Eight Cezannes, nine Gauguins, seven Matisses, three Monets, eight Picassos, three Renoirs, three Van Goghs. Acting as French ambassadors of good will between the world's two superpowers, 41 paintings by French Impressionist and modern masters have arrived at the County Museum of Art as part of a highly publicized art swap with the Soviet Union.
Invited guests will view "Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings from the U.S.S.R." tonight at a gala preview. Exhibition ticket-holders are expected to line up at the entrance on Thursday morning as the show begins its seven-week run (through Aug. 12).
The popularity of French Impressionism and curiosity about the Soviet Union's fabled cache of art treasures has brought public interest to a fever pitch. Museum Director Earl A. Powell reported to his staff on Monday that 152,000 tickets already had been distributed to members and sold to non-members--more than half the 275,000 to 300,000 available.
On June 12, the first morning tickets went on sale to the public, Ticketmaster outlets sold 3,000, according to Pam Leavitt, the museum's press officer.
The museum has a blockbuster on its hands, but it's not the ordinary variety. Instead of shaping up over a period of years, this one fell out of the Geneva summit--with the help of Armand Hammer, head of Occidental Petroleum and a man with a long history of harmonious dealings with Soviet officials.
Hammer announced the exchange in December, sending the staffs of three major American museums into a frenzy of planning to accommodate the show on short notice. The exhibition of paintings from the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in Leningrad would open in May at the National Gallery in Washington, move on to Los Angeles and then to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with only 10 days between each appearance.
In return, the National Gallery would send 40 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works from its collection to the Hermitage in February and "Masterpieces From the Armand Hammer Collection" would tour museums in the Soviet Union.
Though the County Museum of Art is involved in a massive construction project that all but obscures the Wilshire Boulevard complex and creates a logistical nightmare, museum officials managed to make space for the show in the Hammer wing and clear a pathway to it.
When the paintings arrived last week on two separate planes--one with the art from the Pushkin, the other carrying the Hermitage cargo--all was in professional order. Hammer strolled in on a surprise visit while local curators, conservators and installers gathered at the museum to unpack the first shipment, which had arrived in the care of Xenia Egorova, the Pushkin's chief curator of European painting and sculpture.
The paintings, packed in green-painted wooden crates, one or two to a box, had been "acclimatizing" for 24 hours. According to terms of the contract, the artworks had to rest for a day in their crates to adjust to the gallery's temperature and humidity. When the crates were opened, under the supervision of Pieter Meyers, the museum's head of conservation, each painting was carried to a sawhorse table and inspected for damage under strong light.
As Matisse's "Goldfish" and Gauguin's vivid Tahitian scenes emerged from their crates, a sense of elation broke through the professional reserve. The paintings lived up to their advance publicity and everyone was smiling, including Egorova.
Given an opportunity to take credit for the spectacular exhibition, the Soviet curator deferred to Hammer: "It was a very direct process. Dr. Hammer was very, very impressive and energetic about it."
What Hammer chose was essentially a package, an exhibition he saw in 1983 at Villa Favorita, the home and art museum of German industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, in Lugano, Switzerland. Thyssen and his curator had selected pieces for that show, "choosing only the greatest names and representing them by major works of extremely high artistic quality," Egorova said. No cultural agreement existed when Hammer first asked that the Soviets send the show to the United States, but his request was approved in principle. When a cultural pact was signed in Geneva, the plan was put into motion. Except for a few substitutions for paintings that had visited the States earlier, the exhibition is the same as Thyssen's.
Asked if the Impressionists are as popular with the Soviets as with Americans, Egorova said she couldn't generalize about the artistic preferences of a country with so large and diverse a population. In Moscow, however, she said Renoir is a favorite, while Picasso and Matisse take longer to appreciate.
"That part of our public that we call 'the permanent public'--those who visit the museums repeatedly--is very difficult to please," she continued. Yet the exchange exhibitions sent from the Unites States "satisfied them." Though the weather was cold, Soviet citizens waited outside in long lines to see the visiting artworks.