The Shchukin Collection at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris has been extended to 5th March 2017.
This unmissable show is likely to be the highlight of this year and possibly of the decade. The flamboyant kite-like superstructure in Frank Gehry’s signature style apart, the main galleries display beautifully the visionary taste and judgement of this extraordinary Russian collector. What monstrosities may we expect when this show closes? Gerhard Richter? Cy Twombly? Bill Viola? Ai Wei Wei? God help us! So let us rejoice while we can that there once was a man of superlative judgement to take the true temperature of his times, a time before the psychopathology of art globalisation. This is an exhibition that normally would have gone to the Met. or the National Gallery. How many handbag sales have gone into this colossally expensive enterprise on the fringes of the Bois De Boulogne?
The first arresting picture is the little self-portrait by Gauguin on very coarse grained burlap, which holds its own beside a Cezanne self portrait. Due to the prominence of the tooth of the burlap Gauguin seems a ghostly eminence part pickled in aspic, but the conviction of his self-image shines out none-the-less, the Gauguin he wants us to believe in, and it is hard not to, despite all that we know of the reality.
Next is the marvellous small version of Monet’s Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, the complete image of the much bigger original cut down fragment in the Musee D’Orsay. How startlingly fresh and unprecedentedly bold and direct is the firmness of the young Monet’s touch in delineating and placing of each element, dresses, clothing, tree-trunks, foliage, picnic, patches of light on the tablecloth, the dappling of light throughout, learning from Manet but at the same time surpassing him.
This is what was so apparent in the confrontations afforded here, however many times one may have seen some of these pictures in different contexts and settings; how solidly and succulently Monet, and Matisse (although justly lauded for the delicacy of his brushwork), apply their paint in the service of responding to the light-filled sensuousness of lived experience, besides which so many of the most vaunted masterpieces of modernism look like museum-bound pictures, already half tainted by art-out-of art fustiness, and a dingy minimalising of the full lustre of the sensory world. How over-rated in the end is cubism for instance, by which I mean the analytical cubism of Braque and Picasso, in comparison with the larger world of Matisse, and how uncomfortably slight are so many of Picasso’s early paintings, of the Blue and Pink periods, for instance, in comparison both with his models, Gauguin and Lautrec, and with Matisse over the same period, even allowing for the difference in their ages.
In my talk on the key paintings of the 20th century I said that it took ten years for Matisse to surpass the Demoiselles D’Avignon, with The Moroccans and Bathers by a River. But here is The Pink Studio of 1911, which already is a larger world, a larger conception of pictorial space, and a larger vision of the kinds of sensation that can be embraced in paint, and that painting can offer. It may seem perverse to describe Picasso’s world as smaller, in view of his profligacy and many-sidedness, but when it comes to pictorial architecture in which everything counts and nothing is superfluous or de trop, where “what to eliminate, what to amplify” is prime, I stand by this judgement. The picture is much bigger than one is led to expect, (71″ x 87″), looks even bigger, and it extrovertedly opens out to meet the space in front of it, despite the drawback of being heavily and unsuitably framed and under museum glass, in a way that Picasso never does. However inventive Picasso is in his greatest period, the proto-cubist years 1906-1908, and however powerfully plastic the representation of volumetric form in The Dryad (Nude in the Forest), which looms out hazardously, or Three Women, or the powerful presence of Woman with a Fan, 1908, (the first pre-cubist version), the figures seem to be enclosed in a veil of subterranean light, the light of a self-consciously murky gravitas. “Hermetic” is the correct word for the phase of analytical cubism represented here by Violin and Guitar, 1913. But who wants to live for long in the sensory deprivation of a dank cell.
Matisse’s early picture, The Bois de Boulogne, 1902 (he was then 32), irony of ironies, is indeed an impressive inaugural masterpiece, in dialogue with the Gauguin influenced The Luxembourg Gardens, 1901-02, hung near it. The Bois is highly original, without any obvious parentage, although more Manet than Monet. The colour is not impressionist; it is unique. Matisse as so often sees things afresh, whatever the influences may have been. It’s all “in the paint”, an arabesque of black linear pattern of tree branches and grey-green shading, with a contre-jour filtering of light through the trees, and just enough perspectival drawing to give modelled depth. How far it is from impressionist practices is revealed in the comparison with two superb late Pissarros of L’Avenue de L’Opera and Place Du Theatre, one fore-grounding two horse-drawn charabancs and trees, the other taking a view across the Place, and down the centred Boulevard Des Italiens.
