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How the Louis Vuitton Foundation and an army of curators persuaded Russia to give the green light to a landmark modern art exhibition

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The Russian brothers Mikhail and Ivan Morozov have made up one of the most important collections of Impressionist and modern art in the world. But their world-famous collection was nationalized in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution and has been forgotten for decades.

Today, for its exhibition “The Morozov collection: icons of modern art”, presented until February 22, the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris has brought together around 200 works of art from the collection, which is now mainly dispersed between the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Petersburg, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The works of Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Bonnard come from the first two museums, the works of Russian artists from the last.

“Bringing together all these pieces from large collections was very complicated and a huge diplomatic undertaking,” Anne Baldassari, curator of the exhibition, told Artnet News. The diplomatic importance was evident during the opening, which was attended by French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian Culture Minister Olga Lioubimova.

Installation view of “The Morozov Collection. Icons of modern art ”, at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris. © Louis Vuitton Foundation / Marc Domage.

The feat of showing the Morozov collection outside of Russia for the first time is a “historic” event, said LVMH chairman and art collector Bernard Arnault. It was carried out in part thanks to the Louis Vuitton Foundation which helped Russian museums to restore works by some of the artists and was involved in the organization of the Morozov exhibition at the Hermitage in 2019.

This is the second exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton designed by Frank Gehry that Baldassari has organized on major Moscow collectors – the first was dedicated to Sergei Shchukin in 2016 and 2017. “[Had their collections not been seized during the Bolshevik revolution] Shchukin and Ivan Morozov came up with the idea of ​​bringing their collections together to create a large museum, which would have been the most extraordinary French art museum in the world, ”said Baldassari.

The history of the Morozov collection is a family saga. Mikhail and Ivan Morozov, born in 1870 and 1871 respectively, were the great-grandsons of a serf. With five rubles from his wife’s dowry, their ancestor set up a ribbon workshop, which became a factory, and bought his family’s freedom. In a few generations, the family – who were old believers (opposed to reforming the Russian Orthodox Church) – became wealthy industrial philanthropists. The first room of the exhibition presents paintings of their circle made by the main Russian artists of that time, such as Mikhail Vroubel and Valentin Serov.

Auguste Renoir, Portrait of the actress Jeanne Samary, Paris (1877). Coll.  Ivan Morozov, November 26, 1904. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow / Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Auguste Renoir, Portrait of the actress Jeanne Samary, Paris (1877). Coll. Ivan Morozov, November 26, 1904. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow / Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

At the turn of the last century in Russia, high society spoke French and the Morozov brothers were building their formidable collection on the advice of Parisian merchants such as Paul Durand-Ruel and Ambroise Vollard. Mikhaïl, who died prematurely at the age of 33, discovered Bonnard’s work in Paris and acquired Gauguin’s first paintings to enter Russia. His brother then commissioned Bonnard to decorate the main staircase of his mansion. Ivan Morozov adored Cézanne’s work – indeed, having tried his hand at landscape painting in their youth, the brothers felt close to the landscape genre – and acquired 18 works from him.

The black and white photographs exhibited at the Louis Vuitton Foundation give an idea of ​​the splendor of Ivan Morozov’s mansion and its painting galleries. Some were taken by Maurice Denis, commissioned by Ivan Morozov to paint large panels on the story of Psyche for his music room, which has been reconstructed in the exhibition.

After the nationalization of the Morozov Collection in 1918, Ivan Morozov fled to Finland and died in Karlsbad, Germany, at the age of 49. The collection will be part of the Museum of Western Modern Art, which Stalin ordered to close in 1948, dispersing its contents between the Pushkin and the Hermitage. The Soviet state sold several works for economic reasons, including that of Van Gogh Night Cafe (now in the collection of Yale University) and Cézanne’s portrait of Madame Cézanne (now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York). But things could have been worse. “Stalin hated [Western] art and could have requested its destruction, ”Baldassari said of the danger posed to the collection.

The curator began his research on the Morozovs by traveling to Russia and studying the archives in 2014. Several works, including a painting by Gauguin, which had “suffered in storage” have been restored with the support of French know-how. and high-tech equipment. Others will require more elaborate restoration techniques so as not to risk damaging them. “Some of Van Gogh’s wonderful works could not come, like the only painting that Van Gogh sold during his lifetime, Red vineyard in Arles“Baldassari said.” Ivan Morozov bought it from a young Belgian artist who bought it from Van Gogh. “

Vincent Van Gogh, The prison courtyard, Saint-Rémy (1890).  Coll.  Ivan Morozov, October 23, 1909 Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow / Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

Vincent Van Gogh, The prison yard, Saint-Rémy (1890). Coll. Ivan Morozov, October 23, 1909. Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow / Pushkin National Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

However, Van Gogh The prison yard (1890), which he carried out at the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, arrived in Paris. The artist’s brother Theo had sent him a photograph of Gustave Doré’s drawing of a London prison yard which Van Gogh reinterpreted in a painting in mostly greenish-blue hues, the conditions of the prisoners echoing his own confinement.

Other highlights include Matisse Moroccan triptych (1912-1913) in rich blues, including a view from a window, a portrait of a young girl and an entrance to the Kasbah; the lush paintings of Gauguin of Tahiti; Picasso’s cubist portrait of Vollard, the face dissolving into geometric shapes; Monet’s hazy portrayal of Waterloo Bridge and the Morozov brothers’ striking portraits of Serov. What is also fascinating is how a group of avant-garde Russian artists, the Cezannists, were ardent followers of Cezanne.

Lifting the veil on this chapter in Russian history “is just the beginning,” says Baldassari. “Now we have to get back to the [Russian] avant-garde; there are many points that remain unclear and more research needs to be done in Russian museums. What we did on the Shchukin and Morozov collections is like lifting a huge block; maybe now more things can come out.

The Morozov collection: icons of modern art»Is visible at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris, until February 22, 2022.

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