Review

Celebrating Moscow Maecenases

"Portrait of the Collector of Modern Russian and French Paintings, Ivan Abramovich Morozov" (1910), a 63.5 × 77 cm tempera on cardboard by Valentin Serov. Courtesy of the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

“Everything is lost, everything is lost, and we are all doomed.” 

So, allegedly, said the Russian industrialist Ivan Morozov when facing the fires of revolution. One of Russia’s richest men and arguably the greatest private art collector in his country’s history, Morozov suffered a series of crippling humiliations after the Revolution of 1917. First, his palatial Moscow house’s ground floor was requisitioned by the Red Army’s Moscow military district, forcing him to cram his vast collection of modernist Western and Russian art onto its first floor. Then his collection was nationalized into the “Second National Museum of New Western Art,” which left Morozov and his family with just three rooms to inhabit. Piling humiliation on humiliation, the government appointed a Soviet art historian as director of the museum and kept Ivan on as assistant director. 

In 1919, the dispossessed family was finally evicted altogether and vanished from official view. They made their way to Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed) and then, almost certainly illegally, went abroad, living in reduced circumstances in Switzerland and later France. Ivan grew gaunt and haunted, a shadow of the confident man portrayed in Valentin Serov’s portrait of 1910. In July 1921 he died of heart failure while on a recuperative visit to Karlsbad, the spa town in today’s Czech Republic now known as Karlovy Vary. He was just 49. His grave, lost in the turmoil of World War II, was only rediscovered in 2012.

The irony is that Morozov, like many pre-revolutionary Russian collectors, had always planned to leave his paintings to the government for public display. Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery was founded in 1892 after just such a gift from another merchant-Maecenas, Morozov’s in-law Pavel Tretyakov. Ivan’s brother and fellow collector Mikhail died in 1903 at just 33 after a short life of Lucullan overindulgence, leaving his own (smaller) collection to his widow who a few years later donated most of it to the city of Moscow. In Morozov’s Russia, private art had a way of entering public hands—without the cruel humiliations Ivan experienced from the Revolutionaries. 

“The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art,” on display through February 2022 at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, combines important works from the various Morozov collections into one vast exhibition. The exhibition dominates multiple levels of the Foundation’s capacious premises, designed by Frank Gehry, in the Bois de Boulogne. Virtually all the works were collected or commissioned in those halcyon and artistically frenetic years between 1900 and 1914, the second half of what Westerners call the Belle Époque and Russians, the Silver Age.

While most of Mikhail Morozov’s collection went to museums before the Revolution of 1917, the story of Ivan’s collection is not so simple. In 1928 it was combined with the nationalized collection of his friend, the mercantile heir Sergei Shchukin. The two massive collections formed the composite “State Museum of Modern Western Art.” In the 1930s, when ‘bourgeois’ and ‘decadent’ art fell into official disfavor, the Soviet government made various attempts to suppress the museum. Some of its works found their way abroad through state-sponsored sales, while a handful were simply lost. During World War II, the collection was evacuated to a basement in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk; after the war, socialist realist critics succeeded in abolishing the museum and sent its most valuable works to Leningrad’s Hermitage and Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The bulk of the collection, including its cubist and expressionist works, only narrowly avoided destruction; these works were quietly warehoused until more lenient post-Stalin times. 

“Bathers”(1892-1894), a 26 x 40 cm oil on canvas by Paul Cézanne. Courtesy of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

It was only in the 1990s that Russian art museums began to acknowledge the identities of the art’s original owners—individuals who stand not only among the greatest Russian art collectors but among the world’s greatest collectors of impressionist, postimpressionist, and expressionist art. 

The Louis Vuitton Foundation exhibition presents, in one place, 170 of the approximately 550 works that the Morozov brothers amassed. The exhibition is remarkable for its breadth as well as for its quality, considering that borrowing art from Russian collections can be a fraught endeavor. As recently as 2008, the Russian government hesitated to loan paintings from the two great Muscovite collections for an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Art, seeking assurances that no legal claims would be made against them by the Morozov or Shchukin heirs still living abroad. The Academy offered Morozov’s great-grandson Pierre Konowaloff and Shchukin’s great-grandson a £5,000 indemnity each if they would agree to refrain from suing. Both angrily refused. 

That same year, Konowaloff sued Yale University and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in U.S. federal court for the return of two of his great-grandfather’s paintings, which American collector Stephen Clark had bequeathed to Yale and the Met upon his death in 1960. Konowaloff lost both lawsuits, though the one against Yale dragged on until 2016, when the Supreme Court declined to hear it. Fearing similar disputes, the Russian government has maintained a moratorium on art loans to the United States since 2011. 

Despite recent political tensions of its own with Russia, France has managed cultural relations rather better, with this superbly curated exhibition as its reward. 

