Coming Home: Modernism and the Shchukin Collection

Picasso once famously described his painterly practice as “my struggle to break with the two-dimensional aspect.” Malevich struggled too, but his rebellion was much more sweeping. But this fascinating idea — that Monet evanesces, Picasso condenses, and Matisse silhouettes — invites the question: What, then, was Shchukin? Unlike today, the public — even Shchukin, at times — was wary of modern art. To say instead that Shchukin collected to his tastes and then showed off his exotic purchases would be incorrect. They were certainly her most daring. ¤
Matthew Jeffrey Abrams is a Los Angeles–born, New York–based writer, scholar, and critic. As his student El Lissitsky would later explain (and diagram), Malevich saw his monumental 1915 work Black Square as the zero point in the history of art. Shchukin did not have a painterly practice, but he did have a collection practice, and this, alongside his later impulse to build a public community around his artworks, represents a true creativity. For me, the aesthetic-pedagogical value of Shchukin’s creative act first revealed itself in Icons’s fifth room, which Baldassari dedicated to Cézanne’s landscapes and their influence. But Icons embodied numerous tensions. All 274 artworks were nationalized in 1918, and for the next three decades they were shuttled, stored, or hidden, until Stalin split the collection between the Pushkin State Museum and the State Hermitage Museum. APRIL 21, 2017

HENRI MATISSE’S Harmony in Red is one of those famous paintings few have actually seen with their own eyes. What could this mean for the latter’s body of work, and, by extension, for the show? He owned both a study for Picasso’s Family of Saltimbanques (1905), which would ultimately include the painter-as-harlequin, and Cézanne’s Mardi Gras (1888), where the harlequin reappears in his typical lozenge-patterned suit. This was an interesting turn, because some scholars have noted Malevich’s indebtedness to Picasso, but Baldassari grounds that argument in historical specificity: Shchukin’s Picasso works directly influenced the Russian. And Shchukin, like the Steins and numerous others who formed modernist communities, performed a similar immaterial creativity. I entered in wonder, rose in awe, and left in fear. What was really lost in translation, then, was not intimacy, but domesticity. He also expressed his creativity in a more immaterial way — through curation. This may strike the reader as odd, because today the harlequin is remembered as a clown-like figure. Because of its enormous costs, Icons of Modern Art could have only occurred in the private sector. Baldassari’s large photographs show modernism’s typically cluttered and gilded existence. So did his friends and rival collectors, Gertrude and Leo Stein, who built a similar collection in their Parisian apartment on rue de Fleurus. But at Icons, the salon hang is abandoned; the Gauguin works, like all the rest, are regularly spaced — allowed to breathe, one might say. A flow-er? In just 15 years, he amassed all his paintings and installed them in what he assumed would be their permanent home — Trubetskoy Palace, which was Moscow’s former governor’s mansion. On the other side of Black Square, then, would emerge a radically new tradition, or, as Lissitsky tries to explain, there would be a shift from a painterly culture to a material culture. Shchukin acquired several crucial modernist depictions of that classic theater figure, the harlequin. And President Putin, like Arnault, is no ideologue: the only forces that the Russian leader feels beholden to are those of the market and the neoliberal policies that have helped him secure and maintain his kleptocratic influence. The show’s success also hinged on Russian President Vladimir Putin, who allowed the works to travel, wrote an introduction to the catalog, and had intended to open the exhibition. Shchukin lost his artworks — not to mention the domestic space that housed them — in the wake of a people’s revolt. Socialist principles energized Russia’s revolutionary base; what these rebels wanted more than anything else was a classless society, and the redistribution of wealth. Ascending Icons’s four floors was like transgressing a whole spectrum of emotions. Icons’s curator, Anne Baldassari, studied the collection’s history and made a laudable effort to fold it into the presentation. Black Square was an obligatory passage point through which the entire canon would be funneled — obliterated and made anew. The contrast created between Shchukin’s presentation and Baldassari’s re-presentation is both profitable and significant. A masser? And this communal generosity may be the collection’s defining feature. The show featured 