With its wealth of paintings by Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Derain, Rousseau, Picasso, etc. – many of them stellar examples of the particular artist’s work – “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection” at the Fondation Louis Vuitton is the blockbuster exhibition of the season. That alone may discourage some visitors from going, but once you get past the chaos of the badly organized long lines and security checks, it is worth all the trouble, if only to contemplate a few brilliant paintings that you will never get to see again unless you travel to Russia.
The show is so popular that the foundation has prolonged it until March 5, and extended its hours (see end of article for details). Don’t fail to book your visit in advance and arrive early for your time slot.
A brief word on the history of the collection. The Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936) began collecting art in 1898 and quickly became focused exclusively on avant-garde French art. In 1908, he created a gallery in his home, open to the public on Sundays, which attracted not only admirers but also hecklers and even vandals who found the dernier cri in French art ridiculous. During the Russian Revolution, Shchukin fled to Paris, and his collection was eventually nationalized and divided between the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. This is the first time the collection has left Russia.
The exhibition is arranged by theme. The first room presents, amid a few portraits of Shchukin and other early works he collected, Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Rey” (1889), a painting it’s hard to take your eyes off, so vibrant are the contrasting colors and so alive the eyes of the subject (the photo does not do it justice). I felt it was worth all the hassle just to see this painting. In this room, there is also a rather marvelous Modigliani-like non-Fauve portrait of a man holding a newspaper (1912-14) by André Derain, one of the collector’s favorite artists. An early Picasso portrait of Benet Soler (1903) shows the artist still in the academic mode.
Among the landscapes, I was particularly struck by Paul Signac’s “The Beach at Saint Briac” (1890), a pointillist rendering of a dune bristling with plants, and by Monet’s wonderful “Lilac in the Sun” (1872-73), in which two sun-dappled ladies seated under a flowering lilac bush are almost invisible so well do they blend into the scene.
Here we also have Monet’s detailed study for his monumental “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” of which only two fragments remain (they belong to the Musée d’Orsay) and which has long been overshadowed by Manet’s more famous version (on show at d’Orsay). All the picnickers are clothed in Monet’s painting, which, unusually for the artist, features a number of people in a Renoir-like arrangement.
Take the time to notice the many charming details: the heart carved into the bark of the plane tree, the rich dress on the standing lady with her back turned, the light illuminating the leaves on the overhead branches, the red clothing strewn on the ground behind the tree, the seated man turning his head around to listen to the conversation going on behind him and the little dog keeping a sharp eye on the food.
The wealth of great art continues almost unbelievably with an entire room of paintings by Gauguin, another of works by Matisse (including the iconic “The Dance”) and yet another starring Picasso (coupled with African sculptures as clues to the artist’s inspiration). The show finishes with 30 works by Russian avant-gardistes, including Natalia Gontcharova, Lyubov Popova, Aleksander Rodchenko, Ivan Kliun and Kazimir Malevich.
Interspersed throughout the exhibition are black-and-white photos showing how Shchukin hung the paintings in his home/gallery, crowded together, row upon row.
As you have probably deduced by now, this show is not to be missed, no matter what the difficulties of getting there and getting in are.Favorite