If you want to see the very best of Gauguin and Matisse, go east. That was the case in 1914 and it’s still true today. The reason, then and now, lay in the collecting habits, both discerning and extravagantly acquisitive, of two men: Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. The first of these has already been the subject of a notable book by Natalya Semenova; the present work is its sequel.
Although long since ‘nationalised’, the pictures these two men owned are still among the principal treasures of the Hermitage in St Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. On a visit to Moscow in 1928 Alfred Barr, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York — who was ideally placed to judge — noted that Shchukin had owned more and better pictures by Matisse and Picasso, but Morozov’s collection was richer in Cézanne. On Gauguin, a favourite artist of both men, they tied.
Just why the most outrageous and novel Parisian art appealed so much to these Russian businessmen is an intriguing question. At the time, it was still too much for most French collectors, let alone the general public. But somehow it excited and fascinated this pair of Slavic textiles magnates. The answer perhaps lies partly in their trade.
The avant-garde painters they loved were all in different ways breaking with the naturalistic idiom of 19th-century western European art. Matisse and Gauguin drew on, precisely, the heightened colour and strong patterning of cloth designs. It probably helped that Shchukin and Morozov, both descended from families of conservative ‘old believers’, were steeped in the Russian icon tradition with its strong reds, acid greens and concertinaed space. Fauvism and Cubism would have come as less of a shock to them.
Putting together such agglomerations of masterpieces as Shchukin and Morozov did was evidently an achievement.