130 French canvases — almost half of Shchukin’s former holdings. In fact, Shchukin regularly collected art that ran against his taste, that he did not like or understand, at which he may even have bristled, but which he purchased because he was told, or simply intuited, that it would become important. And here lies the discomfort that I felt while walking the show. But in the commedia dell’arte tradition, he was, before all else, a conscientious servant. Shchukin collected in a blur. There we see the artist effectively perform Baldassari’s argument. And this is precisely what Icons said, again and again, without saying it: that Shchukin was modernism’s loyal subject, or, as one wall text puts it, a “collector-hero.” But a modernist-harlequin must be more than servile. Icons does not so much abandon this attitude as reinvent it for a contemporary public. The domestic element in Shchukin’s collecting practice, and in modernism more generally, should not be underestimated, and this was one of the shows greatest gifts and biggest shortcomings: it laid bare the domesticity that was often bound to modern art, but it did so somewhat inadvertently. For many Parisians, attendance at Icons was de rigueur. This is a social model that has no place for aristocratic art lovers. But these same artists would soon support a people’s revolt that would dispossess Shchukin of the elitist project that he had once so generously offered them. A wall text from Yakov Tugendhold’s 1914 review introduces the space:
If, with Claude Monet, everything flows, Picasso’s hand makes everything solid: Monet transforms Rouen Cathedral into stone dust, Picasso condenses clouds into piles of stones. That the Shchukin collection could only resurrect itself under the banner of international corporatist influence, and the neoliberal policies that make private companies more powerful than public institutions, is not only telling — it is deeply unsettling. Shchukin fled, leaving everything behind. And so, of all the contradictions that Icons of Modern Art stages, this one is perhaps the most dizzying: Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin was the fin de siècle equivalent of Bernard Arnault, and his collection represented an intensely personal, pedagogical, and domestic project, but the man made one miscalculation. Less well known is the fact that the painting was supposed to be blue. He completed his PhD in the history of art at Yale University, where he specialized in the history and sociology of modernism. And so, like many other figures who established similar communities, Shchukin used his collection as a teaching tool. Prohibitively expensive for any public institution, it required the reach and scope of Bernard Arnault — the president of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the chairman and CEO of the 60-subsidiary conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), and France’s king billionaire. Many of the paintings are masterpieces; all, like Harmony, came from Russia’s Pushkin and Hermitage Museums, where they have resided for the past 70 years. The effect is dramatic and theatrical, but because of the angle of the lights, a visitor cannot closely inspect many works without casting her own shadow onto the canvas. It also exposes one of the show’s greatest frictions. Modernism and teaching, like modernism and the domestic, often went hand in hand. And the show’s final rooms, like Shchukin’s, may have been Baldassari’s most intellectually generous. The man’s collection holds a clue. He wanted to evacuate the entire tradition of Western art. Incidentally, the Museum of Modern Art in New York recently exhibited four large diagrams by Malevich, where he maps modern aesthetic development from Picasso’s cubism to his own suprematism. In many ways, the expropriation and exile of Shchukin and his ilk marked the start of one of the greatest, and most disastrous, political experiments of the 20th century. But this was more than a revolt against a monarchy. Well known is its deluge of patterned carmine, its dizzying conflation of space, and its importance to the artist’s development. Many Parisian museums do this. As many reviewers have noted, a near-opposite set of terms governs the exhibition. Mardi Gras’s appearance in Icons’s last room balances a similar painting in Icons’s first room. And it is specific historical connections like this that mark the Shchukin collection’s influence, and the significance of Icons. Consider Trubetskoy Palace’s dining room, where Shchukin famously packed at least 12 of Gauguin’s Tahitian landscapes (filled with the naked, indigenous bodies that the artist fetishized) into a tight cluster. A shadowy lurker? The Trubetskoy Palace’s rooms, after all, were not white