Home / blog / From Russia with love – Masters of modern art from the Hermitage, AGNSW
From Russia with love – Masters of modern art from the Hermitage, AGNSW
Published by: Dr Michael Adcock | Oct 5th, 2018
This October sees the Art Gallery of New South Wales open their new exhibition to the public, Masters of modern art from the Hermitage. With some 65 major works arriving on our shores from the unparalleled collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, this is an extraordinary opportunity to see rare works from the modern masters including Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky. But before the exhibition opens on October 13, Academy Travel tour leader and historian Dr Michael Adcock steps back in time to reveal how the State Hermitage Museum came to accumulate this astonishing collection of modern art…
We are very familiar with one narrative of modern art, namely, the enthusiastic purchasing of art by American millionaires, the resultant exodus of so many major works of modern art from Europe, and the creation of stupendous art galleries such as the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to name just two.
The role of Russian art collectors in late imperial Russia is perhaps less well known, and this exhibition from the Hermitage invites us to come to terms with their enormous significance in the development of modern art. Rich industrialists such as Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov not only followed the successive developments of modern art in Paris and elsewhere, they were on the cutting edge, boldly buying paintings in the new styles well before others could even view or understand them. Moreover, they did not simply hoard their treasures in gated mansions, but turned their homes into centres of discussion for the Russian intelligentsia and the related artistic community. This in turn fostered an extraordinary flourishing of modern art in Russia, which deserves mention in its own right.
Sergei Shchukin (1854–1936) was the son of Ivan, who was an industrialist who owned the textile business I. V. Shchukin and Sons, one of the largest textile manufacturers in Russia. With a fortune of some four million gold roubles, the family avidly collected art.
This exhibition offers us the chance to contemplate, and pay tribute to, a remarkable man whose actions – like those of Paul Durand-Ruel in France, or the Guggenheims in New York – were of seminal importance to the development of modern art. This is all the more impressive because, despite his wealth, he is often judged to be the most unlikely man to take on this bold role of a pioneer of modern art. Art historian (and Academy Travel tour leader) Dr Rosamund Bartlett writes:
“Shchukin’s small stature, unprepossessing physical appearance, and pronounced stammer initially attracted unkind remarks from the Parisian art world, but his unerring critical acumen, coupled with his prodigious buying power, soon brought him the respect of the artists he patronised and their dealers. It was an unlikely outcome for the sickly third son of one of Moscow’s patriarchal merchant dynasties of whom little had been expected. Shchukin’s journey into the heart of the French avant-garde is also testament to the astonishing transformation of Russia’s previously conservative, pious, poorly educated and inward-looking merchant class. It was typical that his father Ivan, who made a fortune in textile manufacturing, came from an Old Believer background, had 10 children, and bought neither books nor paintings; but he loved Italian opera and sent his eldest sons to study business abroad. It was similarly typical that his mother Ekaterina Botkina also came from a tea-trading merchant family, but she and her nine brothers grew up fully integrated into Moscow’s aristocratic and artistic intelligentsia – she taught her children French.”
First, his collection was probably one of the largest private collections in the world. Bartlett estimates:
“Shchukin eventually owned 38 works by Matisse, including ‘Les Poissons rouges’ (1912), and his patronage would have continued had the First World War not intervened. The 225 items listed in the catalogue compiled in 1913 also included 50 paintings by Picasso (Shchukin owned the largest collection of his work anywhere in the world at that time), and several by André Derain, who became his final enthusiasm.”
