"The Birth of Contemporary Art: Sergey Shchukin's Choice": how the exhibition was created

Interview
"The Birth of Contemporary Art: Sergey Shchukin's Choice": how the exhibition was created
"The Birth of Contemporary Art: Sergey Shchukin's Choice": how the exhibition was created
18 July, 13:31
The Hermitage is hosting the exhibition "The Birth of Modern Art: Sergei Schukin's Choice", dedicated to the greatest collector of French modernism and organized jointly with the Pushkin Museum. A.S. Pushkin.

The canvases stored in the two main museums of the country are exhibited together for the first time after the revolution.

Сергей Щукин Кристиан Крон, 1916 год
Ольга Леонтьева, куратор ввставки

Pyotr Seybil

Shchukin's house in the Hermitageserg

In the history of Russian art, the collection of Sergey Shchukin played a special role. It is difficult to find a collection that would have had a greater impact on several generations of artists at once. Taking a great interest in collecting later than his brothers, Sergey Shchukin created not the interior of the house, but an anthology of the development of contemporary French art. And this is all the more surprising that he ordered paintings from living masters, often not understood even at home, thus, together with another collector Ivan Morozov, forming a market in France along the way. “After the arrival of these Russians, I no longer had the opportunity to buy paintings”, - the famous writer and star of bohemian Paris, Gertrude Stein, later complained. A native of an Old Believer merchant family, the son of a manufacturer Ivan Vasilyevich Shchukin, Sergey Ivanovich Shchukin was not only a successful businessman. Together with the management of large enterprises, he managed to lead excursions on his own several times a week, where he enthusiastically talked about the collection. Almost all students of art schools in Moscow came to get acquainted with modern painting in his home gallery. It was this that largely gave impetus to the development of both Russian impressionism and the avant-garde. The exhibition "The Birth of Contemporary Art: Sergey Shchukin's Choice" is not just a collection of paintings. For the first time in the Hermitage, you can see the original hanging in the house of a philanthropist in Znamensky Lane in Moscow. And here visitors are in for another surprise, or rather, a circumstance that eludes the eye behind the abundance of masterpieces. One of the co-curators of the exposition can safely be called Henri Matisse himself. Olga Leontyeva, curator of the exhibition, told Novye Izvestia how this happened.

house-gallery

- The idea to repeat the hanging of the Shchukin house, oddly enough, did not appear immediately. Initially, we wanted to recreate the Gauguin "iconostasis" and, possibly, Picasso's room. Create two such counterpoints. But in the process of working on an article for the catalog, once again looking through the photos of the Shchukin gallery, suddenly - eureka! - the realization came: we can collect everything and recreate the interior of the mansion ... But we had to slightly redo the entire exhibition project for this idea.

So we made a request to the Pushkin Museum based on a new concept, which we kept secret until the very end.

Анри Матисс «Мастерская художника», 1908 год

- You are lucky that quite a lot of materials and memories describing the house have been preserved.

- Yes, unlike the collection of another collector, Morozov, Shchukin's collection was open to everyone. Sergey Ivanovich himself regularly conducted excursions there, despite his speech impediment - he stuttered - he loved to talk about contemporary art and infected his interlocutors with his passion. Many left memories, but the main thing is that the house was well and detailed photographed. We have photographs of 1914 and 1918-1919. But still questions remained. Let's say we knew how two paintings hung in the entrance hall, but there were big doubts about the third one. Either the "Arabian coffee house" by Matisse, or his own "Red Room". We re-read the memories again and again and once found - "Red Room". Such is the ensemble: "Red Room", "Family Portrait", "Artist's Workshop".

Анри Митисс «Красные рыбки», 1911 год

- And here we turn to, perhaps, the main and almost behind-the-scenes history of the exhibition - the author of the hanging was to a large extent Henri Matisse himself. In fact, in over a hundred years, you could list him as a co-curator.

- Matisse came to Moscow in 1911 at the invitation of Sergey Ivanovich, lived at his house, at his request hung pictures that had previously been located in different places. By the way, through the efforts of Shchukin, he was already well known and met as an idol, literally carried in his arms. So for most of his work, he chose a pink living room - the most ceremonial room, with rich stucco, greenish walls, a cherry carpet and a pink ceiling. And here a discovery awaited us - it turns out that he wrote a lot specifically for this interior. And how it happened: Shchukin negotiated with Matisse only the price and size of the canvas. Then Matisse sent him a photograph of the interior, where he outlined the work with a pen, and Shchukin fully trusted the taste of the artist. But the most interesting thing is that we knew Schukin’s correspondence with Matisse well, and in 2016, the curator of the Paris exhibition of Shchukin, Ann Baldassari, published a letter from Matisse to his wife, where he talks about this order. Then it went unnoticed, and I began to unwind the thread and was able to restore what kind of work it was. Among them are the famous "Red Fish", "Portrait of the Artist's Wife", many things of the Moroccan period. It would seem: Schukin, Matisse, everything has been said for a long time, what can be new? It turns out that something can always be clarified and discovered. Especially if the researchers approach each in their own way. So we have before us not only a unique example of Matisse hanging, but also a collection created specifically for a particular interior.

