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PRELIMINARY--BUT BRIGHT--PROSPECTS FOR A GREAT SHOW : Cultural Pact Could Yield Gains in U.S. Exhibit of Soviet-Owned Art

January 02, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

The word PRELIMINARY is stamped in big block letters on a paper listing Soviet-owned paintings to be sent to America this spring in the first exchange arranged under the Geneva summit cultural pact. Preliminary it is, and the label seems both a threat and a promise. Until the roster is definite, on Jan. 10, there's cause for both dread and anticipation.

The final days of negotiation shroud the possibility for important gains and losses in the U.S. exhibition. Working with the proposed list of 40 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, museum officials could produce a show that's both a diplomatic coup and an illuminating, historically sound presentation. They also could content themselves with a disorganized crowd-pleaser or do real damage by substituting major works for minor ones.

In short, we could get an exhibition worthy of being billed the greatest U.S.-Soviet exchange of paintings ever, as Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, already has called it. Or we could get a load of nice stuff that doesn't make much sense as an exhibition but makes everyone feel good.

Either way, we'll be delighted that the Soviet-owned art is visiting Los Angeles, but there's an opportunity here that should be taken seriously.

As it stands, the tentative list of 40 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings is impressive mainly because Soviet loans are so rare and this one promises works by major players: Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Pierre-Auguste Renoir--their names are like lights on the marquee of art's turn-of-the-century move to modernism. They are household words, certain to set box-office records even if the works exhibited hadn't been confined to Soviet museums for several decades.

Beyond the index of names, however, lies a mixed bag of artworks. The proposed lineup has deep pockets of historical strength and stunning aesthetic triumphs that ought not to be lost in negotiations, but it also has glaring weaknesses that could be corrected for better balance and improved quality. Lacking a logical organizational structure, the projected show is a peculiarly weighted assembly. A couple of artists are granted minisurveys of eight or nine works illuminating their aesthetic development; others get only mini-slices.

Some of the faults merely echo gaps in Soviet collections. Others may reflect the fragility of the art or an understandable reluctance to strip museum walls of works that tourists expect to see there. Still other selections just seem odd, considering the wealth of art at the Hermitage and the Pushkin. (This particular group of work was chosen for the exchange because it was already packaged as an exhibition that formerly traveled to Lugano, Switzerland. Why it was originally organized as a unit is less obvious.)

The impending exchange has enormous significance for art lovers because travel to the Soviet Union is so cumbersome that relatively few Americans attempt it. While the Soviet Union traditionally has been hostile to modern art--sometimes housing it in galleries that are perpetually "closed for renovation" or squirreling it away in shabby, out-of-the-way quarters of the otherwise sumptuous Hermitage--the country has an astonishing collection of late 19th- and early 20th-Century material (not to mention a spectacular plenitude of works from earlier periods). It came to rest in state museums after the revolution when private collections were institutionalized.

The two collectors responsible for amassing most of the art expected to arrive in the U.S. exhibition are Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, who used their eyes and opened their pocketbooks at about the same time as Gertrude Stein's family. Morozov bought 135 paintings by Van Gogh, Matisse, Monet, Renoir (and others not in the coming show). Shchukin, who collected widely among the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, became Matisse's greatest patron. He bought 37 Matisses and even more Picassos.

Other countries have good, even great collections of the seven artists in the proposed U.S. exhibition, but they do not necessarily have all the prime examples. We can see a boggling array of Van Goghs in Amsterdam, for example, and Picasso's work occupies entire museums in Paris, Antibes and Barcelona. Still, if you've seen one or even 100 paintings by artists of this stature, you haven't seen them all; those in the Soviet Union are necessary for the full picture. In the case of Matisse and Gauguin, it's not just desirable to see their Soviet-owned paintings, it's a requisite for anyone who really wants to study their oeuvre.

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