“Portrait of Mikhaïl Abramovitch Morozov” (1902), a 216 × 81.5 cm oil on canvas by Valentin Serov. Courtesy of the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Valentin Serov’s portrait of Ivan Morozov comes late in the exhibition, but his nine portraits of other Morozov family members and friends introduce the show well—all the more so since I had the pleasure of visiting the exhibition in the company of Serov’s Parisian great-grandsons, Oleg and Serge Serov, and during our visit corresponded via WhatsApp with their parents in Beirut.

Serov excelled at creating solid rapport with people in a position to commission portraits from him. He delivered insightful rather than flattering images of his subjects, often adding a rough edge that makes his work more of a dialogue with his postimpressionist counterparts in France than simply derivative portraiture. Serov’s Portrait of Mikhail Morozov (1902) spares little in depicting his life of excess. Prematurely bald and borderline obese, the elder and shorter-lived Morozov’s frock coat is visibly too small, while the expression on his face betrays the maniacal quality of a man who just cannot be stopped. Serov’s portraits of older Morozov relatives do justice to their prosperity, but refrain from elevating them too far above their not-so-distant peasant origins; the dynasty began when an Old Believer schismatic serf made a fortune in textiles after Moscow’s textile industry was destroyed in the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. The portrait of Great-Uncle Timofei Morozov, painted posthumously from a photograph, invokes his serf roots; he is clad in shapeless black with a large flowing white beard. Only his small hands and a hint of his collar protrude.

Serov’s early portrait of his friend and fellow painter Konstantin Korovin (1891, acquired by Ivan in 1906) shows his subject louchely reclining in his studio, jacket removed, a weary middle age penetrating his expression. Korovin tutored the Morozov brothers in art as children and later advised their collecting, but privately despised them; the portrait captures Korovin’s growing cynicism. Later in the exhibition, the Self-Portrait (1912) of painter and theatrical set designer Alexander Golovin betrays an air of uncertainty, as though everything was about to fall out from under him—perhaps because, just five years later, it did. Mikhail Vrubel’s angular Portrait of Savva Mamontov (1897) shows the wealthy industrialist and arts patron in an awkward pose, suggesting the deep insecurity of a man who misappropriated business funds and may have anticipated his fate: three years after the portrait, Mamontov was nearly convicted of embezzlement and fell into financial ruin and ill health. He lived just long enough to see the Revolution destroy whatever was left of his world.

If the introductory portraits capture their subjects’ woes, the Western paintings—almost all of them French—are a dazzling display of what gave their collectors comfort. The Morozovs were responsible for the first Russian purchases of van Gogh (whose haunting The Prison Courtyard, 1890, has its own room here), Cézanne, Picasso, Gauguin, and Bonnard. The warm colors and vivid movement reflect more salubrious climes than that of the collectors’ icy city, while the avant-garde uses of light in the paintings depart starkly from 19th century realism. Perhaps the most striking example is Renoir’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Jeanne Samary (1878). Acquired by Mikhail Morozov in 1902, just one year before his death, its subject’s arched brows, eager eyes, and parted lips are as lively now as they were nearly 150 years ago. 

“Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary” (1877), a 56 x 47 cm oil on canvas by Auguste Renoir. Courtesy of the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

As impressive as the brothers’ Renoirs are, the Cézannes dominate the exhibition. Ivan purchased eighteen Cézannes, and all of them on display here—except the ones sold by the Soviet government—taking up entire rooms. The Gauguins are models of foresight; Gauguin died penniless in 1903, and Ivan Morozov’s purchases a few years later were among the first of any significant value.

The exhibit’s monumental scale allows for rooms devoted to groups of subjects as well as individual artists. A room dedicated to still life painting, for example, houses several of the Cézannes. A darkened room holds photographs of Ivan Morozov’s Moscow house and documents its transformation in Soviet times. Nudity, which was frowned upon but rarely subject to oppressive action in Late Imperial Russia (the only significant case, brought against the artist Natalia Goncharova, was dropped) takes pride of place in another room, which features exquisite paintings of nude models by Degas, Matisse, Bonnard, and Charles Guérin, among others.

Perhaps the most impressive thematic room is a large-scale recreation of Ivan Morozov’s music salon, for which he commissioned an original series of paintings from artist Maurice Denis, telling the myth of Psyche. The room evokes the decorated Italian palazzi that Morozov visited and loved; in the palazzi, Renaissance iterations of the same myth deck the walls. In the Vuitton exhibition, Denis’ paintings are laid out with the same proportions and dimensions as they occupied in Morozov’s original music salon; in this, they reflect their presentation at the Hermitage, which recreated Morozov’s salon in June 2019.

The spirit of old Russia remains a contested memory, but this thoughtful and well executed display recreates the feeling as much as anything could.

Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.

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