and Malevich starring in the London show.
Then, in December, things turned nasty. Russia threatened to pull out because Britain is one of the few countries in Europe that does not have an antiseizure law – though one is in the pipeline. That means that if a work is lent to a British gallery the owner does not have immunity from it being seized for criminal investigation by an interested party (eg, someone who lost a work during the Nazi era). The show will thus open at the Royal Academy later this month with relations a little brittle.
I visited Russia in September to take an early look at some of these great paintings at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Was there any inkling then that things might go badly wrong? Yes. And the person making that clear was none other than Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the Hermitage, during our conversation in his office overlooked by photographs of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.
“There must be parliamentary indemnity against seizure,” he insisted.
“Otherwise there will be problems. I hope it will go through by January. There are so many lawsuits going on throughout the world, and lots of examples of attempts to arrest Russian state property.”
But the question of whether Russia acquired some of its state property illegally – all those paintings allegedly looted by the Red Army at the end of the Second World War, for example – will not go away, as Natalia Semenova, biographer of two great Russian collectors, Ivan Morosov and Sergei Shchukin, explained to me in Moscow two days later. We were sitting at a table in No 1, Red Square, a basement restaurant, talking about paintings kept in the storerooms of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow that no eye other than that of its autocratic director, Irina Antonova, was ever allowed to see. Did Semenova think there were many such paintings?
She nodded. “Tens?” “Hundreds.” And perhaps even many more, she suggested. She could not know for sure because no one is allowed access to the storerooms of the Pushkin as long as Mrs Antonova is alive. Aged 85, she has been director for 46 years.
The paintings that we can see in this show will, in part, tell the story of the rivalry between two great cities – Moscow and St Petersburg. The merchant city of Moscow, the first to be declared the Russian capital, is the heart of the land of the Slavs. The second, St Petersburg, is several centuries younger, and its founder, Peter the Great, looked towards cultured Europe. Compared with Moscow, and despite many of its palaces sitting by canals that recall Venice, the city has an air of slightly grubby, if genteel, impoverishment. Moscow, now so full of brashness and bling, seems to be getting most of the cash. Peter the Great moved his family and his Government to his new capital in 1710, and it remained Russia’s first city until the 1917 revolution.
The exhibition will also tell the story of the relationship between French and Russian art from 1860 to 1925. The works, which will range from Russian realist paintings of the mid-19th century, to explosive works by the avantgardistas of the early 20th – Kazimir Malevich, Lyubov Popova, as well as Matisse and Picasso – will be drawnfrom the Hermitage and State Russian Museums of St Petersburg, and from the Pushkin and Tretyakov Museums of Moscow.
The principal building of the Hermitage is the Romanovs’ Winter Palace, which, when gilded by low sunlight, looks like a piece of pure, edible Baroque confectionery. The Old Masters, which were collected so assiduously by Catherine the Great – Rubens, Rembrandt and others – look perfectly at home amid the state rooms here, and the seemingly endless recession of corridors. They have just the right degree of pomp and circumstance. Upstairs, more unusually jarring things seem to be happening. In galleries that overlook the custard-yellow General Staff Building on Palace Square, we come across works by Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and their contemporaries. Some of these works feel too small for such walls, but they still pack an explosive charge.
Many were bought by Ivan Morosov and Sergei Shchukin, two Moscow textile merchants, who hung them in their Moscow mansions. After the revolution, the collections became state property, and in 1923 they were amalgamated, and a Museum of Modern Western Art was created in the house of Morosov.
Shchukin opened his home, the Trubetskoye Palace, to the public in 1907 and would give guided tours of his collection on a Sunday morning, eagerly debating the merits of his daring choices with those who thought them both ridiculous and indecent. Young artists flocked and saw in that house a vision of their own futures. The mansion, on Znamensky Street, has survived and is now used by military personnel.
Shchukin, an impulsive extrovert, was the more adventurous of the two collectors. Morosov, much the richer, was quietly deliberate, and more conservative. He had the cool temperament of the art historian who believes above all in telling the story, painting by painting, of an artist’s evolution; Shchukin fell violently in love with this, that, and then the other – until he found the next object of his adoration. He didn’t especially like Picasso’s more difficult works of the preCubist period, all those severely angular, primitively forbidding women, but he knew there was something in them – so he bought them in quantity – a total of 54.
Before Matisse there had been Paul Gauguin, and his paintings of the terrestrial paradise of Tahiti, many of which are beautifully displayed at the Pushkin Museum, and some of which will travel to London.
