Finding the modern French paintings at the Hermitage is not easy—and that’s without taking into account the time and effort it takes to get to St. Petersburg. Once you get past the clogged entrance and the hostile babushka selling tickets, you have to follow a sporadic trail of easy-to-miss signs, negotiate a series of elaborately decorated state rooms and corridors, refuse to be waylaid by astonishing amounts of malachite, lapis lazuli, and colored marble, thread your way around clusters of multi-lingual visitors, locate a hard-to-find dingy back stair, and climb to the third floor to what must be the most unprepossessing but mercifully uncrowded exhibition spaces in the entire complex. The reward for perseverance, of course, is the stunning group of Matisses, Picassos, Gauguins, Cézannes, and other modern masters, drawn from the collections assembled by the Moscow tex- tile merchants Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov in a few short years at the beginning of the twentieth century. But if you want to see Morozov’s spectacular gathering of works by Bonnard and his colleagues, you have to retrace your steps, leave the main buildings, cross Palace Square to the curved wing, pierced by a much-photographed skewed archway, that once housed the offices of Imperial bureaucrats, and brave another set of resident dragons behind the ticket counter to enter a set of well-lit, newly renovated galleries.

It is all, as the Michelin guides say, worth the detour. Even today, for anyone who cares passionately about painting, a visit to the Hermitage is the equivalent of a religious pilgrimage—the museum’s collection of Rubens oil sketches alone is almost reason enough to make the trip, not to mention the Rembrandts—which makes the trek to the third floor modernist galleries comparable to walking the last fifty yards towards the shrine on your knees. When I was a graduate student and for some years afterwards, any American who had actually seen those Matisses in the flesh was regarded with the kind of awe that must have been accorded to someone who’d been to Jerusalem in the Middle Ages. Like their medieval counterparts, such privileged, intrepid visitors brought back relics in the twentieth century. I’m eternally indebted to a colleague who managed to take slides of the Hermitage Matisses and gave me a set of duplicates that I’ve used ever since.

It wasn’t until the early 1970s, as far as I know, that modernist paintings from the USSR began to be exhibited in the United States. I remember the excitement that greeted one of the first of these touring shows to come to New York, almost thirty years ago, and the seemingly endless wait to enter Knoedler Gallery. But what is more vivid is the recollection of my first direct encounter with a pair of modernism’s most powerful, iconic images of women: Matisse’s 1913 portrait of his wife—stylish little hat, blue-green blouse, and rust colored stole—and Picasso’s fierce 1908 Woman with a Fan—white shift, bare breast, implacable forehead, and lowered eyes—both from the Hermitage.

Over the last two decades, the excitement attendant on such exhibitions has not diminished, but with the gradual erosion of political barriers, there has been an exponential increase in opportunities for American audiences to see the legendary European modernist from the Hermitage and the Pushkin without crossing the Atlantic. The mid-1980s saw a dazzling selection at the Metropolitan that included such masterworks as Matisse’s Harmony in Red (1908–09), with its sinuous arabesques uniting the table top and wallpaper of a dining room with a flowering tree seen through a window, and The Conversation (1909), with its confrontational figures, one seated, one standing, tensely poised in an expanse of radiant blue; the show included, too, Picasso’s early Cubist knot of female nudes, apparently carved out of red stone, Three Women (1908), like the Matisses, from the Hermitage.

Neither of the great Matisse exhibitions of the 1990s could have been organized without numerous loans from the former collections of the painter’s Russian patrons.

Some years later, an illuminating show, also at the Met, examined Russian taste in French art, through a selection that spanned works acquired by Catherine the Great, on the advice of Diderot, to modernist pictures bought by those amazingly adventurous textile tycoons, apparently on no one’s advice but their own. And, of course, neither of the great Matisse exhibitions of the 1990s, Matisse in Morocco or the retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, could have been organized without numerous loans from the former collections of the painter’s Russian patrons, now divided between the Pushkin and the Hermitage.

In the wake of the dissolution of the USSR, such cooperation has increased, for various reasons, and exhibits of both old master and modernist art from Russian museums are no longer rare occurrences. (No, I am not going to discuss the relationship of the Hermitage and the Guggenheim in Las Vegas.) One of the most recent manifestations was the exhibition “Voyage into Myth: French Paintings from Gauguin to Matisse from the Hermitage Museum,” a representative selection of Shchukin’s and Morozov’s treasures, seen at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, while a similar selection from Moscow’s Pushkin Museum is traveling in the United States.1

Let’s get to the uncomfortable stuff about motivation and the implications of sending large chunks of important museum collections halfway around the world to function as what an art historian friend used to call “traveling salesmen for culture.” Museum visitors plainly benefit from the opportunity to see far-flung, deservedly celebrated works; even if they are required to pay hefty prices for timed admission tickets, it’s cheaper than going to St. Petersburg and you don’t need a visa. When the USSR still existed, a good deal of rhetoric about fostering mutual understanding accompanied exhibitions of works from the Hermitage and the Pushkin. Given the enthusiasm and delight with which the shows were greeted, it may even have been true. (Yes, I know there were other motives; Occidental Petroleum played a key role in at least the earlier versions of these projects.) Nowadays, the sometimes shaky image of the new Russia is undoubtedly bolstered by the display of its riches abroad.

