PARIS — A Russian art collection replete with modernist masterpieces by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso opened Saturday in Paris, heralded in every major French newspaper and television station. Tickets to the unprecedented exhibition are hot commodities, billed as future collectors’ items.
Call it “cultural diplomacy” or “soft power,” the blockbuster show was just one half of the major Russian cultural initiatives that debuted in Paris during the week, seeking to burnish Moscow’s reputation abroad as a year dedicated to “cultural tourism” has been overshadowed by political disputes.
Across town, a culture center featuring a massive Russian Orthodox cathedral — whose prominent golden domes now compete with the nearby Eiffel Tower — opened on the banks of the Seine on Wednesday after considerable wrangling with city government.
In France, at least, the timing is significant, as relations between Paris and Moscow have reached historic lows after François Hollande criticized Russian interventions in the Syrian city of Aleppo as a “war crime” earlier this month. In response, Vladimir Putin subsequently canceled the Paris trip during which he would have christened the church and the exposition.
But the cathedral stands, and the exhibit is the talk of the town.
“Icons of Modern Art” displays 130 masterpieces from the collection of Sergei Shchukin, a wealthy Russian textile magnate who, on frequent visits to Paris in the late 19th century, began to purchase canvases by risqué painters whose work was shunned by critics. Over several decades, he accumulated the world’s greatest collection of Matisses, monumental fantasies of color and motion that his favorite artist created specifically for his Moscow mansion.
“If a picture gives you a psychological shock, buy it,” Shchukin once said. “It’s a good one.” Like many collectors, he was no stranger to that kind of shock: within a span of three years, his wife died, and two of his sons and a brother committed suicide. But nothing prepared Shchukin for the political rupture of the Russian Revolution, when, in 1918, he was exiled to Paris as his beloved collection was seized by Bolshevik forces.
The collection was eventually nationalized, split between the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and then banished for decades under Joseph Stalin as “Western bourgeois art devoid of any progressive, civilizing value for Soviet visitors.” In France, the Shchukin collection was long seen as a prisoner of the Cold War, a national treasure in seemingly endless captivity.
“For the curators and museum directors who came yesterday it was an absolute shock,” said Marina Loshak, director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, which lent works from its collection for the show. “They had not imagined that there was a collection of such high quality and class in Russia.”
In the current exhibition, those treasures have returned to France for the first time since Shchukin sent them to Moscow. Housed in the Fondation Louis Vuitton, the Frank Gehry-designed art space on the outskirts of Paris, the show presents a subtle image of Russian cultural sophistication, mixing Russian artists alongside the Picassos and Matisses that inspired them. Viewers are meant to see the similarities.
“It’s a Russian history, undoubtedly, in which the figure of the collector is no less important than the things that he collected,” said Loshak, the museum director. “For France, this is also important, and it’s yet another motif of the closeness, the great closeness, of the French and Russian cultures.”
Anne Baldassari, who curated “Icons of Modern Art,” said the willingness of Russian museums to participate represented an “evolution” toward an international focus. “This would have been absolutely unimaginable even 10 years ago,” she said, referring to years of difficulties in collaborating with Russian institutions.
All earlier attempts to put together similar exhibitions had failed, Loshak said, because of several factors, including the relationships among various museums holding works from the Shchukin collection. Shchukin’s heirs also promised not to seek seizure of the artworks, which were nationalized by the Bolsheviks and, they contend, should be returned.
“Everyone hopes that the exposition will constitute a space of dialogue to ameliorate the strained relations,” said Baldassari, adding that Putin may still visit before it closes in February. “It might permit a return to normal.”
The recent collapse in political relations between France and Russia had not affected preparations for the show, Loshak said.
As the Russian president wrote in the exhibition catalogue, he hoped the show “will contribute to further strengthening of mutual understanding and trust between French and Russians.”