Manet is the obvious precursor for Matisse’s Spanish Woman with Tambourine, 1909, though once again the influence is surpassed in the emboldened and simplified black line drawing which carves out the form of the head, hair and facial features, and on through the rest of the clothing. The paint is amazingly solid and glossy, especially the blacks, and on top of which the delicately shaded pink pattern on the bodice stands out as a master-stroke of improvised paint-wizardry. The whole painting is a meditation on Manet’s spontaneity of attack, which it rivals magnificently. Contrasted with Picasso’s 1909 cubist version of Woman with a Fan, the artful brittleness and clever complications of the Picasso, the play of light and shadow around the enclosure of the head, and on the cheeks, for instance, and the curiously effete twisting of the left hand, begin to reveal an artist more in thrall to artifice and ornamentation than to his former powerful dramatic directness.
The disarming frontality of The Pink Studio,1911, with its broad planes of lilac wall and pink floor, gives way to a more naturalistically naive space than its companions, The Red Studio, 1911, and Interior Still Life with Eggplants 1911-12 Grenoble, which seem to have evolved out of it. But it too contains a multitude of sly cross referencing between various aspects of his production, sculpture, drawing and painting. My guess is that it was in this version that he first saw and set down the possibilities of an interplay between a sculpture standing in for a physical human presence, and its reflection in drawings and paintings which ambiguously chart the fictive stages from object to illusion, or layers of illusion, and which he would then further complicate by introducing mirrors in which the image within is not rationally related to the objects mirrored.
The illusion of depth is created mostly by reducing the scale of the objects and pictures relative to one another, so that we imagine the paintings on the floor and back wall to be progressively further away from the plane of the picture itself.
Of the Cezanne’s, the Man Smoking Pipe (Leaning on a Table) is magnificent, and so too the Lady in Blue, 1900-04, which Matisse must surely have seen, if not on his visit to Shchukin in Russia, then sometime in Paris. But the late, heavily encrusted Mont St. Victoire takes the palm. Here Cezanne surely is creating a conscious chef d’oeuvre to stand through the ages as a monument to his vision and a lifetime of engagement with the mountain… Rock of ages! The lustrous paint seems to be inches thick (though it isn’t), more solid than glaze upon glaze, like some substance transcending paint, evoking mother of pearl or the inner coating of an oyster shell.
Matisse would also have seen the major Gauguins which Shchukin’s superlative eye had selected from his uneven production, and as John Golding has written: “It was Matisse more than any other artist who saw through to its ultimate conclusion the greatest lesson that Gauguin had to teach, that it was possible to be a decorative artist and still remain within the avant-garde, or more strongly and more appositely, that it was possible to be a decorative painter and still to be a high artist, even a revolutionary one”. (New York Review of Books, Jan. 1985).
How different this is from the words that David Sylvester put into the voice of a female friend in introducing Patrick Heron’s Tate retrospective in 1998, not having the courage to say it himself: “‘Decoration’ –I suppose that’s about the most damning thing you could say about a piece of art!” How far off the mark are so many of the celebrated authorities and pundits of modern art in England, then and now!
Matisse would go on to make even further use of the decorative elements in Gauguin’s Gathering Fruit , 1899, and Are You Jealous?, 1892, freeing up and at the same time integrating arabesque pattern and cursive drawing more fully into the plastic shaping of the whole image, as in La Desserte. Harmony in Red 1908-09.
Interesting too to see an alternative version of Matisse’s Interior Quai St. Michel, with Goldfish Bowl 1914, remarkably similar to the one in the Musee D’Orsay.
One would still have to make the trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow to take in the full extent of Matisse’s amazing achievement in the years 1908 to 1912, even before the so-called Radical Years of 1913-1917, but there is enough here to confirm the judgement of so many true painters that he is the greatest painter of the 20th century by some margin.