Of course, the realities of the museum world being what they are, extraordinary works of art are not sent on world-wide tours out of altruism, hopes for peace, a desire to suggest stability, or even pure aesthetic idealism. French modernist pictures are box-office attractions, and French modernist pictures from Russian museums, even though many of them have figured importantly in a major retrospective and thematic exhibits in the past two decades, are particularly sexy. The AGO and the Montreal MFA gain prestige for having connections with the Russian museum, while the combination of the words “Gauguin,” “Matisse,” and “Hermitage” in the current show’s title is virtually guaranteed to enhance the finances of both Canadian institutions.

Since museums pay handsomely for the privilege of borrowing such distinguished and desirable works, the Hermitage benefits, too. All of this is very welcome, for everyone concerned. The Art Gallery of Ontario is especially hungry for prestige and funds just now because it is about to embark on an ambitious renovation and expansion program. The Hermitage urgently needs money for security, climate control, the repair and refurbishing of galleries, and other basics, such as curatorial salaries, which are deplorably low in the present new economy. (On a rainy day last spring, an art historian colleague, my architect husband, and I stood, with a—woefully underpaid—senior curator from the Hermitage, in front of a late Rembrandt masterpiece, discussing iconography, paint handling, and the results of a recent cleaning, occasionally pushing back the damp curtain that blew in from the open window beside the picture.)

Sometimes more than cold cash is involved in these museum exchanges.

Sometimes more than cold cash is involved in these museum exchanges. Works are sometimes lent only if the borrowing organization does needed conservation work on a picture. And the Hermitage has another incentive for allowing its modernist masterworks to go on the road: there are plans to move the nineteenth- and twentieth-century European collections from their present nondescript setting to better appointed galleries in the renovated Imperial offices on the far side of Palace Square. I don’t discount for a moment the aesthetic ambitions of the museums participating in the tour, but shows like Voyage into Myth simply don’t happen without compelling financial reasons.

These are all givens. What is more important and more interesting is to ask “what was the show like?” Voyage into Myth was wonderful, illuminating, perplexing. The installation at the AGO, like the exhibition catalogue, made much of the idea of the terrestrial paradise, as embodied by the Midi, as a dominant obsession of the artists represented. Baudelaire’s celebrated lines from “L’Invitation au voyage,” “Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté/ Luxe, calme, et volupté,” were invoked, in the Richard Wilbur translation: “There, there is nothing but grace and measure/ Richness, quietness, and pleasure.” Yet the idea, while attractive, seems to have been attached after the fact, as a curatorial conceit devised to impose some kind of rationale on what could be described as a slightly random selection of some terrific and not so terrific paintings from the Hermitage and a few sculptures. (In addition to an ample group of stellar pictures by Gauguin, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, and Bonnard, there were also a fair number of works by less notable and often much less interesting artists; many of these, it must be admitted, were extremely good paintings, but there were quite a few others whose inclusion seemed less than essential.)

Not that the theme is wholly arbitrary. It isn’t unreasonable to think about the potent image of l’Age d’Or, the idyllic world of nymphs and shepherds who spent their time dancing, making music and love, picking flowers, and watching the odd sheep, when you are confronted by the exhibition’s Gauguins or Matisses, or even its soapy marble Rodins. It’s plausible, too, to consider the dream of Arcadia and what the curators call “the myth of the South,” in the presence of the show’s light-struck Bonnards, its Cézanne landscapes, or its angular Picasso dryad—although you should consider, too, the attraction of the extreme cheapness of life in Mediterranean fishing towns or even in Polynesia, once you got there. Of course, the really provocative question is why these traditional themes, these time-honored academic touchstones of achievement such as the large-scale nude figure in the landscape, had such resonance for these formally progressive, even transgressive, artists.

Sometimes the curators’ thesis was illuminating. It’s clear that the search for a literal terrestrial paradise, as well as a longing for the “primitive” and the authentic, informs all of the lush Tahitian Gauguins in the exhibition, with their sturdy brown figures and exotic landscapes. It can also be argued convincingly that l’Age d’Or was Matisse’s life-long subject—think about the Barnes Collection’s Bonheur de vivre, (1905–06), which presents pastoral images of dancers, musicians, and reclining and crouching nudes that persist throughout his oeuvre, from first to last. The selections in Voyage into Myth supported the idea, since they ranged from a radiant view of the Mediterranean fishing village of Collioure, where Matisse painted his first Fauvist images, to a still life whose background includes the study for The Dance (now in the Museum of Modern Art), one of the large decorative panels commissioned by Shchukin for the staircase of his Moscow mansion; these powerful pictures could be read as invoking both an ideal vision of the South and the concept of Arcadia, although these notions seem of less significance to the evolution of modernist painting than their luminous color and inventive structure.

