(Bloomberg) -- In 2016, Bernard Arnault, the billionaire chairman of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE, traveled with his adviser Jean-Paul Claverie to Moscow to personally thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for loaning art to Arnault’s Paris museum, the Fondation Louis Vuitton.
“Because it’s a gift to France,” says Claverie, speaking in his book-strewn office at LVMH’s Paris offices. “Not just to France, to Europe and our world.”
It wasn’t just any art that Putin had allowed to leave the country. It was a profusion of masterpieces by Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Cézanne, and others, totaling 130 artworks, all of which had been assembled by the industrialist Sergei Shchukin at the turn of the 20th century.
But Claverie and Arnault weren’t just there to thank Putin. They also came with a request.
“We said, ‘Mr. President, thank you for the Shchukin collection, we have it in Paris now. You have another collection. If you make up your mind right now, if you say yes, we will make another exhibition,’” Claverie recalls.
The collection in question was assembled by Ivan Morozov and his brother Mikhail, two wealthy Russian textile merchants who, like Shchukin, collected hundreds of impressionist and modern works of art at the turn of the 20th century. Like the Shchukin collection, most of the Morozov brothers’ artworks were nationalized after the 1917 revolution, then absorbed primarily into the collections of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
Putin, in Claverie’s telling, briefly considered the request, “and then said, ‘Jean-Paul? Yes.’”
Overjoyed, Claverie got on the phone with his counterparts at the Russian museums. “I said, ‘Your president has decided to let us bring the Morozov collection to Paris, so now we have to start working on it.’”
Now, after four years and one pandemic, the collection will finally open to visitors starting on Sept. 22 through Feb. 22, 2022.
What It Took
A lot had to be accomplished in the interim. Because many of the artworks were in bad condition—they’d undergone decades of neglect under Stalin—the only way Shchukin’s collection could leave Russia was by first establishing a conservation/restoration lab at the Pushkin Museum, for which LVMH paid an undisclosed sum.
The Morozov works got the same treatment. “Without this collaboration and huge program of restoration, it was impossible to organize the exhibition,” Claverie says, given the works were too fragile to be shipped out of the country. LVMH also paid to create museum-quality security glass, which was clear enough to see the paintings but light-safe enough to protect the art, that fit into the artworks’ frames.
When pressed further, Claverie declines to discuss how much all of these efforts cost. “I never mention figures,” he says. “We spend our life in this company talking about stocks and income. When we bought Tiffany, everyone knew how much we paid. So let us just dream, without any figures, in the artistic field.”
Still, he’s willing to acknowledge that “it’s obvious that it cost a lot because of insurance and shipping and restoration.” (The cost, certainly, ran into the millions of euros.)
But, he concludes, “for us, what is important is the attendance numbers. For Shchukin we had 1.3 million visitors, that’s enormous. And we hope, despite the pandemic, that we will reach the same level with the Morozov exhibition. We will see.”
Given the scope, breadth, and quality of the 200 works on offer, Claverie shouldn’t be too worried.
The collection is spread across every floor of the foundation’s Frank Gehry-designed building, with rooms organized thematically. Starting on the museum’s bottom floor is a room dedicated to paintings the Morozovs owned of their family and friends. Included is Valentin Serov’s striking 1901 portrait of Mikhail’s son Mika, which normally hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery.
That same floor includes a room devoted to a massive triptych that Ivan commissioned from Pierre Bonnard in 1911, The Mediterranean, which he then installed as a kind of trompe l’oeil vista behind three columns, overlooking his Moscow mansion’s staircase. The bright, breezy paintings are more than 13 feet high, and depict a park in St-Tropez. In many respects they could be considered a template for the paintings Ivan collected: The colors are vivid— almost neon, really—and the subject matter is whimsical, easy, and fun.
The next room, devoted to landscapes, is a continuation of the theme. Among the more than 20 paintings are two very large oils by Monet (each more than 6 feet across). Painted in Montgeron, a suburb of Paris, in 1876, both images are of an almost absurdly high quality, atmospheric and shimmering with heavily layered brushstrokes.
The exhibition only gets better as the floors progress. There’s a room with superb Cézanne landscapes; another is devoted mostly to Gauguin. There’s an otherworldly Picasso from 1905, Acrobat With a Ball, which is stylistically similar and painted nearly contemporaneously with his Boy Leading a Horse (1905-1906), one of the jewels of the MoMA’s collection in New York.
The show’s curator, Anne Baldassari, has wisely given the collection’s best paintings space to breathe.
Van Gogh’s extraordinary The Prison Courtyard from 1890, for instance, is in a temple-like room of its own. Painted while the artist was in the psychiatric asylum of St-Rémy-de-Provence, the image is based off a drawing he found of prisoners in England’s notorious Newgate prison. The corollaries between Van Gogh’s self-imposed incarceration and the English prisoners is almost too obvious to mention, but the claustrophobia of the image, combined with Van Gogh’s signature kinetic brushstrokes, will be a marked contrast to the artist’s better-known sunny landscapes and Starry Night.
One Time Only
When the five-month exhibition is over, the artworks will return to their respective museums in Russia.
As arduous as the show was to assemble—“such a project looks impossible at the beginning,” Claverie says—it will be doubly so, once the exhibition closes, to ever see the collection as a whole again.
“This is an historic exhibition,” says Claverie. “Not just for the history of the art, but also for the public.”
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