"Matisse, Russia, Sergei Shchukin-Threads and Co-incidences" by Deborah Fry September 2019

Blog Deborah Fry

It’s very hard to choose, but Henri Matisse’s painting, The Conversation, is my favourite of all his works.  It is a big painting of Mr and Mrs Matisse poised for speech but at that captured moment apparently silent, he standing, in a pair of blue and white striped pyjamas, hand in pocket; she sitting in her black dressing gown with green trim. They face each other and one feels the tension between them.  There is a balcony behind them and a garden beyond. For a long time I had assumed the conversation to be happening at night-time, but outside it isn’t dark so maybe night is just suggested by the pyjamas and dressing gown?  It’s a blue painting. Blue, very blue.  I love it for its blueness, for the atmosphere, for its intimate perspective into an aspect of Matisse’s life, for its sublime and eternal beauty.

In 2016 I went with my friend Linda to Russia, primarily to see my beloved Matisse’s big collection in the Hermitage in St Petersburg and, most especially, The Conversation, which is housed there. The painting was owned by Matisse’s rich, fascinating Russian patron, Sergei Shchukin, and hung in a grand room in his Trubetskoy palace in Moscow at the beginning of the twentieth century until the Russian Revolution changed everything. There is a photo of that grand room (called the Gaughin dining room) with The Conversation hanging in it. The photo is in a wonderful, engrossing book The Collector: the Story of Sergei Shchukin and His Lost Masterpieces by Natalya Semenova. It was published in 2018 so I hadn’t seen it or known much about Shchukin when I went to Russia. Now I know how much we owe to him and his fellow contemporary Russian collector, Ivan Morozov. So many of the most beautiful and interesting early twentieth century European art works were commissioned by and/or purchased by them, firstly for their own pleasure but of course for posterity and for art lovers forever to relish. 

My happy journey through the book, The Collector, co-incided with a wonderful exhibition in October 2018 at the Art Gallery of NSW, Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage (not, alas, including The Conversation).  I had just come back from another trip, this time with my friend Mary to Israel and Jordan, the former to see Tel Aviv and Jaffa for the first time and Jerusalem again after 30 years; the latter to visit Petra which I had always longed to see and Wadi Rum, the vast ancient desert area nearby where Lawrence of Arabia had roamed.  We stayed a night in the exotic Jordanian town of Aquaba on the northern coast of the Red Sea on our way to Petra. How pleased I was to read in The Collector that, in 1907, the year in which his much loved first wife had died, Sergei Shchukin set off on a trip to the middle east, “Arabia”, and went to Petra after staying in El-Akaba (Aquaba) and then on to Jerusalem and Jaffa. I so love stumbling upon these unexpected reading co-incidences.

But back to 2016.  Linda and I had each pre-bought two full-day tickets to the Hermitage and decided to save the Matisses until the second day.  Day 1 was fabulous but I was so excited I couldn’t sleep much that night.  Day 2 was a tragedy.  None of the Matisses and other Impressionist and Post Impressionist masterpieces were on display.  They had recently been moved from the Hermitage across the vast magnificent square it faces to their new home in the General Staff Building and were still being hung.  No entry to that new section. ‘No, nyet’ reiterated the big Russian man sitting on his chair guarding the closed door.  I pleaded, cried, begged, talked to anyone who would listen, … ‘We have come all the way from Australia; I have waited 50 years to see these paintings; we don’t mind seeing them not properly hung, could we just have a little peek; there was no warning of this on the website; will they be up if we come back to St Petersburg after we go to Moscow; is there someone higher up we can talk to…?’ No, no and no. Nyet, nyet, nyet.  A kind gentle woman in administration did her best to soothe us but it still felt no less than a tragedy.  We did go on to see some wonderful Matisses at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow… but not The Conversation of course.  The consolation was great but so far from sufficient.

So when the Shchukin book came out I couldn’t wait to read it - to meet the man who, at the beginning of the twentieth century collected works by then almost unknown and often derided, artists -  Matisse, Gaughin, Monet, Cezanne, Van Gough, Denis, Degas, Renoir…mentoring and financially supporting a number of them.  It’s a wonderful, fascinating book. 

Sergei Shchukin’s father had made his wealth from textile manufacturing , his mother came from a tea trading merchant family.  It wasn’t unusual for a member of Moscow’s business elite to become a patron of the arts in late Imperial Russia. The burgeoning number of industrialists invariably emulated their aristocratic forebears, embracing a cosmopolitan outlook and supporting various cultural pursuits. Sergei’s father, who had 10 children, bought neither books nor paintings but he loved Italian opera  and sent his eldest sons abroad to study business.  His mother and her nine brothers grew up fully integrated into Moscow’s artistic intelligentsia – she taught her children French for example.