Second, Shchukin’s vision was absolutely remarkable given that even the French state still regarded the Impressionists as seditious art – the government was at this time busy trying to reject Gustave Caillebotte’s gift of his stupendous collection of French art, relinquishing masterpieces that today would be worth untold millions of dollars – while public opinion in Russia was even more conservative, and regarded the works of modern French art as pictorial lunacy. Bartlett explains:
“[The] Petersburg and Moscow public was shocked by the handful of their canvases included in an 1896 exhibition of French art held to celebrate the Franco-Russian Alliance. Shchukin, a man of great sangfroid, quickly developed a reputation in Moscow for his audacious collecting, which often demanded considerable personal courage on his part. In 1903, he graduated from Monet and Degas to the post-Impressionists, and started buying Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Not content with hanging such scandalous paintings in his home, he was keen to show them off to visitors, supremely confident of their artistic worth; he relished the furious indignation and ridicule they provoked from his more conservative dinner guests. An unquenchable thirst for the new was something he shared with his younger contemporary, the sophisticated aesthete Sergei Diaghilev, who was based in the more cosmopolitan world of St Petersburg. Between 1898 and 1904 Diaghilev published The World of Art, the first international modernist journal in Russia, and then started working in the opposite direction to Shchukin by exporting avant-garde Russian culture to Paris through the reinvention of ballet.” 
Thus the interaction of Russian art with European progressive art was two-way. We are perhaps more familiar with Diaghilev (whose Ballets Russes never actually performed in Russia) through a strong Australian connection: by a stroke of sheer luck in purchasing, the National Gallery of Australia has acquired a superb set of Ballets Russes costumes, which have been regularly exhibited in Canberra, providing another compelling view of the creativity and innovation unleashed by this lambent interaction of Russian and French talents.
While the details of Shchukin’s wealth and influence in tsarist Russia are well known, there is still some mystery about his experiences after the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.
It is not that all Russian industrialists were, in the opening decade of the 20th century, at all trenchantly opposed to the idea of political reform, such as that of keeping the tsar but establishing a constitutional monarchy with a parliament, like that of England. The new breed of industrialists who had emerged during Minister Witte’s program of government-sponsored industrialization late in the century were progressive thinkers who, like so many other educated Russians, despaired at the primitive state of Russia – village life was the same as it had been in the 15th century – and who urged both westernization and modernization. Indeed, foremost amongst these were the sub-group of Jewish industrialists, such as Morosov, who had pan-European connections and hence wider perspectives, and who were particularly vocal in urging modernization.
Not surprisingly, the official history of the Russian Revolution, The History of the Communist Party (Short Course), with its ideological emphasis on Lenin, the Bolsheviks and the fictive mass of proletarians who supported them, is not going to be interested in the fact that middle-class people, including the hated capitalists, might actually have contributed to reformist thought in Russia. (The true mass party was of course, the Socialist Revolutionaries, who had won the support of many of Russia’s 90 million peasants. When this uncomfortable fact was pointed out to Lenin, he spat out that ‘no revolution ever waits for formal majorities.’)
Many of these industrialists would, therefore, have welcomed the first step to reform in October 1905, when Nicholas II grudgingly granted a Duma (parliament), albeit one so heavily stacked and nobbled that it was almost a puppet-show of democracy. Nonetheless, in this setting, a group of middle-class politicians did form the nucleus of the Progressive Bloc, and it was actually they who engineered the abdication of the Tsar late in February 1917. The same group also offered Nicholas a deal that could have saved his regime and his own life: seeing that the disasters of World War I were fomenting revolution at home, they offered to form a mighty consortium of every professional organization and factory in Russia to make a supreme effort to win the war, on the condition that Nicholas grant a genuine parliamentary system. Nicholas refused, and his story would later end in a murderous hail of bullets at Ekaterinaburg in 1918. (Most tragically, his innocent daughters of the doomed family were the last to die: the tsarina had stitched the family jewels into their bodices for safe-keeping; when the Bolshevik guards opened fire, they were puzzled to see their bullets bouncing off the clothing of the girls, deflected by the jewels hidden within.)
