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Russia's museums pay homage to Sergei Shchukin, the boldest modern art collector

The tribute to this Russian visionary in his homeland comes just over 100 years after Lenin nationalised the textile magnate’s entire collection.

Artworks by Henri Matisse, Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso are among treasures from the early 20th century collection of Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin, now featured in a major exhibition at Moscow’s State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts until 15 September 2019. The show "Shchukin. Biography of a Collection" brings together masterpieces held mainly in the Pushkin Museum and St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, along with various other Russian museums. It is the most complete show to date of a collector whose name in Soviet times could not even be mentioned in his homeland.

The works Sergei Shchukin amassed during his frequent trips to Paris before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution were displayed on the walls of his townhouse. He opened the eyes of a whole generation of Russian artists by giving them access to radical new forms of art which he brought into the country before anyone else.

The Moscow show captures some of the drama those early visitors to Shchukin’s home must have felt when seeing their first French Impressionist, Modernist and Cubist paintings. A vast canvas by Matisse, “Dance,” hangs at the top of the museum’s long central staircase. It was exactly that stunningly graceful work that visitors first saw when entering Shchukin’s home. The intense colours of Gaugin’s Tahiti paintings are displayed on the opposite wall of the museum’s main hall. Each room shows work by one or two artists, which is the way Shchukin himself displayed his collection. The result is a dazzling array of some of the most iconic works of early 20th century art. It’s only a few steps from late Cezanne paintings to Matisse’s “Red Room,” from Picasso’s “Blue Period” paintings to his cubist masterpiece “Three Women.”

Seeing the wealth of this partially reunited collection proves how extraordinarily bold and gifted Shchukin was as a collector. He didn’t care about public opinion and pursued art works which even he sometimes found hard to appreciate, but which he nevertheless regarded as compelling and important.

The Pushkin Museum’s director, Marina Loshak, sees Shchukin as a pioneer who influenced the course of 20th century art history by buying Gaugin, Matisse, the French Impressionists and Picasso while these artists were deeply unfashionable in Europe. The array of priceless masterpieces now on show is a testament to his unique taste and personal conviction.

“Thanks to Shchukin, the map of world art changed radically, creating a new understanding of art,” Loshak said. She sees him as part of a Russian tradition that includes Moscow banker Pavel Tretyakov (1832–1898), who built a museum and donated his entire collection to what is now Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery. Loshak reflects that “it’s hard to find someone now who collects contemporary art in this way, with such passion and making it their life’s mission. Such people are few, but they once existed in Russia.”

In parallel with the Shchukin exhibition, her museum has put on a show of works from one of most prominent collections of contemporary art, the Foundation Louis Vuitton (FLV). It was they who hosted the first ever Shchukin exhibition in 2016, which attracted 1.2 million visitors to its Paris show — so the Pushkin Museum is "returning the favor," in a way.

Key works from the collection by Alberto Giacometti, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marina Abramovic, Yves Klein, and Maurizio Cattelan are on show in a "who’s who" of the most important global contemporary artists. Although that collection is also based on an individual vision — that of French businessman Bernard Arnault — the Foundation Louis Vuitton exhibition leaves an impression of adept curation rather than the one of outstanding individual taste.

Shchukin. Biography of a Collection

19 June – 15 September

Collection of Fondation Louis Vuitton: Selected Works

19 June – 29 September

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts

Moscow, Russia

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