PARIS — Sometimes we yearn for the beauty of small things: the haiku, the string quartet, the miniature engraving. And then other times, tovarishchyou need your beauty as great as the fatherland.
“The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art,” which opened last week at the Fondation Louis Vuitton here, brings an explosion of French and Russian painting to Paris on a “War and Peace” scale – and brings together , for the first time since 1918, one of the two most important art collections of pre-revolutionary Russia.
While the French bourgeoisie still disdained the Parisian avant-garde, young Russian textile magnates Ivan and Mikhail Morozov were buying up the city’s most innovative paintings – and buying them in bulk. Gauguin, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso: All their works came from the East and inspired two generations of Russian successors. Alongside fellow textile boss and rival collector friend Sergei Shchukin, the Morozovs made Moscow the offshore capital of French modern art in the circa 1900s.
Then came the October Revolution, when the 200 paintings here were expropriated for the national collection. Ivan Morozov went into exile. Under Stalin, the paintings were suppressed and dispersed as far as Siberia.
Today, the Morozov collection has been absorbed mainly by the holdings of the Pushkin State Museum and the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Their reassembly here, on four whole floors of Frank Gehry’s glass sailing ship in the Bois de Boulogne, is legitimately historic in a way that few shows can truly claim: as if a whole lost world could be entered, from room to room. .
Just get your vaccine passport and let’s go! Nearly a decade in the making, twice delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, “The Morozov Collection” is what touts like to call “once in a lifetime” — or, maybe, twice in a lifetime. Five years ago, the Vuitton Foundation brought together the Shchukin collection in another one museum exhibition, whose scientific weight is matched only by its massive popularity.
“The blockbuster of blockbusters”, as I awkwardly baptized the Shchukin exhibition when I reviewed it in 2016, has attracted more than 1.2 million visitors, more than any Parisian exhibition since the arrival of King Tut’s horde in 1967. I don’t know if this will be the best this record, but in all other respects Morozov’s presentation is the equal of Shchukin’s showcase, and might have been even more difficult to achieve.
Like its predecessor, this one has been curated with cool precision by Anne Baldassari, the former director of the Picasso Museum in Paris, and comes with a grueling catalog – indeed, the two are almost the same size, to avoid the reproaches of the descendants.
Like its predecessor, this one required a colossal diplomatic effort, with the assurance that French law would protect Russian museums against any claims by the descendants of the Morozovs, and a personal approval of the loans from President Vladimir V. Putin.
Like its predecessor, this one had a colossal budget, again undisclosed. The insurance alone would cost many millions. Cropping, new glazing: another major expense item. The Vuitton Foundation has also funded a pop-up conservation studio in Russia to restore many works there, such as a suite of decorations (or murals) by Maurice Denis that hang in Ivan Morozov’s music room. Complain if you want big money in the art world, but sometimes it’s not so bad to have the third richest person on Earth paying your bills.
The show begins in the basement, with nearly two dozen photos of the Morozov family, including several fascinating portraits by Russian painter Valentin Serov. His full-length portrait of Mikhail depicts him in morning clothes, plump and sure of himself. Mikhail had a taste for Parisian cabaret and, above all, its showgirls. (He will die young, at 33.)
Ivan, whose best portrait by Serov appears later, among the Matisses, was more professional and Muscovite, but no less experimental in his artistic tastes. They were old believers and relatively new money: their great-grandfather was a serf who bought his freedom with his wife’s dowry of five rubles.
Like most members of Moscow’s high society, the Morozov brothers were also French-speaking – and found in Paris a cultural realm they could dive into and bring home. The first highlight of the exhibition is a room of landscapes on a mural scale by Pierre Bonnard, commissioned for the staircase of the Moscow mansion of Ivan Morozov. The tallest are over 10 feet tall and bursting with Mediterranean colors that must have surprised Russian beau monde at happy hour. Gauguin was another source of brilliant color, and a dozen breathtaking quality Tahitian images take over their own gallery here.
The Shchukin presentation also had an all-Gauguin room, and both this show and this one offer incredible assists from Cézanne, Monet and Matisse. But the Russians were different collectors – “Morozov advanced in the shadows, Shchukin in the light,” said one – and so these are different shows.
Shchukin was bolder, especially in Picasso’s collection, but Ivan Morozov had the better eye. Shchukin bet everything on French art, while the Morozovs also collected Russian artists; here there is an illuminating pairing of an air show photo by Renoir and an open-air boating scene by the Russian painter Konstantin Korovin. (He also taught the Morozovs to paint when they were young.) Shchukin bought on a whim; Ivan Morozov can wait a whole year and sees his collection as a museum in the making.
And “The Morozov Collection” emphasizes this systematic and serial approach to collecting, grouping the paintings into thematic groups where French and Russian artists rub shoulders. A spotless painting of an acrobat from Picasso’s Rose Period, acquired after Leo and Gertrude Stein parted ways, faces an indecently sexy double portrait, by Ilia Mashkov, of him and another artist posing with dumbbells and musical instruments. (Healthy mind, healthy body.) The landscapes of Van Gogh and André Derain mingle with those of Natalia Goncharova, who would become an essential figure in the Soviet avant-garde.
The exhibition breaks with this thematic approach only once, for one of the most historic paintings in the Morozov collection: “The prison yard” by Van Gogh, produced in the last year of his life at the Saint-Rémy asylum. On loan from Pushkin, it was hung apart from the other Van Goghs of the Morozovs in a darkened room, under a spotlight – to inflate his despondency, I suppose, although to my eyes the lighting seemed more appropriate for a review of the Red Mill.
They equally amaze the Chtchoukine and Morozov collections, yet the two Fondation Vuitton fashion shows have radically different tones in their final acts. The last ended with the clash of novelty: abstract paintings by Malevich, Rodchenko and other Soviet innovators, taking up the banner of modernism in the new Soviet Union. This show ends with a requiem for the past, in the form of Morozov’s music room, reconstructed as it was in 1909. The sets by Denis, painted on the spot in Moscow, illustrate the myth of Cupid and Psyche with a lysergic palette of pinks and blues. . The curator even chose to play light music, as if the ghosts of the last days of the Romanovs were still among us.
A century ago, the Denis decorations sparked a feverish debate among intellectuals and connoisseurs of Tsarist Moscow. Now, they appear more like a small interlude before the big upheaval to come. No dynasty lasts forever: not that of the Morozovs, and certainly not the one that nationalized their mansion. Eventually, the culture changes – the paintings return to Paris and Louis Vuitton opens a concession in Place Rouge.
The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art
Until April 3 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris; foundationlouisvuitton.fr.