Inside the World's Most Important Collection of Modern Art

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Edgar Degas, Dancer in the photographer's studio, 1875
Edgar Degas, Dancer in the photographer's studio, 1875© Moscow, State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Sergei Shchukin's famed collection of contemporary art – including works by Monet, Picasso, Degas and more – forms a new exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Charlotte Jansen takes a closer look

Among the many openings and art events to take place during this year's FIAC [International Fair of Contemporary Art] in Paris, Fondation Louis Vuitton unveiled a historic and highly anticipated exhibition an unprecedented display of the collection of Sergei Shchukin in Europe, widely regarded as the most important anthology of modern art in the world. It’s something “we are not likely to see again for a while,” as Jean-Paul Claverie, an adviser to LMVH boss Bernard Arnault, told Agence France-Presse earlier this year.

Running until the end of February next year, Icons of Modern Art – The Schukin Collection, includes 130 major works by the most prominent Impressionist, Postimpressionist and Modern artists in France. Many of the works have not been seen in public or outside Russia for 100 years, since Lenin and Stalin divided up and subsequently buried Schukin’s collection during the Soviet era.

Shchukin was a self-made millionaire from Moscow who began buying art during business trips to Paris. In the early 20th century, while living in Paris in exile from the Russian Revolution in 1917, Shchukin befriended progressive French art dealers such as the Impressionist specialist Paul Durand-Ruel, one of the first dealers to fund artists directly to create exhibitions, and the first female promoter of the Parisian Avant-Garde, Berthe Weill. He also struck up friendships with Monet and Matisse. These personal relationships influenced the work he purchased deeply among his commissions were Matisse’s Music and The Dance, considered to be the artist’s most important works and on show in Paris in turn shaping the course of modern art history.

Shchukin died in Paris in 1936, while much of his collection remained in Russian museums. It’s hard to imagine a better setting for viewing the masterpieces he owned such as Claude Monet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Erbe the green glint of the Bois de Bologne and the sky above catching the glass of the Gehry-designed Fondation as you pass through its galleries. Another standout includes Gauguin’s Tahiti paintings (Shchukin dedicated a room to them at his mansion in Moscow).

Although the iconic artworks emphasise the achievements of these pioneering artists, the exhibition equally highlights the influence of astronomically wealthy private benefactors; there’s an obvious allusion to a parallel between Shchuckin and Arnault, both powerful tycoons with a vision for the arts, and there are nods to this throughout the show in portraits of businessmen or men dressed for work: a portrait of Shchuckin himself (by Christian Cornelius); André Derain’s L'Homme au journal, a portrait of an unknown man dressed in a black suit who sits in a red armchair amid sumptuous surroundings; Cezanne’s Man Smoking a Pipe, pensive, solitary, and universal. These paintings also tug at the very personal nature of the art collection perhaps Shchukin saw himself in these male figures, but that is a mystery that the works will never reveal.

'Icons of Modern Art – The Shchukin Collection' runs at Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris until February 20, 2017.