Letter: Russia's embarrassment at its collection of 'lost' French art treasures

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The Independent Online
Sir: You may be interested in a few more details about the post-Revolution handling of the French pictures in Moscow ('The secret of the lost paintings,' 3 April).

When I first went to Moscow in 1934 they were being shown in one of the merchant's houses, re-christened the Museum of Modern Western Art, carrying absurd labels such as 'Bonnard - taste of the petty bourgeoisie', or 'Gauguin - illustrative of colonial imperialism'. It was an extraordinary experience to come out of a cold grey Moscow day into a room papered with South-Sea Gauguins and brightly painted Matisses, radiating colour and warmth.

When the Second World War started they were removed to a place of safety. But when the war ended they did not re-emerge, allegedly because Gerasimov, the president of the Soviet Academy of Art and Stalin's favourite portrait painter, had said that Cezanne, whom he despised, would never be shown in Moscow in his lifetime. Gerasimov was a sort of Soviet Munnings, with the power, luckily denied to Munnings, to decide what could or could not be shown publicly.

The pictures had still not reappeared when I returned to Moscow in 1953. But one day the director of the Pushkin Museum invited me to visit his conservation studio. This was a deep, well-like room at the bottom of which the picture under restoration was brilliantly illuminated. But looking up the dark walls above it, I could just make out the familiar outlines of the missing French paintings.

I told my French opposite number, Louis Joxe, of this discovery, and he and I began nagging the Soviet authorities to bring them out. Whether because of this, or because Gerasimov's influence had declined since Stalin's death, a trickle began to emerge, appearing first in the attics of the Hermitage in Leningrad. Their appearance there was not advertised, and the guides did not mention them, or lead you to them, but if you knew where they were, you could find them.

Actually, they should not have been in Leningrad at all. The supposedly sophisticated pre-revolutionary aristocrats in St Petersburg, if they collected French paintings at all, had collected second-rate Salon pictures. It was the allegedly uncultivated Moscow merchants who bought Impressionists, Cubists and Post-Impressionists, and Moscow was where they should have been shown together. But, presumably, the art establishment in the capital was still a little nervous about too prominent a display of this still officially 'decadent' painting.

Yours faithfully,

WILLIAM HAYTER

Stanton St John, Oxfordshire

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