In Toronto, attaching ideas about the South to Matisse’s marvelous green-washed, half-length figure of a Riffian bandit, painted on one of his 1912–1913 Moroccan sojourns, was a bit of a stretch, but it seemed fairly reasonable, compared to the downright preposterousness of the theme in relation to the exhibition’s stern, economically modeled 1908 still lifes by Picasso or his geometric, Cézannian landscapes of 1908 and 1909, with their sharp-edged house and a factory building, complete with a thrusting cylindrical chimney. It’s easy to understand why the curators wanted to include these tough, exciting pictures in the show, but there’s nothing Arcadian about those sculptural, weighty pears or that fierce monument to modernity and industry.

The real pleasure of the show, obviously, was not the curatorial subtext, but the opportunity to spend time with some marvelous pictures, some, like the Matisses and Picassos, familiar, and, some, like the Gauguins, less frequently seen or reproduced. And there were some real surprises, such as a small, delicious Redon, Woman Lying under a Tree (1900–01), a firmly constructed little jewel of broad expanses of red and blue that recalled the intensity and simplicity of Romanesque stained glass panels. Since the labels noted whether a work had come from Shchukin’s or Morozov’s collection, it was also possible to formulate some ideas about the taste of each of these mysterious figures. According to the evidence in Voyage into Myth, Shchukin generally seemed more adventurous, with an appetite for the difficult, uningratiating picture.

Morozov was equally committed to modernism, but appeared to have preferred more lyrical works.

Morozov, who was almost twenty years younger, interestingly enough, was equally committed to modernism, but appeared to have preferred more lyrical works. A fascinating article in the show’s handsome catalogue by Albert Kostenevich, the Hermitage’s internationally acclaimed senior curator of nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, brings these two enigmatic men alive, meticulously assembling details that make clear the pivotal role of their patronage in the development of modernist painting, especially through their support of Matisse and Picasso at crucial moments in their careers, early on, when they had few sympathetic viewers and little money. (The article reproduces the well-known photographs of Shchukin’s and Morozov’s extravagant Moscow homes, a schizophrenic mix of eighteenth-century fauteuils, ornate tables, and damask-covered walls lined with radical new paintings, hung edge to edge.)

The culmination of the show, and perhaps the ultimate explanation of the theme, is the inclusion of two sets of extravagant decorative panels from Morozov’s palatial Moscow home, a selection that literally ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous. The ravishing 1911 Bonnard triptych, Mediterranean, once installed on a vast staircase landing, was the star of the recent examination of the decorative schemes of the Nabis, Beyond the Easel, seen in Chicago and at the Metropolitan. A golden sun-drenched vision of women and children on a shade-dappled terrace high above red tile roofs and a distant sea, the picture radiates not only “luxe, calme et volupté,” but also the very temperature, sounds, and scents of the Midi—the perfect antidote to a dark Russian winter and a superb painting, as well, with its subtle play of creamy mauves, roses, and ochres, and its daring flirtation with symmetry and emptiness.

Morozov was a great admirer of Bonnard and collected his work in some depth, for which he is to be applauded. (The exhibition includes one other of his acquisitions.) His enthusiasm for the rather pedestrian Maurice Denis, whom he also collected in depth, is more difficult to understand, at best, and becomes nearly impossible in the presence of the panels Denis executed for Morozov’s music room in 1909. They tell the story of Psyche in a series of classicizing visions in marzipan hues. The nude and draped figures are said to be portraits of Denis’s artist friends; the arcades, columns, garlands, and cypress trees of the settings are generic.

Art lovers will recall that Raphael and his assistants addressed the same theme on the walls of the loggia of the Farnesina, in Rome; the politest thing to say about the Denis version is that he was no Raphael. Still, the series had direct benefits. According to the catalogue’s informative essay by Kostenevich on the Denis and Bonnard decorative panels in Morozov’s collection, the Psyche suite was so admired by the collector’s friends (who were not overly enthusiastic about his modernist predilections) that he decided to commission Bonnard to do a piece for the staircase. Given the sheer seductiveness of the result, you have to be grateful to Denis for that. The jury is still out as to whether or not the Psyche panels are otherwise some of the silliest paintings ever painted, but if you can get to Montreal before the end of April, you can decide for yourself. After that, you have to go to Saint Petersburg and the galleries on the far side of Palace Square.

  1.  “Voyage into Myth: French Paintings from Gauguin to Matisse from the Hermitage Museum” opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec, on January 31 and remains on view until April 27, 2003. The exhibition was previously on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Ontario from October 12, 2002 to January 5, 2003. A catalog of the exhibition has been published by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in partnership with Éditions Hazan, Paris (224 pages, $39.95 [Canadian]).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 6, on page 45
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