Sergei was schooled at home with his sisters due to his delicate constitution but he outlived nearly every member of his family, purportedly because of his vegetarian diet, pursuit of regular exercise and sleeping by an open window in his bedroom even in the midst of a Russian winter when snow had to be brushed from the bed coverings. Contrary to family expectations, he took over his father’s business when the latter died in 1890.  Sergei brought to the production of textiles a good business head, ambition and a propensity for risk taking, all of which also characterised his habits as a collector of art.

All of Sergei’s siblings became collectors of some sort of art, his eccentric and cosmopolitan younger brother, Ivan, moving to Paris in 1893 and presiding over a weekly salon at his home which attracted artists like Rodin, Degas, Redon, art dealers and notable visiting and ex-pat Russians.  Ivan’s extravagant lifestyle and later obsession with collecting old Spanish masters led him into serious debt and he suicided in 1908.  Thanks to him, however, the way had been paved for Sergei who, in 1899, commenced his visits to the salons and studios and art fairs of Bohemian Paris. He made his purchases, firstly Monet and Degas and then the post-Impressionists, Cezanne, Van Gough, Gaughin and, of course, Matisse.  He was castigated and ridiculed when he hung his avant-garde spoils in his palace and invited scandalized Moscow society to view them.  But he was a man of sangfroid; he persevered and his collection grew and grew.  He bought Picassos, Rousseaus…. some art which shocked even his own aesthetic sensibility.   He had an extraordinary eye. He bought works he reacted to with ‘psychological shock’, that is, those he immediately loved but also works he believed he would come to love if he walked past them hanging on his walls every day or stood in front of them frequently enough, just looking.  He ended up owning 38 Matisses and 50 Picassos  and many many other beautiful and iconic works.

A contemporary of Shchukin’s and another art collector to whom we owe a great debt, Ivan Morozov, was also the son of a wealthy Moscow textile merchant. He started buying Russian art and impressionist and post-impressionist works in 1900, a little in Shchukin’s shadow.  He was a more analytical and deliberate collector, relying on a team of advisors rather than his own eye or emotional reactions to the works. During his 11 years of collecting Western art, he bought 278 paintings and 23 sculptures.  He never opened his collection to the public. 

Schchukin, his second wife and their young daughter left Russia in secret on August 1918 to  settle in Paris and a few months later his and Morozov’s collections were nationalised.  The paintings were moved around over the following years, largely unappreciated. In the anti-cosmopolitan climate inculcated by Stalin at the end of WW2, the collections were divided between curators and hidden to prevent their destruction.  Some were displayed after Stalin’s death but their provenance was kept secret until the era of perestroika and glasnost. It wasn’t until 2017 in an exhibition in Paris that Shchukin’s collection was first distinguished from Morozov’s and his brilliance and consistent artistic judgment as a collector  acknowledged.

Not long after the AGNSW exhibition I went there again to see five 10 minute episodes of Sister Wendy’s BBC art talks. Sister Wendy, nun, art critic and historian, unlikely TV star of the 1990s and adorable, humble inspiration took us via many such episodes around the great galleries of the world and taught us how to look at art.  If you don’t know her, look for her on Youtube. You will adore her and learn so much.  In one of the episodes I saw at AGNSW that day she goes to Paris to the Musee d’Orsay for a Matisse exhibition and stops in front of…yes, incredibly, the big, beautiful, blue The Conversation!  My heart leapt for joy.  She notes that Mr Matisse stands tall and straight and powerful while Mrs Matisse sits small and low, her eyes black smudges, almost negated. She points out that in the ironwork of the balcony the word ‘non’ is spelt out and tells us that the Matisses separated soon afterwards, amicably. I hadn’t known any of that. Of all the Matisses in all the galleries in the world, how incredibly lucky I was that Sister Wendy chose this one to expound upon!

One day I’ll go back to St Petersburg (no great hardship!) and see the real painting at last, now aware of how much I need to thank Sergei Shchukin for his vision and courage in mentoring Matisse and for buying this beautiful interesting work. And you? Read The Collector and immerse yourself in the fascinating story of early twentieth century Russia, Shchukin and his family and the vast number of impressionist and post- impressionist paintings which live in St Petersburg and Moscow thanks to him and Morozov.   


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