But the relationship between Shchukin and his heirs and the authorities has not been easy. After the collection was nationalised, he served for a time as curator. Later, during the dark days of Stalin, all public record of the ownership of the works was expunged.
More recently, Shchukin’s heirs have sought to wrest back the collection from the state. Alexey Petukhov, curator of the modern French painting collection at the Pushkin Museum, says: “The grandson was taught by his mother to be the enemy of Russia and of the Pushkin Museum. He went to court to prove his right to own them.” Later, that grandson, André-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, accepted an invitation to an exhibition which celebrated the achievements of his father as a collector, and the relationship improved. The paintings still hang on these walls. Inexplicably, however, when you go to examine the labels, you will find no reference whatsoever to Shchukin. “Why is that?” I ask Petukhov. He squirms a little. “It is a mistake,” he replies. Or is it yet another little, unsolved mystery?
From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1860-1925, Royal Academy, London W1 (www.royalacademy.org.uk 0870 8488484), Jan 26-Apr 18
Henri Matisse, 1910 This masterpiece was commissioned from Matisse by the pioneering Russian collector Sergei Shchukin to adorn the staircase of his mansion in Moscow. It enthrals us for two quite different reasons: the circular movement of the dance seems to flow ceaselessly, and the use of bold and simple colours – mainly blue, green and terracotta – gives the painting an extraordinary charge, part erotic, part ethereal. There is a companion piece, Music, which is too fragile to travel beyond the State Hermitage.
The two canvases were not without controversy. Shchukin, a stutterer who might stare at a canvas for two hours, was often attacked by conservative critics for his daring commissions. He worried about displaying The Dance prominently – would he not be charged with corrupting the young? However, he decided to go ahead, writing to Matisse in March 1909: “I find such nobility in The Dance that I have decided to ignore bourgeois opinion and put the work with its nude figures in my staircase. I will need a second panneau to go with it, whose subject might be music.” The two cost him 27,000 francs. Shchukin believed in Matisse so much that he bought most of his output between 1908 and 1914.
During the Second World War the works, with thousands of others, were crated up and sent to Siberia. On their return in 1948 Stalin gave General Voroshilov, a member of the Politburo, the task of purging the state collections of examples of bourgeois decadence. When The Dance was rolled out on the floor for Voroshilov’s inspection, he laughed and passed on. It was evidently too derisory even to destroy.
Kazimir Malevich, c 1923 Malevich’s art, so minimal and so conceptual – to use words that came into use only long after his death – caused a sensation when first exhibited in Russia. Malevich uses, and then, isolates, the very simplest of geometrical forms. But to the painter himself, such forms, so pared back and so severe, harboured sacred meanings. When the first version of Black Square was exhibited in 1916 it was hung up high in a corner – as icons were traditionally displayed.
BATHING THE RED HORSE
Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, 1912 One of the most startlingly engaging works in the show was executed by a man whose name is little known in the West. This bravura painting of a red, rearing horse, with its vulnerable, yellow, naked rider looks like some brilliantly colourful scene straight out of Russian folklore. In the light of the turbulent history of Russia in the 20th century, it also feels troublingly premonitory – as if Petrov-Vodkin felt all the violence to come. The painting started life as a realistic description of boys and horses frolicking together in the river Volga. Little by little, the artist transformed it into a scene of much greater symbolic intensity.
LEO TOLSTOY BAREFOOT
Ilya Repin, 1901 This brilliant, realist portrait of the great novelist, shoeless, dressed in the garb of a peasant, and with a huge book causing his pocket to sag, was one of many executed by Repin at the writer’s estate of Yasnaya Polyana.
Tolstoy is being portrayed exactly as he wanted to be known – as a simple soul, aspiring towards spiritual perfection. Repin, who was a longstanding friend, saw beyond that mask: “However much that giant might humble himself . . . one always sees in him a Zeus, whose one raised eyebrow causes the whole of Olympus to tremble,” he wrote in a letter to his daughter. The portrait was laboured over for ten years, and captures brilliantly certain characteristics of the novelist – the way, for example, that his hands are thrust deep into his belt like a pair of holstered pistols.
PORTRAIT OF DR FELIX REY
Vincent Van Gogh, 1889 This is the only portrait by Van Gogh in a Russian museum. Dr Rey (1865-1932) was a young trainee at the mental hospital in Arles where Van Gogh stayed after his first attack of mental illness. It was painted for two reasons: to thank the doctor for his kindness, and to try to interest the doctor in Van Gogh’s art. It is characterised by a harsh and almost violent simplicity. The doctor failed to appreciate its qualities.