From Russia with Love

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Since the 18th century, Russia has been having a love affair with all things French: the language, the food, the literature, the art. French was the official language of the Russian Imperial Court. Russian aristocrats deemed their native tongue appropriate primarily for communicating with the servants. Catherine the Great, a German princess who became a Russian empress, made a point to learn Russian; but still, French remained the language of her court and dominated her famous correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot.

Henri Matisse  Goldfish  1912The titillating exhibition of French paintings from Moscow, that just opened at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, tells many wonderful stories about the glories of French art and the Russian collectors who couldn't get enough of it. The Russian nobility had a preference for artists such as Poussin, David and Ingres, with their elegant restraint and classical references to the Bible and Greek & Roman mythology. But toward the end of the 19th century, the rapidly growing merchant class made a very strong impact on Russian culture by supporting new artistic developments in opera, ballet, theater and the visual arts.

Henri Matisse  Nasturtiums and The Dance  1912Two prominent Moscow merchants, Morosov and Shchukin, became pioneers by collecting the cutting-edge of French art. Looking at the photographs of their homes we see Monets, Degas, Renoirs, Van Goghs and Cezannes hanging cheek-by-jowl with edgy early works by Matisse and Picasso. Now, more than a hundred years later, these glorious paintings are greeted by big crowds wherever they're shown. But then, in pre-Revolutionary Moscow, the collections of Morosov and Shchukin challenged the prevailing tastes and provoked passionate debates among the Russian intelligentsia.

Both collectors made numerous trips to Paris where they established close relationships with then barely-known Matisse and Picasso. Sergei Shchukin persuaded Matisse to visit him in Moscow where he commissioned the artist to do two huge paintings for his staircase. Now these famous panels, "The Dance" and "Music", hang opposite each other at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Pablo Picasso  Harlequin and His Companion (The Saltimbanques), 1901  After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, both collections were nationalized and were kept together in the Moscow Museum of New Western Art until 1948. This was an especially bad year for Russian culture. The great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova was denounced by party apparatchiks as a "bourgeois whore" and the music of Dimitry Shostakovich was dismissed as "mere noise". Communist authorities declared war against the bourgeois Western culture with its perceived corrupting effect on the hearts and minds of Soviet people. Stalin ordered the Museum of New Western Art to be closed, and hundreds of priceless masterpieces of French art went into hiding in the vaults of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.

It took decades before these great works resurfaced. First, at the Hermitage in the early '60s, then the Pushkin Museum had the courage to do the same, ten years later. The Soviet powers-that-be were aghast. The President of the Soviet Academy of Art threatened to quit if the works weren't put back in storage.

Vincent Van Gogh  Portrait of Doctor Rey, 1889  Today, no one is scandalized any longer by these beloved darlings. But if you choose to stay for a while in a LACMA gallery with a few magnificent early Matisse paintings, with their fireworks of color and dramatic compositions of cropped images, you cannot help but feel that this great French art still has revolutionary heat, while the Communist Revolution has fizzled out.

"Old Masters, Impressionists, and Moderns:
French Masterworks from the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow"
July 27 - October 13, 2003
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
5905 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 857-6010