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From Russia with Art: The Morozov Collection Comes to Paris

On September 22, Fondation Louis Vuitton reopened to the public with what promises to be another blockbuster exhibition, “The Morozov Collection. Icons of Modern Art.” The LVMH group has a privileged relationship with Russia and its storied museums, as this show is the sequel to another Russian show, “Icons of Modern Art, the Shchukin Collection.” Big shoes to fill indeed, considering that one had attracted 1.2 million visitors in 2017.
Still life by Matisse (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong At the origin of the Morozov collection are two brothers, Mikhail and Ivan. Behind them, a fortune amassed in textiles, in the short span of four generations, starting in the 1820s, when their great-grandfather invests his wife’s meager dowry of 5 rubles into a ribbon business. It takes him just a few years to make enough money to buy his freedom back (he was still a serf) and turn his small business into a flourishing textile empire.
The first Picasso to enter Russia (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong By the time Mikhail and Ivan are born, the family has become extremely wealthy. Their mother, Varvara, hosts a fashionable literary salon and is a patron of the arts. Under the guidance of Russian painter Korovin, Mikhail travels to France and discovers the subversive artists that are wreaking havoc in Paris: Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh. The first paintings by these masters come to Russia as part of Mikhail’s nascent collection. It will inspire a new generation of Russian painters, some of which are included in the show alongside the French geniuses.
The Prison Courtayrd by Van Gogh (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong Sadly, Mikhail dies suddenly at 33, but the collecting baton is picked up with panache by his younger brother Ivan. A trained painter himself, he chooses pieces with the gaze of an artist, and amasses a vast collection composed of 430 pieces from the Russian avant-garde, along 230 by French artists. It is another series of firsts: Cézanne, Gauguin and Picasso join the burgeoning selection, and the Morozov mansion becomes the center of the artistic movement in Moscow.

On September 22, Fondation Louis Vuitton reopened to the public with what promises to be another blockbuster exhibition, “The Morozov Collection. Icons of Modern Art.”

The LVMH group has a privileged relationship with Russia and its storied museums, as this show is the sequel to another Russian show, “Icons of Modern Art, the Shchukin Collection.” Big shoes to fill indeed, considering that one had attracted 1.2 million visitors in 2017.

Still life by Matisse (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

At the origin of the Morozov collection are two brothers, Mikhail and Ivan. Behind them, a fortune amassed in textiles, in the short span of four generations, starting in the 1820s, when their great-grandfather invests his wife’s meager dowry of 5 rubles into a ribbon business. It takes him just a few years to make enough money to buy his freedom back (he was still a serf) and turn his small business into a flourishing textile empire.

The first Picasso to enter Russia (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

By the time Mikhail and Ivan are born, the family has become extremely wealthy. Their mother, Varvara, hosts a fashionable literary salon and is a patron of the arts. Under the guidance of Russian painter Korovin, Mikhail travels to France and discovers the subversive artists that are wreaking havoc in Paris: Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh. The first paintings by these masters come to Russia as part of Mikhail’s nascent collection. It will inspire a new generation of Russian painters, some of which are included in the show alongside the French geniuses.

The Prison Courtayrd by Van Gogh (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

Sadly, Mikhail dies suddenly at 33, but the collecting baton is picked up with panache by his younger brother Ivan. A trained painter himself, he chooses pieces with the gaze of an artist, and amasses a vast collection composed of 430 pieces from the Russian avant-garde, along 230 by French artists. It is another series of firsts: Cézanne, Gauguin and Picasso join the burgeoning selection, and the Morozov mansion becomes the center of the artistic movement in Moscow.

The Smoker by Cezanne (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

The show includes large black-and-white photographs of the Morozov home. There is hardly any space left on the walls, with so many masterpieces vying for the spotlight. That makes turning the palace into a museum a pretty straightforward affair when the collection is nationalized after the Russian Revolution. By then, Ivan has fled Russia, never to return, dying in exile in 1921.

Lilacs by Mikhail Vrubel (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

The destiny of the collection follows the upheavals of Russian politics, very much like the one amassed by Sergei Shchukin. And, like Schchukin’s, it is presented for the first time outside Russia in its entirety at Fondation LV.

A panel by Maurice Denis and a sculpture by Aristide Maillol, from the Morozov music room (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

While it might seem unfair to compare the two shows, the link between the two is put forward by the museum itself, in the very title of the current exhibition, which echoes the one chosen in 2016 for the Shchukin show. And, while the masterpieces feel like a who’s who of the French avant-garde of the turn of the 19th century, sometimes I miss the audacity displayed by Shchukin: In the Morozov collection, beauty is everywhere, but the works feel to me like they were chosen by the brothers for their aesthetic qualities more than for their innovative pictorial language.

Still life with The Dance by Matisse (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

Nevertheless, it is a show worth seeing: Because some of the works, like the gigantic panels by Maurice Denis, originally painted for Ivan Morozov’s music room, have left Russia for the last time; Because it is testament to the success of a family built on hard work; Finally, because it represents another win for Bernard Arnault, who has managed to bring not one but two extraordinary exhibitions to the Fondation LV in Paris. I wonder if the fact that both the Shchukin and the Morozov fortunes were built on textiles, the ancestor of today’s LVMH fashion empire, played a part in his commitment.

‘The Morozov Collection. Icons of Modern Art’ is on at Fondation Louis Vuitton (8 avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, 75116 Paris) until February 22nd, 2022.

Mikhail and Ivan Morozov (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

Lead photo credit : The Morozov Collection at Fondation LV (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

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