Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton exhibition on the Shchukin collection reveals the ambiguity of art collecting in its form as well as its content, through its attempt to reconcile the personal quirks, contradictions and passions of a Russian collector with the immense role his collection came to adopt within modern art history. This rich textile merchant amassed an impressive collection of art for his Moscow palace between 1898 and 1914 at a moment during which collecting outside national, traditional painting was frowned upon in Russia. Considered scandalous at the time, Serguei Shchukin only fanned the flames by allowing young Russian artists to view this work and draw inspiration from it. The rest is art history: the exhibition’s aim is to not only show this fascinating, ground-breaking collection, but to portray it alongside the works of Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin and Popova. Just as Shchukin provided an exceptional opportunity for a glimpse of Western art introduced to Russia, the reverse dynamic is now taking place in Paris with a rare look at the contents of the Ermitage and Pushkin collections, amongst many others.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau/AFP

The display starts off with a bang – a series of portraits and self-portraits, Derain’s Man with a Newspaper facing Cézanne’s Self-Portrait,  a gripping Van Gogh adjacent to Wan Krohn’s portrait of the collector himself, a celebrity art history who’s who enticing us foward.  In a darkened room, the commissioned art work “Shchukin, Matisse, dance and music”, by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke is an immersive multimedia installation which imagines a conversation between the collector and Matisse, subverting the idea of an introductary documentary with a larger-than-life touch of kitsch, humour and energy. The history of his commission of the painting “The Dancers”, followed by “Music”, touchingly captures Shchukin’s own boldness, contradictions and earnestness as he commissions, relents, censors and finally goes through with his presentation of the work alongside the rest of his collection to a new generation of Russian artists. With theatrical kitsch and colour, the work comes to life, as does Shchukin’s whose actor transcribes his words with poignant emotion despite his stutter: “Art must be a psychological shock” – a “sharp blow”.

After this vibrant first encounter, the rest of the exhibition reads like a stroll through Shchukin’s mind to understand this emotional and spiritual shock to the system he descrives, as well as a lesson in influences and tributes in art history. From portraiture to landscape and still-life through to nudes, it’s impossible to predict Shchukin’s tastes, as they seem to vary wildly from the slightly boring pastel Maurice Denis paintings or Burne-Jones tapestries through to daring bursts of colour with Gauguin and Matisse. The exhibition masterfully weaves a journey from Impressionist landscape through to Fauvism and Cubism in order to explain how this diverse selection of works, from traditional choices to daring ones, inspiring a revolution within the Russian artists Shchukin invited to view his work. Their works appear, bold and bright, in the last rooms, their sharp abstract shapes reflected vividly in Daniel Buren’s multiclolour shapes on the Louis Vuitton Foundation by Frank Gehry. The avant-garde experiments in colour and form are a rush of blood to the head, increasing in intensity and pushing boundaries, creating silent conversations and interconnections across rooms.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau / AFP

Despite the fact that it presented a huge selection of 160 works over 14 rooms, over three stories of exhibition space, the exhibition itself never has the length or exhausting effect that these blockbusters usually have on my feet and mind. The exhibition scenography is designed around the idea of an airy, temple-like space of suspended time, in glowing grey walls, subdued lighting and arched doorways. It regulates the flow of people and allow for a leisurely, contemplative pace, with room to sit and even stand next to a Picasso for awhile without having to shuffle to leave space for more people. The Matisse room is serene yet bubbling with energy, with enough space to stride, wander and dream amongst masterpieces.

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Matisse,  Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, Hermitage Museum (c) Succession H. Matisse. Photo (c) St-Petersburg.

The selection of works is breathtaking in its sheer amoung and diversity, making a quick summary neither possible nor desirable. Amazingly, in spite of this, there are some gaps, some understandable and others more complex. It would have been optimistic to assemble more than 130 items from the initial 274 works that composed Shchukin’s collection, to recreate this initial “psychological shock” – even though we would have loved to see Matisse’s “Dance” and “Music”, their very rare removal from the Hermitage Museum is justified by the iconic status they have gained. It is impossible to recreate the astounding accumulation of works of Shchukin’s original palace in a single exhibition – for instance, the original “Gauguin” room also had a few Matisse works and the Edward Burne-Jones tapestry. This website in the link above is an impressive summary of the original display as well asa compilation of the entire collection in collaboration with FLV as well as museums and archives – sadly, only in French and Russian yet intuitive enough for a clear encounter of Shchukin’s curatorial decisions.

Sadly, this is a resource I find only later – and whose pedagogical clarity seems to be missing from text panels and resources. Amongst varied opinions on how to pronounce “Shchukin”, I also hear vague confused mutters about the wall text which is, sadly, not quite accessible to a non specialist audience. Unfortunately, this does not improve as the exhibition veers away from representations of lanscapes and picnics into Malevich’s black squares and Popov’s abstract shards. “What is pantocrator?” “What is iconostasis?” “What is suprematism”? “What is postcubist ambiguity?” As an art historian, I spend my time explaining (and looking up “pantocrator”, because I’m not a latinist). I can feel that some of this lingo is muddying people’s instinctive, empassioned response to the artworks…and worse, intimidating. The panels read like a exhibition catalogue extract, with a very academic tone which could be easily amended by a glossary and a few explanations. These terms are not easy to understand for people with some understanding of modern art, let alone novices…and this is a recurring complaint when I visit French exhibitions with friends and family alike.  French museums are not yet on par with the level of attention given to learning and interpretation in the UK or the US. At least, these texts are all assembled within a beautiful booklet that can be brought home and deciphered – often useful when you want to focus on the works first and the explanations later. The audioguide file is also freely downloadable and accessible on the Louis Vuitton Foundation app, a refreshing change from the traditional clunky and expensive devices. The amount of videos and presentations by the curator Anne Baldessari on the website, as well as a free symposium on the exhibition were also welcome additions that perhaps needed to be exploited more in the display itself.

Another lingering feeling is that we never quite get to glimpse the person behind the legendary collection, or capture his personal rather than artistic intentions between his works and the theatrical portrayal in Greenaway’s commission. The eccentricity and contradictions become muted by concerns about intentions feeding into a clear pattern and design. It’s hard to work out to what extent he is truly a “collector-hero” and “collector-experimenter” (in the Russian critic Alenxander Benois’ words) who devised a very precise fresco of modern art, or the extent to which he was an eccentric and empassioned amateur who sometimes went all out and sometimes played it safe, following his own heart and instincts. Perhaps this is only a feeling we can grasp wordlessly through his paintings, with the rush of adrenalin at the glimpse of a Cézanne or a Picasso followed by quieter pauses facing a Monet or a Courbet. Audiences’ reactions and preference vary and diverge amongst themselves, creating a mix and match effect where some visitors will glance over some artists and spend ages in front of others. Ultimately, despite some questions left unanswered and some answers perhaps made too complex, the initial rush of excitement and passion constantly beats below the surface. As I hear mutters of delight and scorn amongst the audience, I believe the “blow” Shuchkin described still resonates, challenging contemporary artists and collectors to remain unpredictable, daring and provocative in spite of the status quo.

“Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection” is on display at Fondation Louis Vuitton till the 5th of March

The Shchukin Collection website

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