While official Soviet history would again emphasise the crowds of heroic proletarians active in February 1917, it is absolutely contradicted by contemporary accounts and photographs, which clearly show that February was a revolution of all classes, and that well-dressed middle-class ladies and students from Russia’s new universities jostled with the workers, such as working women from the textile factories in the radical Vyborg District. But the story of any aristocratic or middle-class Russian from 1917 onwards is always under a chill shadow, because the Communist government established by Lenin first nationalized the property of the wealthy, and later proceeded to prejudicial treatment of allegedly useless parasites, such as industrialists, doctors and lawyers, as depicted in Leonard Pasternak’s fictional depiction of this period, Doctor Zhivago. During the subsequent rationing of War Communism (1918-1920), the former propertied classes (often referred to, in fact, as ‘former people’) virtually starved to death, or had to become ‘proletarianised’. Only the lucky ones escaped Russia in time.
In the case of individuals like Shchukin, one holds one’s breath to see his date of death: any date between 1918 and 1921 might suggest that a person had not been able to escape Russia in time, and might have suffered terribly as a result. Mercifully, Shchukin’s dates indicate that he did survive; he died in 1936. His collection, however, did not remain in his possession, but did survive to become a collection for ordinary people to see.
How and when did Shchukin engineer his escape? It appears that the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 did not immediately alarm him, because he did not quit Russia at this point, possibly because he was reassured by the raft of genuinely liberal legislation passed by the Bolsheviks in October-December 1917, before the astringencies of civil war and foreign encirclement forced them to adopt a harsher stance. For example, the Bolsheviks decreed equal rights for all nationalities and religions in their empire. It is fascinating that Shchukin’s decision to flee dates to August 1918, a point at which the Civil War was well under way and when the regime was adopting more forceful measures. Since the Bolsheviks had sealed the borders, Shchukin must surely have used his wealth, his influence and his ingenuity to escape the country.
Historian Rosamund Bartlett takes up the story at this point:
“Just before the outbreak of war, Shchukin had married for the second time, and in August 1918 he left Bolshevik Russia in secret, eventually settling with his wife and their young daughter in Paris, having bid farewell to both his business and his paintings. A few months later his collection was nationalised, and it opened to the public as the State Museum for New Western Painting No. 1 in May 1920. Two years later it was merged with the State Museum for New Western Painting No. 2, becoming known as the State Museum of New Western Art, which comprised the much larger collection put together between 1903 and 1914 by Shchukin’s fellow merchant patron Ivan Morozov, and that of Morozov’s deceased elder brother Mikhail. In 1928, Shchukin’s paintings were physically moved out of the old Trubetskoy Palace, with some even being transferred to the Hermitage in Leningrad in the early 1930s. By the time Shchukin died in 1936, as an emigré in straitened circumstances, unable and unwilling to continue his vocation as a major collector of new art, his name had virtually disappeared in Russia. In the harsh anti-cosmopolitan climate inaugurated by Stalin at the conclusion of the Second World War, it became dangerous even to mention Shchukin’s name. The State Museum of New Western Art never reopened, and the Shchukin and Morozov collections were divided by curators anxious to prevent their destruction, with the more avant-garde works going to the Hermitage and the rest allocated to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It was only after Stalin’s death that some of the paintings began to be displayed again, but their provenance remained a tightly-kept secret until the era of perestroika and glasnost.”
Look out for Michael’s in-depth review of the exhibition to be published in the coming weeks. He is particularly excited to see Paul Gauguin’s The Month of Mary, 1899, (pictured, top) which is the only Gauguin in the exhibition primarily due to the fact that most of his works were painted on very cheap, coarse fabrics, and are so fragile that they can no longer travel. In a delightful irony, Gauguin himself did have a brief but direct connection with Sydney. He stopped over here in both 1891 and 1895 on his way to Tahiti, and would at least have seen Circular Quay, if not more of the city and possibly the Art Gallery of NSW.
The Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition is open from October 13, 2018, to March 3, 2019, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Single tickets are at a cost of $28 adult, $24 concession and $20 member. More details on the exhibition are available at https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/hermitage/
References used in this article:
 For further information regarding Durand-Ruel as ‘the father of Impressionism’, see the recent catalogue, Paul Durand-Ruel. The Gamble of Impressionism (Paris: Luxembourg Museum, 2015).
Dr Michael Adcock is social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.