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THE CZARS OF RUSSIAN ART : Soviet Tycoons' Collections on Display at County Museum

July 13, 1986|SUZANNE MUCHNIC

One of the supreme ironies of the art world is that the nation most hostile to modern art owns so much of the best of it, as the County Museum of Art's current blockbuster, "Impressionist to Early Modern Paintings From the U.S.S.R.," reminds us.

Why does a country whose official taste runs to bronze busts of Lenin and paintings of heroic workers have such a fabulous collection of Western modern art? A great cache of Russian Avant-Garde work languishes in Soviet cellars because it was made in Russia and bottled up by a repressive government. But what about all those shimmering Impressionist landscapes, Fauvist scenes and Cubist still lifes painted in France by the likes of Monet, Matisse, Cezanne and Picasso?

The answer lies in a highly improbable story about a pair of Russian merchants. Not czars, mind you, nor even minor aristocrats, but plain old, filthy rich businessmen who bought the best examples of the most radical art of their time and took it home to a country whose citizenry hated the stuff.

Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin (1854-1936) and Ivan Abramovich Morosov (1871-1921), both Moscow textile merchants, are double-handedly responsible for the Soviet Union's unequalled riches in French Impressionist and early Modern French painting done before 1914. Before World War I and the October Revolution put a terminal squeeze on their acquisitive mania, the two industrial tycoons made regular train trips to Paris, returning with paintings that scandalized their friends and business associates but fascinated Russia's most adventurous artists and left a permanent stamp on their work.

By any account, Shchukin and Morosov were an unlikely pair with impeccable timing. Though they were buying provocative French art at about the same time as Gertrude and Leo Stein, the Russians had far greater resources and little competition--least of all from the French. Writing about Matisse in La Chronique des Arts in 1910, J.F. Schnerb said, "We are happy to note that his disciples and active admirers include no one but Russians, Poles and Americans."

Like other Russians of considerable means who became voracious collectors at the turn of the century, Shchukin and Morosov followed an aristocratic lead. Peter the Great had dragged his backward country into contact with Western culture in the 17th Century and Catherine the Great had made collecting art fashionable in the 18th Century while founding the Hermitage. In subsequent years, as the aristocracy became more ineffectual and serfs begat merchant sons who built private empires, the middle class adopted royal habits. Most of the bourgeois accumulations were of little lasting interest, but a few left a legacy that now draws legions of art lovers to Soviet museums.

Morosov and Shchukin--along with Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection of Russian art remains in a separate museum in Moscow)--were among "the Russian Fricks, Carnegies, Harrimans and Rockefellers of their time," according to Beverly Whitney Kean's engrossing study, "All the Empty Palaces: The Merchant Patrons of Modern Art in Pre-Revolutionary Russia" (Universe Books, 1983). Like American counterparts, the Russian industrialists had distinctive personalities that shine through their collections.

Shchukin was by far the more adventurous and flamboyant. Among the first to recognize Picasso and Matisse, he bought 50 Picassos and 37 Matisses, including large commissioned panels of "Dance" and "Music"--two landmark pieces of modern art that now hang in the Hermitage. A frequent visitor to Parisian galleries and artists' studios, he also scooped up 8 Cezannes, 13 Monets, 16 Gauguins, 5 Degases, 6 Renoirs, 7 Rousseaus and 16 Derains.

Fernande Olivier, Picasso's mistress, uncharitably described Shchukin as "a little man with a big head and a rather porcine face. Afflicted with a horrible stuttering, he had the greatest difficulty expressing himself and this embarrassed him and shrank his physical appearance still further." Flattering photographs of Shchukin bear out none of this, though other chroniclers confirm that he had a large head and say that his socks didn't always match.

Small, sickly as a child and afflicted with a speech impediment, Sergei was the least likely of his father's six sons to take over the family textile business, but that's exactly what he did. First kept at home with his five sisters, he bullied himself into being sent away to a boarding school and eventually earned a reputation as a "porcupine" among his business peers. His shrewdest move was to corner the textiles market during an uprising in Moscow in 1905. When the dust settled, he reaped the harvest of sky-high prices.

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