ART / The secret of the lost paintings

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The Independent Culture
THIRTY paintings in the magnificent Matisse exhibition in Paris come from Russia - from the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. They owe their place there to two Russian businessmen, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, who in the decade or so before 1914, bought almost 650 French Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Cubist paintings between them. But for many years, the names of these two men, and the existence of these pictures, remained a closely guarded secret.

The story first came to light 10 years ago in a pioneering study by Beverly Whitney Kean, All The Empty Palaces, which soon went out of print, perhaps because the title gives no indication of what it was about.

Shchukin and Morozov were textile barons, who, like many businessmen during Russia's post-Crimean War Industrial Revolution, collected art. But while their contemporaries were interested in Russian paintings or Western Old Masters, Shchukin and Morozov entered completely uncharted waters; the Impressionists and their successors were at that point virtually unknown in Russia.

Shchukin was in his mid-forties when he started to buy pictures. One of his brothers lived in Paris where he knew Rodin, Renoir and Degas and introduced Shchukin, and subsequently his younger friend Morozov, to the Paris scene. Once a year, the two of them would go to Paris and visit the dealers - Druet, Kahnweiler, Vollard - and increasingly the painters themselves. By the outbreak of World War I, Shchukin owned 450 French paintings, including 51 Picassos, 39 Matisses, 17 Gaugins, 16 Derains, 13 Monets, seven Rousseaus and four Van Goghs. Morozov's interests overlapped but didn't compete: his 187 paintings contained fewer 'contemporaries' and more Impressionists. He bought the first Monet into Russia.

In Moscow, Morozov prefered to keep his pictures to himself, but Shchukin took enormous pleasure in showing off his collection. Every Sunday he threw open the doors of his Trubetskoy Palace and visitors came in dozens to look at their first ever contemporary French paintings. He also held regular concerts of chamber music and commissioned Matisse to paint a large canvas on the theme of music as a companion piece to The Dance. Both The Dance and The Music now hang in the Hermitage.

In their political leanings, Shchukin and Morozov were in many ways part of the Russian intellectual avant-garde and, not surprisingly, didn't at first feel threatened by the 1917 February Revolution. But after the Bolshevik takeover in October, Morozov's palace was occupied by anarchists, followers of Prince Kropotkin who had returned to Russia in the wake of the Revolution, who made themselves thoroughly at home, drinking and gambling, 'surrounded by infatuated nymphs', but mercifully did not harm the pictures. The Red Army was eventually called in to evict the anarchists.

Lenin disliked modern painting, but was quick to recognise that these two collections were national assets. In 1918, they were officially confiscated - or 'nationalised' - in a decree signed by Lenin himself. The paintings were left in the palaces, re-named the 1st and 2nd Museums of Modern Western Art, and in a final irony Shchukin and Morozov were themselves appointed curators and guides. Now living with his grown-up children in the servants' quarters, Shchukin did his best to welcome busload after busload of unappreciative visitors sent by the Commission for Education and Enlightenment but, a few months later, both he and Morozov fled the country. Morozov settled in Germany where he died at the age of 50 in 1921. Shchukin became part of the white Russian emigre community in Paris and died in 1936.

And what happened to the paintings? In the early years, there was a stream of visitors to the two museums, and attempts were made to gain world recognition for the importance of the Russian collection. In the mid-1920s, the collections were even extended by purchases of more recent work, designed to show the further development of revolutionary art, and in 1927/28 the two collections were amalgamated and put under one roof. During the 1930s, however, some of the pictures were relocated - to the Leningrad Hermitage and to the Pushkin Fine Art Museum in Moscow and by the outbreak of war in 1939, the paintings had ceased to be identifiable collections. Moreover, most of them had come to be classified as degenerate. Their collectors' names were no longer mentioned.

The war provided an opportunity to pack the pictures into crates, where they remained for some years afterwards. In 1948 the Museum of Modern Western Art was abolished and the remaining paintings were divided between the Hermitage and the Pushkin - the decision as to what went where dependent not on art historical considerations but on the size of the pictures and the hanging space available. Morozov's and Shchukin's collections had the final vestiges of unity and coherence removed from them. Even then they were not put on view to the public but could only be seen by special appointment.

It was only after Stalin's death in 1953 that the pictures gradually began to reappear. But even now the paintings bear no creditation to their original owners. It would, of course, be untrue to say 'donated by . . .' and one cannot expect anyone to put 'expropriated from . . .' But 'from the collection of S Shchukin (or I Morozov)' would do something to restore credit to these two outstanding patrons of the arts.