Russia’s great art rescue

They survived revolution, war and the cold. Now restored works from a legendary Moscow collection are going on show

Henri Matisse’s “L’atelier rose” (1911) being restored at the Pushkin Museum©Petr Antonov

Henri Matisse’s “L’atelier rose” (1911) being restored at the Pushkin Museum

On an August evening, the Trubetskoi Palace couldn’t look more beautiful. Its turquoise walls glow in the setting sun and radiate the heat of a long Moscow summer day. But in the winter of 1923, inside this baroque mansion, the former home of the industrialist Sergei Shchukin, the very survival of one of the world’s greatest art collections was at risk. Five years earlier, at the height of the October Revolution, Shchukin had fled the country, leaving behind more than 250 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modernist paintings — including works by Cézanne, Matisse, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Picasso — to be confiscated by the state.

As temperatures fell below zero, the director in charge of the paintings spent his days begging Soviet officials for firewood rations to prevent any more damage to the paintings from the cold. Meanwhile, his colleagues convinced peasant delegations seeking to break up the collection that there was nothing for them. “Little did they know how many more troubles were ahead — the first half of the 20th century was a dangerous time for modern art,” says Irina Nikiforova, head of 19th- and 20th-century European and American art at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, where part of the Shchukin collection is housed today. “But that winter was one of the harshest tests.”

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This summer, as 130 works from the collection head to Paris for an exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in October, Russian and French art experts see it as a triumph of art over the century-long onslaught of war and revolution. “Considering what they have been through, the paintings are in good condition,” says Anne Baldassari, the exhibition’s curator. The Soviet authorities considered the works bourgeois and not ideologically correct, so they were banned for a long period from being shown in public. It would be half a century before Shchukin’s achievements as a pioneering collector were acknowledged.

Nikolai Kolesnikov restoring Henri Matisse’s “L’atelier rose” (1911) at the Pushkin Museum©Petr Antonov

Nikolai Kolesnikov restoring Henri Matisse’s “L’atelier rose” (1911) at the Pushkin Museum

Born in Moscow in 1854 into a family of textile merchants, Shchukin started collecting European art during business trips to France from 1897. He observed and learnt from the way his contemporaries in Paris, such as the Americans Gertrude Stein, and her brothers Leo and Michael, collected works by some of the most radical artists of their time. “Leo Stein created scandals by buying works that shocked people — a new way of seeking value in things, not just trade goods,” says Baldassari, “and Shchukin started doing the same.” Gertrude and Leo Stein hung their paintings from floor to ceiling in their apartments on the Left Bank. “But Shchukin found his own approach when he used his collection to found a museum.”

Sergei Shchukin, c1900©Musée d’Etat des Beaux Arts Pouchkine

Sergei Shchukin, c1900

Except in the very early days, Shchukin never sold any of his paintings once he had acquired them. Instead, he hung them in the Trubetskoi Palace, and from 1908 opened his growing collection to the Moscow public.

In Paris, Shchukin followed the Steins’ example by visiting artists in their studios and getting to know their dealers. One of the artists with whom he developed a personal relationship and whose work he advanced more than any other was Henri Matisse, from whom he also commissioned two large paintings, “La danse” and “Music”, for the walls of the Trubetskoi Palace. The Shchukin collection includes 37 paintings by Matisse — a number surpassed only by his 50 Picassos.

The Soviet authorities banned the works because they considered them bourgeois and not ideologically correct

While other works by these artists won recognition in western Europe and around the world, the paintings Shchukin had taken to Moscow disappeared from view for decades. It wasn’t until 1970, when an exhibition organised the previous year by the Hermitage in St Petersburg to celebrate Matisse’s centenary travelled to Paris, that the French public got a chance to see some of the Matisse paintings again.

Nadezhda Koshkina, the Pushkin’s deputy head of restoration©Petr Antonov

Nadezhda Koshkina, the Pushkin’s deputy head of restoration

“In the first half of the 20th century, the Shchukin collection attained an almost legendary status in Europe,” Baldassari writes in the exhibition catalogue. “From the moment of its creation, the fact of its physical remoteness and the rarity of illustrated publications meant that the paintings that were shipped to Moscow seemed to be entering a different world, an inaccessible place that was perceived as fabulous.”