cubes, and they were certainly not the foundation’s hyper-slick interiors, ensconced within the dry-docked sailboat of a building that Frank Gehry designed in 2006. Included here is Kasimir Malevich’s Four Squares from 1915 (whose checkerboard pattern Baldassari keys to Mardi Gras’s nearby lozenges). Here and elsewhere, Shchukin preferred what is known as the “salon hang,” closely arranging paintings above and below one another. But the Bolshevik Revolution changed everything. That Malevich carefully studied Picasso’s Three Women, that he took inspiration from its radicalism, and that one project could then give way to the other, is a powerful revelation. Yes, he supported the rise and perpetuation of modern art; yes, he brought the avant-garde to Russia; and yes, his collection inspired numerous artists. Here, Shchukin’s Picasso paintings, including the stunning Three Women (which Shchukin purchased from the Steins), bleed into a postscript: two rooms filled with Soviet avant-garde works. And their movement from Parisian ateliers to Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace, then to Russian museums, and finally to the foundation, is almost as interesting as the paintings themselves. A century later, a nearly inverse political climate birthed Icons. And nowhere was tension more evident than in the contrast between the collection’s loss and its later reconciliation. One can almost imagine a proud Shchukin rapping a tightly stretched Gauguin during a meal while extolling its radical virtues. And so, what was a perspectival struggle for Picasso became a historical struggle for Malevich — a cultural expurgation by means of absorption, so much so that even the light that limns his black square’s edges seems to buckle. He certainly did things with painterly forms, just like the others, but what, and why? Matisse understood modernism’s relation to the domestic (a great many of his paintings are interior scenes); he certainly understood the relationship before visiting Trubetskoy Palace in 1911, when he installed and curated his paintings for Shchukin’s “pink room.” In doing so, Matisse filled a domestic space with his domestic spaces. In the latter, the lesser-known Norwegian painter Xan Krohn painted Shchukin before a wall of orange-and-white lozenges, thus giving the textile industrialist the patterning that he so fastidiously collected, and transforming him into the character with whom he so closely identified. The Russian aristocrat Sergei Shchukin requested the color when he commissioned the painting in 1908, but Matisse overruled him; in the end, Shchukin accepted the red Harmony, installing it in his Moscow home. The people took the power (and the paintings), and they destroyed Shchukin’s status and wealth. Most rooms in Shchukin’s palace, like the dining hall, were explosions of molding, gold, mirrors, and ornament. The works are spotlit in a typically French manner. But this is something most people, even curators, tend to forget. Where, in Matisse’s work, there are just silhouettes, in Picasso, there are just volumes. The death of Shchukin’s collection at the hands of communist revolutionaries and its resurrection at the hands of Vladimir Putin and the Fondation Louis Vuitton constitute a kind of dramatic irony. A decade later authorities seized the work, and it eventually entered the State Hermitage Museum. This was the first time the paintings left Russia en masse. They are blown up to life-size and show the collection in situ, thus giving the visitor a sense of the original hang. At Icons this meant a denial of intimacy, which would not have occurred at rue de Fleurus or Trubetskoy Palace, where guests could have scrutinized the art with their noses nearly pressed against the scumbled paint. Notably, Baldassari included numerous large photographs of Trubetskoy Palace’s interior. Of course, with 14 galleries showcasing French modernism’s biggest names (Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Cézanne, Derain, Vuillard, Monet, and more) the show’s success was inevitable. In 1908, he opened his home every week to artists and intellectuals, and his collection became a heuristic device, a new community’s raison d’être. And modernism itself, like its environs, was not hard edged, sterile, or spare; it had a more claw-footed reality. Their labor did not manifest in physical objects, like paintings and sculptures, but in environments and spaces that could cultivate a community, and thus nurture and support other artistic productions. There are other niggling differences too, but ones that imply a much larger shift. But last fall, Harmony traveled to Paris, where it anchored the Fondation Luis Vuitton’s megashow, Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection.