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Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton

The Louis Vuitton exhibition on the Shchukin collection reveals the ambiguity of art collecting in its form as well as its content, through its attempt to reconcile the personal quirks, contradictions and passions of a Russian collector with the immense role his collection came to adopt within modern art history. This rich textile merchant amassed an impressive collection of art for his Moscow palace between 1898 and 1914 at a moment during which collecting outside national, traditional painting was frowned upon in Russia. Considered scandalous at the time, Serguei Shchukin only fanned the flames by allowing young Russian artists to view this work and draw inspiration from it. The rest is art history: the exhibition’s aim is to not only show this fascinating, ground-breaking collection, but to portray it alongside the works of Malevich, Rodchenko, Tatlin and Popova. Just as Shchukin provided an exceptional opportunity for a glimpse of Western art introduced to Russia, the reverse dynamic is now taking place in Paris with a rare look at the contents of the Ermitage and Pushkin collections, amongst many others.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau/AFP

The display starts off with a bang – a series of portraits and self-portraits, Derain’s Man with a Newspaper facing Cézanne’s Self-Portrait,  a gripping Van Gogh adjacent to Wan Krohn’s portrait of the collector himself, a celebrity art history who’s who enticing us foward.  In a darkened room, the commissioned art work “Shchukin, Matisse, dance and music”, by Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke is an immersive multimedia installation which imagines a conversation between the collector and Matisse, subverting the idea of an introductary documentary with a larger-than-life touch of kitsch, humour and energy. The history of his commission of the painting “The Dancers”, followed by “Music”, touchingly captures Shchukin’s own boldness, contradictions and earnestness as he commissions, relents, censors and finally goes through with his presentation of the work alongside the rest of his collection to a new generation of Russian artists. With theatrical kitsch and colour, the work comes to life, as does Shchukin’s whose actor transcribes his words with poignant emotion despite his stutter: “Art must be a psychological shock” – a “sharp blow”.

After this vibrant first encounter, the rest of the exhibition reads like a stroll through Shchukin’s mind to understand this emotional and spiritual shock to the system he descrives, as well as a lesson in influences and tributes in art history. From portraiture to landscape and still-life through to nudes, it’s impossible to predict Shchukin’s tastes, as they seem to vary wildly from the slightly boring pastel Maurice Denis paintings or Burne-Jones tapestries through to daring bursts of colour with Gauguin and Matisse. The exhibition masterfully weaves a journey from Impressionist landscape through to Fauvism and Cubism in order to explain how this diverse selection of works, from traditional choices to daring ones, inspiring a revolution within the Russian artists Shchukin invited to view his work. Their works appear, bold and bright, in the last rooms, their sharp abstract shapes reflected vividly in Daniel Buren’s multiclolour shapes on the Louis Vuitton Foundation by Frank Gehry. The avant-garde experiments in colour and form are a rush of blood to the head, increasing in intensity and pushing boundaries, creating silent conversations and interconnections across rooms.

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Installation shot (c) Martin Bureau / AFP

Despite the fact that it presented a huge selection of 160 works over 14 rooms, over three stories of exhibition space, the exhibition itself never has the length or exhausting effect that these blockbusters usually have on my feet and mind. The exhibition scenography is designed around the idea of an airy, temple-like space of suspended time, in glowing grey walls, subdued lighting and arched doorways. It regulates the flow of people and allow for a leisurely, contemplative pace, with room to sit and even stand next to a Picasso for awhile without having to shuffle to leave space for more people. The Matisse room is serene yet bubbling with energy, with enough space to stride, wander and dream amongst masterpieces.

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Matisse,  Red Room (Harmony in Red), 1908, Hermitage Museum (c) Succession H. Matisse. Photo (c) St-Petersburg.

The selection of works is breathtaking in its sheer amoung and diversity, making a quick summary neither possible nor desirable. Amazingly, in spite of this, there are some gaps, some understandable and others more complex. It would have been optimistic to assemble more than 130 items from the initial 274 works that composed Shchukin’s collection, to recreate this initial “psychological shock” – even though we would have loved to see Matisse’s “Dance” and “Music”, their very rare removal from the Hermitage Museum is justified by the iconic status they have gained. It is impossible to recreate the astounding accumulation of works of Shchukin’s original palace in a single exhibition – for instance, the original “Gauguin” room also had a few Matisse works and the Edward Burne-Jones tapestry. This website in the link above is an impressive summary of the original display as well asa compilation of the entire collection in collaboration with FLV as well as museums and archives – sadly, only in French and Russian yet intuitive enough for a clear encounter of Shchukin’s curatorial decisions.

Sadly, this is a resource I find only later – and whose pedagogical clarity seems to be missing from text panels and resources. Amongst varied opinions on how to pronounce “Shchukin”, I also hear vague confused mutters about the wall text which is, sadly, not quite accessible to a non specialist audience. Unfortunately, this does not improve as the exhibition veers away from representations of lanscapes and picnics into Malevich’s black squares and Popov’s abstract shards. “What is pantocrator?” “What is iconostasis?” “What is suprematism”? “What is postcubist ambiguity?” As an art historian, I spend my time explaining (and looking up “pantocrator”, because I’m not a latinist). I can feel that some of this lingo is muddying people’s instinctive, empassioned response to the artworks…and worse, intimidating. The panels read like a exhibition catalogue extract, with a very academic tone which could be easily amended by a glossary and a few explanations. These terms are not easy to understand for people with some understanding of modern art, let alone novices…and this is a recurring complaint when I visit French exhibitions with friends and family alike.  French museums are not yet on par with the level of attention given to learning and interpretation in the UK or the US. At least, these texts are all assembled within a beautiful booklet that can be brought home and deciphered – often useful when you want to focus on the works first and the explanations later. The audioguide file is also freely downloadable and accessible on the Louis Vuitton Foundation app, a refreshing change from the traditional clunky and expensive devices. The amount of videos and presentations by the curator Anne Baldessari on the website, as well as a free symposium on the exhibition were also welcome additions that perhaps needed to be exploited more in the display itself.

Another lingering feeling is that we never quite get to glimpse the person behind the legendary collection, or capture his personal rather than artistic intentions between his works and the theatrical portrayal in Greenaway’s commission. The eccentricity and contradictions become muted by concerns about intentions feeding into a clear pattern and design. It’s hard to work out to what extent he is truly a “collector-hero” and “collector-experimenter” (in the Russian critic Alenxander Benois’ words) who devised a very precise fresco of modern art, or the extent to which he was an eccentric and empassioned amateur who sometimes went all out and sometimes played it safe, following his own heart and instincts. Perhaps this is only a feeling we can grasp wordlessly through his paintings, with the rush of adrenalin at the glimpse of a Cézanne or a Picasso followed by quieter pauses facing a Monet or a Courbet. Audiences’ reactions and preference vary and diverge amongst themselves, creating a mix and match effect where some visitors will glance over some artists and spend ages in front of others. Ultimately, despite some questions left unanswered and some answers perhaps made too complex, the initial rush of excitement and passion constantly beats below the surface. As I hear mutters of delight and scorn amongst the audience, I believe the “blow” Shuchkin described still resonates, challenging contemporary artists and collectors to remain unpredictable, daring and provocative in spite of the status quo.

“Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection” is on display at Fondation Louis Vuitton till the 5th of March

The Shchukin Collection website

Categories
Exhibition review Paris

Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais

There is talk of a recent trend concerning Paris and its Chinese tourists, whose relation may become rocky. Travelling to the capital city with an ideal image of the City of Love in their minds (with Hollywood films and perfume adverts as the first culprits), they are often disillusioned and upset by the gritty reality that they faces upon arrival. Filthy subways, unkempt streets, rude waiters and grumpy Parisians abound in this fairytale gone wrong, according to this captivating article by The Business of Fashion.

I am probably a grumpy Parisian at heart: I was initially disgruntled by the fact that a living, active city was expected to keep itself as pristine and glossy as a Vogue photoshoot for tourists who, sometimes, do not bother with basic French phrases…or manners. Additionally, we would also like clean subways and pristine customer service to justify the price of a 4 euro espresso!

However this trend may not be that new. The tension between the naïve visitor and the seasoned Parisian, the Paris of dreams and the messy Paris of everyday life made me think of a recent exhibition. Indeed, Paris 1900 at the Petit Palais has both fed upon this dreamlike vision of Paris and challenged it in its own subtle ways.

The city is quite sleepy in terms of new art exhibitions for now. Many galleries are still shut and most museums are waiting for everyone to return from holidays before launching their new exhibitions in September. Despite the fact that Paris 1900 is now over, I wanted to reflect upon it, and return to Paris more than one century ago, at a turning point in terms of history, social change and entertainment.

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Affiche de l’Exposition Universelle, Palais de l’optique, 1900. © Paris, Musée Carnavalet/ Roger-Viollet

Paris 1900 promised a “Ville de Spectacle” and this is exactly what I experienced, in a format somewhere between an art exhibition and a documentary. 1900 was both a pivotal year of the Belle Époque, the symbol of a last decade of prosperity before WWI and the year of the “Exposition Universelle” of Paris, or Universal Exposition. This was the event of the year, following into the footsteps of its Universal Exposition of 1889 and countless other Expos in the past decades in London, New York and Chicago. The aim of these expositions was to showcase the international achievements of the past decades in terms of science, industrial innovation, art and culture. In other terms, it was a huge opportunity for friendly rivalry between countries and unbridled showing off for the host city. Paris therefore transformed itself along the riverbanks of the Seine to welcome approximately 50 million visitors. Although most of the pavilions and adornments were temporary, a few of them still influence the Parisian landscape including the Eiffel Tower and the Petit Palais itself.

A general introduction to the Universal Exposition showed a flurry of preparatory sketches, blueprints, posters and paintings, where the diversity of objects and exhibits created a particular atmosphere. The unpredictable and the eccentric accompanied this international crisscrossing of cultures, making the city a large parade both for its tourists and its inhabitants. A beautiful fresco by Alfons Mucha was displayed overhead, right next to an authentic Metro gateway, in the typical Art Nouveau style that pervaded the entire Expo.

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Binet, Projet pour la Porte monumentale de l’Exposition universelle de 1900, 1898. © Cl. Musées de Sens – E. Berry

Without selection or elitism, I was given an overview of the entire bustle and pomp around the exhibition in its most splendid and kitsch undertones. Most of the exhibition pavilions for each country and the different “palaces” built to welcome scientific or artistic displays were meant to impress and entertain for a while which allowed all kind of extravagances. As a shaky black and white footage from the Frères Lumière showed, the view along the Seine was ridiculously spectacular. So were the filmed reactions of Parisians sampling some moving sidewalks for the very first time. There was something moving about their excitement that created a sharp contrast with the utterly nonplussed use of moving platforms in the Parisian subway today…

The attention to detail, scenography and the steps every visitor undertakes through the exhibition was striking from the very beginning. The first room was constructed as a large airy space with archways that indeed gave the impression of an old fashioned exhibition space. Through the corridors leading to each new section, a film of Parisians going about their everyday lives was projected and on the other side, a mirror allowed visitors to literally “mirror” their experiences and those of their French, 20th century counterparts. It was truly this aspect and this sense of an intimate, ordinary vision of the Parisian in 1900 that created the exhibition’s strength.

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Emile Gallé, Vase cattleya fait pour Charles Lebeau, 1900. © Collection du musée de Boulogne-sur-mer /photo Philippe Beurtheret

The Art Nouveau section, teeming with sculpture, textiles and furniture was full of surprises and hidden gems – such as Sarah Bernhardt’s apparent love of sculptures depicting the seaweed, shells and driftwood she would pick up on the beach! I couldn’t help but think of the slight scorn that celebrities experience when they try to reconvert themselves into art and attract mixed reviews. With a mix of art, design and decoration, with tapestries shown next to wallpaper, and busts cohabitating with combs, a true sense of the full aesthetic emerges here, the first sense of modern design that does not limit itself to a single category. Is it difficult to limit Art Nouveau to one single room? Yes, but this exhibition achieved it without leaving anyone too frustrated.

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Paul Cézanne, Ambroise Vollard, 1899. Huile sur toile, 100 x 81 cm © Paris, Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

This perhaps had something to do with the next room, which managed to reconstruct the content and atmosphere of one of the famed Artists’ Salons, where all of Paris – or those who could afford to in terms of time or money – would come and admire or violently criticize exhibiting artists. The idea of using the same format as a Salon, with a hanging system covering all of the walls from top to bottom was bad at the time, making some paintings hard to observe, let alone appreciate. The adaptation 114 years later was not any more successful in terms of visibility! Yet, with a small room dedicated to Rodin sculptures, and a late Monet facing Cézanne’s portrait of his friend and art dealer Vollard, a rich and comprehensive immersion back into the artistic scene of 1900 was achieved. This section definitely chose to show a realistic portrayal of the range of artists at the time, showcasing not only those whose names and images are still memorable for us, but also more significantly those who were forgotten by most people, lurking in small museums or thesis footnotes. This was mostly relevant in showing the amount of overwhelming choice that the audience had in terms of painters…and the fact that while some could be passing trends, uncovered gems could remain undiscovered for a century or so.

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Jean Béraud, Parisienne, place de la Concorde, vers 1890. Huile sur bois, 35 x 26,5 cm © Paris, Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

As stereotypical as it sounds, the Parisian experience could not be narrated without the mention of fashion…and this ‘mention’ manifested itself in a lavish collection of clothes from the period, many of which come from the prestigious Musée Galliera. I was skeptical about the vision that this section would give about fashion overall, imagining that it would remain with the luxurious silhouettes and froufrous of the Belle Epoque’s high-class Parisienne, coquettishly flashing her ankles at her beau on a boulevard. Yet I was proven wrong. While ball dresses and tea gowns dominated the darkened room with their lace and satin, reflecting the fashion plates and caricatures of their time, the outfits of working class women were shown with just as much importance, showing their lasting influence on practical womenswear from the early 20th century onwards. The “midinette” – the young working class woman whose lunch break was at midday – captured a collective imagination that resides somewhere between a picturesque Parisian fantasy and its gritter reality outside of the limelight. As unimportant as the hardworking and coquettish midinette would appear to her contemporaries, she spoke to me far more than the idle rich lady in a lace tea gown could. While Belle Époque fanciness was remembered far more in terms of history and depiction of an era, her legacy continued as many women’s main fashion concern now resides in what they will wear at work rather than the next gala (are these the contemporary midinettes?)

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Chahine, La Midinette, 1903., Vernis mou, eau-forte et pointe sèche sur papier Japon, 46,7 x 25,7 cm © Paris, Petit Palais / Roger-Viollet

Outside the limelight and afterhours is where a more nocturnal, risqué Paris reveals itself, in a dark blue room and intimate fragmented corridors. This was the part I was not expecting, definitely the most fun and teasingly scandalous: the nightlife of Paris, where gentlemen and women alike basked in fame and favours as soft erotica in sepia photographs started to circulate. The demi-mondaines, renown as comediennes and ballet dancers as well as ballroom celebrities, captured in photographs and written about weekly, are perhaps the first testimonies of celebrity tabloid and paparazzi culture. This was also the perfect time to witness footage of the first ever filmed strip-tease. ‘The Evening of the Bride’, starring a cheerful stripper and bumbling husband on their first night is so quaint and humorous it was almost heart-warming…and extremely instructive concerning Belle Époque undergarments. I wonder what the mockingly candid performer would think of the Crazy Horse. Would she faint in her many-layered undergarments? I am not so sure. We always seem to portray our turn of the century figures as far more rigid than they are!

Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in 'Chilperic', 1895 (oil on canvas)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Marcelle Lender dansant le boléro dans Chilpéric, 1895-1896. Huile sur toile, 145 x 149 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington (U.S.A.), 190.127.1. Don Betsey Cushing Whitney, 1990. © Bridgeman Giraudon

The theatre section seems predictable in its portrayal of the shows and entertainment at the time, between high-brow tragedies and cabarets, but subtle and powerful in is way of showing 1900 as a crossroads between a certain type of leisure and the arrival of cinema and photography, surprisingly shunned by the Exposition’s art exhibits. A lot was lost, much more was gained, and most of the trends, tastes and leisure of the “Ville-Spectacle” created a new swerve towards the type of entertainment we know today, through cinema and stars but also through opening up of media and entertainment to a larger portions of the population.

The Exposition Universelle is the main theme of this entire exhibition, strongest in the first room then diluting itself in the rest of the visit to let other issues speak out, creating a cohabitation between the desire to create a spectacular city for its visitors and the natural ebb and flow of taste and aesthetics among Parisians. In very much the same way, Paris today is constantly torn between the regulation of its touristic, glittering side and its other freefalling, improvised culture, often unappealing to those that were expecting something shinier and different. We enter thinking that the exhibition is going to be about Paris in 1900 but it turns out being far more about the Parisians of 1900, their experiences, aspirations and shortcomings in terms of culture and life. I am not certain I can leave any parting advice about discovering this Parisian’s Paris in more contemporary times. However, perhaps dropping the guidebook and finding a Parisian is a good start. If you ask politely for recommendations in clumsy French and sympathize with us about the terrible metro service, I promise most of us won’t bite.