Анри Матисс «Танец», 1910 год

The same but in dresses

- Perhaps his most famous works were created for the Shchukin interior - the panels “Dance” and “Music”, where did this order come from?

- Yes, they were located on the stairs. In 1909, Shchukin came to Paris, saw the first version of The Dance, which is now kept in New York, and ordered Matisse to have the same one. Then Matisse conceived a large-scale project. The first picture - "Dance" - was supposed to give a person a feeling of lightness before climbing the stairs, the second - "Music" says "the spirit and silence of the house", and the third - a rest scene, it was planned to depict people lying on grass, "talking or dreaming." But then an incident happened: Shchukin initially told Matisse that his house had two floors. But for a Frenchman, two floors are three Russians. There after all the first is considered zero. So the third panel had to be abandoned.

Анри Матисс «Музыка», 1910 год

- But everything turned out to be not easy with the first two?

- Yes, Shchukin got excited about the idea, agreed on an order, and already on the way to Russia he suddenly imagined the public's reaction to a huge picture with large figures of naked dancing girls. “I live in Moscow, how can I put this on public display?!” His brother Peter bought the Impressionists, but kept Renoir's "Nude", Degas's "Combing her Hair" and even Maurice Denis's "Sacred Grove" exclusively in his private quarters, inaccessible to the public. And so Shchukin began to write letters to Matisse, in which he noted that these paintings were certainly beautiful, but Russia is a bit of Asia and there is a completely different attitude towards nudity. Is it possible, they say, to portray all the same, but in dresses. Matisse flatly refused. Then Shchukin asked to reduce the format so that the paintings could be hung in private quarters. Matisse replied that in this case the rhythm would be lost and again refused. Shchukin, like in a fairy tale, thought for three days and three nights and decided to ignore the public taste and agreed to the original version. Nevertheless, some things had to be retouched already in Moscow, so that the figures of the “Music” panel became of an indeterminate gender. And I must say, if the "Dance" was easy, then "Music" was given to Matisse with great difficulty. Here he searched for the location of the figures for a very long time. These figures are a bit reminiscent of a musical staff and notes. He needed to translate the language of music into painting. And now, even with the naked eye, the author's alterations are visible. In some places, red appears from green - there were figures.

Анри Матисс «Разговор», 1908-1912 годы

- As a rule, the curator of the exhibition, determining the hanging, considers an overview from each point of the exposition, artistic intersections, accents. Here is a different story, did you manage to get into the idea of Shchukin and Matisse?

- This is a very neat idea. The first impression, what created the mood - the panel "Dance" and "Music". Guests came and saw the best Matisse - they set the tuning fork for the entire collection, its mood. From the stairs, the guests passed through two small rooms, again with paintings by Matisse. In one - Arabic coffee house, the pinnacle of the Moroccan period. In the next one - a triad - the Red Room, the Family Portrait and the Artist's Studio. Then the "Musical Salon" and the beginning of the evolution of French art. The word "Evolution" was key for Shchukin. He also emphasized this in his letters to Matisse, saying that Morozov does not understand your evolution, but I see it and understand it. And it was very important for him to show the course of development of art. Shchukin was one of the few people of that time who could feel the nerve and the vector of time. It was very difficult: there was a lot of art and it was not at all easy to navigate this ocean. By the way, Matisse, getting acquainted with the Shchukin collection, was surprised what they were doing in this first-class collection with paintings by Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, paintings by Maurice Laubre, an artist far from the radicalism of these masters. Shchukin replied: "My collection is the story of a collector." Indeed, he began with such things, and was not going to abandon this stage of comprehension of modernism. By the way, there is a picture in the exposition, which seems to indicate the trusting relationship between Shchukin and Matisse. This is "Conversation". It depicts Matisse himself in striped pajamas next to his wife Amelie sitting on a chair. The picture almost completely repeats the composition of the Hamurabi stele, where the king stands in front of a seated god, dictating laws to him for people.

Пабло Пикассо «Кирпичный завод в Тортосе», 1909 год

“When I don’t understand Picasso, I say that he is right, not me”

- Who were Sergey Schukin's mentors, because it is almost impossible to immediately plunge into collecting and determine the best works?

Пабло Руис Пикассо "Любительница абсента", 1901 год

- First of all, this is his younger brother Ivan, who lived in Paris and was well versed in art. He could guide and advise. Then Shchukin turned to the main Parisian gallery owners - Durand-Ruel and Vollard. And yet, first of all, he was guided by his taste. After all, he shaped himself in many ways. Since childhood, he was a stutterer, could not study at the gymnasium and therefore received a home education. Only after treatment in Germany was he able to graduate from the academy. Shchukin kept breaking and overcoming himself. By the way, this also affected the collection. He literally forced himself to delve into contemporary art, which often remained not entirely clear. Let's say he bought Picasso in large quantities, but noted that "When I do not understand Picasso, I say that he is right, not me."