Apart from being locked away for so long, the paintings suffered much physical wear and tear over the years, as did many works around western Europe during the war as a result of expropriation and evacuation. “Of course, this history has left deep marks on them,” Baldassari says. The Shchukin collection survived evacuation to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 — a period Nikiforova says was almost as tough on the paintings as the winter of 1923. The paintings were kept in a newly built theatre in Novosibirsk for almost four years, only occasionally taken out of the boxes into which they had been hastily packed to check on their condition.

Paul Gauguin’s “Aha oé eeii (Eh quoi, tu es jalouse?)” (1892)©Musée d’État des Beaux-Arts Pouchkine

Paul Gauguin’s “Aha oé eeii (Eh quoi, tu es jalouse?)” (1892)

The damage done at that time is one reason some works from the Shchukin collection are not in the Paris exhibition. One is “Le samedi”, a 1914 painting by André Derain, which suffered partly as a result of the way it was packed during the wartime evacuation, according to Baldassari. “Music”, one of the monumental Matisse works, is also in a poor state.

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The Pushkin Museum in 1937©Musée d’Art Moderne Occidental

The Pushkin Museum in 1937

Staff at the Pushkin Museum, which is the joint guardian of the Shchukin collection with the Hermitage, have been busy preparing the works for their journey to Paris. But the museum’s limited capacity to restore works, as well as the damage to some of the paintings, means that the show’s organisers have had to make some difficult choices. While the Hermitage has restoration facilities that are the envy of many museums even in the west, the Pushkin has not been so lucky. Plans for new restoration facilities have been completed, but Russia’s economic crisis has delayed the necessary funding, another reason for some of the paintings that could have been included in the show having to stay behind.

“They [were] not in a position to restore [Matisse’s] ‘L’atelier rose’ and [Derain’s] ‘Le samedi’ at the same time because they don’t have enough space. Therefore, we could not include ‘Le samedi’,” explains Baldassari.

Pablo Picasso’s “Trois femmes” (1908)©Musée d’Etat de l’Ermitage

Pablo Picasso’s “Trois femmes” (1908)

Nikolai Kolesnikov, a picture restorer at the Pushkin, has been working on “L’atelier rose” in a room close to where the Shchukin collection usually hangs. He has spent three months restoring the painting, though photographs taken before and during the process show that the damage was not excessive. The canvas had become uneven around the edges — a deformation that is often seen as the painting’s own weight drags it down over time. Kolesnikov fixed this by drawing the canvas very carefully further over the frame. In other places, the edges of the top layer of paint had started to separate from a lower layer and to curl upwards.

“In general, restoration of paintings of this era is tricky because you can’t do it invasively,” says Nadezhda Koshkina, deputy head of restoration at the Pushkin and another of the team preparing the Shchukin pieces for the Paris show. “[These artists] painted so fast and often did not give the lower layers [of paint] time to dry.” This can lead to certain kinds of craquelure — fine fissures in the paint.

Kolesnikov’s biggest challenge in restoring “L’atelier rose” was that while some parts have several layers of paint, the canvas shows through in others. “This makes it difficult for me because I don’t want to change anything, but it is also this painting’s biggest strength,” he says. Unlike many other paintings, he explains, “L’atelier rose” has never been reinforced with an additional canvas stuck to its back or a layer of glue. “That’s what makes it so unique,” he says. “Our colleagues all over the world understand this very well. That is the reason it looks so fresh, like it was painted only yesterday.”

Fragment of L'atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016©Petr Antonov

Fragment of L’atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016

Fragment of L'atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016©Petr Antonov

Fragment of L’atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016

Fragment of L'atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016©Petr Antonov

Fragment of L’atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016

Fragment of L'atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016©Petr Antonov

Fragment of L’atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016

Fragment of L'atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016©Petr Antonov

Fragment of L’atelier Rose where restoration works were carried out. Moscow, Russia, 2016

‘Icons of Modern Art. The Shchukin Collection’ is at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, from October 22 to February 20; fondationlouisvuitton.fr

Photographs: Petr Antonov; Musée d’Etat des Beaux Arts Pouchkine; Musée d’Art Moderne Occidental; Musée d’Etat de l’Ermitage

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