Art

FROM RUSSIA WITH FRENCH FINESSE

A new show of works from the Hermitage highlights ‘avant-garde classicism’

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER October 14 2002
Art

FROM RUSSIA WITH FRENCH FINESSE

A new show of works from the Hermitage highlights ‘avant-garde classicism’

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER October 14 2002

FROM RUSSIA WITH FRENCH FINESSE

Art

A new show of works from the Hermitage highlights ‘avant-garde classicism’

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

THEY WERE the Donald Trumps of their time—fabulously rich business magnates with a flair for extravagance. In another era, they might have splurged on private jets or $6,000 shower curtains. But in the early 1900s, art was the luxury of choice for wealthy Russian industrialists like Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. During frequent visits to Paris, the two Muscovites—among the first to recognize the genius of French avant-garde artists—snapped up paintings by the likes of Cézanne, Gauguin and Matisse for their opulent palaces. Not that such acquisitions were always impressive in their conservative milieu. One outraged guest actually scribbled on the first

Monet Shchukin displayed in his home.

Canadians will have a rare opportunity to appreciate Shchukin’s and Morozov’s celebrated collections with a new exhibit

opening at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto this week (Oct. 12 to Jan. 5), and then travelling to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Jan. 31 to April 27). Voyage into Myth: French Painting from Gauguin to Matisse—the second in a four-exhibit exchange between the AGO and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg— features 75 works by 24 French-based artists, including several paintings by Matisse, Cézanne, Gauguin and Picasso. But AGO curator Michael Parke-Taylor plays down any comparison with the Barnes Exhibit, the gallery’s over-hyped 1994 show, a disappointing mix of minor works by big names, collected by an American contemporary of Shchukin and Morozov. “This is more than a greatest hits from the Hermitage—this show tells an interesting story.”

The story takes place in the restless early years of the 20th century. Disenchanted with Impressionism’s attempt to record the fleeting moment on canvas, French pioneers of modernism experienced a rush of enthusiasm for the timelessness of classical art .Voyage into Myth—the title is adapted from a Baudelaire poem exalting mythology’s Golden Age—traces the beginning of so-called avant-garde classicism. Promoted as a visit to “paradise,” the show is an illuminating, if limited and meandering, excursion into the byways of the movement. The nod to ancient Greece

is unmistakable in the faun-and-nymphfilled scenes painted by Pierre Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Maurice Denis. Classical references are less overt in the works by Cézanne, Matisse and André Derain, a few of the many artists who discovered a “new Eden” in southern France; their paintings are highlights of the exhibit. The show’s five Gauguins display the artist’s invented mythology in primitive Tahiti.

Shchukin and Morozov, friendly rivals, both commissioned major decorative works for their residences. Matisse produced two masterpieces—The Big Dance and Music—for Shchukin’s Moscow palace. While the Hermitage could not part with

those murals, two obscure works commissioned by Morozov do appear in Voyage into Myth. The Story of Psyche, a series of 13 decorative panels by Denis on display for the first time in North America, is installed in a replica of the collector’s music room. Psyche is garish and posterlike, yet the overall effect is sensational. More beautifully subtle is Bonnard’s On the Mediterranean, a massive triptych. It evokes the leisurely intimacy and shimmering light of a seaside garden near St.Tropez with a spontaneous style that’s extraordinary for such a monumental work. Despite their neighbours’ doubts, Shchukin and Morozov truly were onto something. flfl