And yet their acquaintance was not the most cloudless. Moreover, their first meeting ended in a complete fiasco. Shchukin came to the studio to Picasso on the recommendation of Matisse. Picasso made a big bet on this acquaintance. He knew that Shchukin was a man who understood art perfectly, made big orders and, of course, rubbed his hands. And so he showed The Maidens of Avignon, a picture that was ahead of its time and which, by the way, he showed only to his closest ones. Sergey Ivanovich was discouraged, he was not ready for this meeting, he did not buy anything and left in complete confusion. Picasso was annoyed and drew a rather evil caricature of him: Schukin with pig ears and a piglet. And signed "Monsieur Stschukine Moscou". The inscription itself is so jumpy, as if conveying Shchukin's stuttering speech. Even later, Picasso's paintings came to Shchukin through intermediaries.

Анри Матисс «Красная комната», 1908 год

Crazy Assembly

- What effect did the collection have on contemporaries?

- Of course, Shchukin was a scandalous figure. Bring this! Well, Morozov has it hanging in a private collection behind closed doors. And Shchukin was open to everyone. And when he began to buy Picasso, Alexandre Benois, one of the best critics of that time, wrote that rumors about Shchukin's madness had resumed in Moscow. He was called a maniac throwing money down the drain. The very word "renewed" is characteristic. Of course, it was all new, unusual and frightening. Of course, the history of the Shchukin family now also found an explanation for many. Of course, if you hang such things at home, then it is clear that one suicide, the second suicide. People, they say, just can't stand it. Nothing to hang. Although Russian painters were delighted, almost all painters famous in the future studied modern painting from his collection. Among them are Petrov-Vodkin, Malevich, Kandinsky, Larionov, Goncharova and many others.

Камиль Писсарро, Площадь Французского Театра в Париже, 1898 год

And here we come to another important story. Shchukin, Morozov, Mamontov - they all come from a merchant, often Old Believer, more than strict and conservative environment. What happened to the merchants at the turn of the century, that it was they who became the conductors of modern scandalous art?

- There are a lot of circumstances here. First of all, of course, the generation has changed. This is far from the "dark kingdom" of the merchant environment of Ostrovsky's time, these are their children. They received a good education, spoke many European languages. The second is the capital received by inheritance and increased, which allowed, continuing the business, to be more free in spending. Third, the general economic environment. The Russian Empire, unlike Europe, was on the rise at that time, and many Western collectors were just selling their collections, and the market itself was oversaturated. But the main thing, of course, is the change of generation. And if we are talking about the Shchukins, they really began to collect art only after the death of their father. He was a respected man, gave them a brilliant education, but he spoke only Russian and was a man of a different era.

- Did not allow to squander the inheritance?

- Unfortunately, we do not know how he reacted, these people did not write diaries. And it would be interesting to read. But the fact that his children only truly turned into collectors after their father's death speaks volumes.

Поль Гоген «Сцена из жизни таитян», 1896 год

Reborn Gauguin

- Did you have to restore any works for the exhibition?

- Our exposition is in a sense unique and differs from the excellent exhibition in Moscow in that there was an emphasis on the collection, while in our case it was on the history of the collection and Sergey Ivanovich Shchukin himself. Therefore, the usual research and restoration work in such cases was almost not required. But we have restored one painting - “A Scene from the Life of the Tahitians” by Gauguin. It took more than a year to research and work. The fact is that Gauguin had a very special attitude to the technique of painting and often violated it. He had his own vision of the whole process. For example, he independently primed the canvases and chose for them, instead of the factory canvas, coarse burlap, which gave him the texture of a tapestry or a fresco he needed. And besides, he did not varnish the canvases. He thought that a brilliant varnish would kill his painting. And so the "Scene from the life of the Tahitians" for many years was as if erased or even washed away, with whitish spots. In very bad condition. Like Gauguin, but not the same Gauguin. For a long time it was believed that she fell under the water. They began to understand and it soon became clear that everything was wrong. It turned out that this effect is given by wax deformed over time. It was not visible to the naked eye, it seemed that these were the loss of the paint layer. Only in the course of a long study it turned out that it was the wax that gave this whitish layer. And in our restoration workshop, its leader, Viktor Anatolyevich Korobov, melted this wax millimeter by millimeter so that it fell into place. Now this picture has become amazingly beautiful and has returned to a number of paintings by Gauguin.

- In 1918, Sergey Shchukin left the meeting in Russia and went to Paris. Did he continue to communicate with the artists there?

- No, he absolutely ceased to maintain relations with the art world. There was no longer an opportunity to buy paintings, but imagine if Matisse began to ask him how his work was. Many aristocrats, by the way, when they met their former things at auctions, tried to sue, but Shchukin was not one of them. He did not try to return anything, he said that no matter what happened to him, the collection should remain in Russia. In France, if he bought paintings, then small paintings for his apartment, although he complained that he would like to collect Raoul Dufy. But I'm done with collecting.

The exhibition "The Birth of Contemporary Art: Sergey Schukin's Choice" is being held at the Manege of the Small Hermitage from June 26 to October 30, 2022

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