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Critics' summer picks | ART

Pushkin's Paris

May 22, 2003|Christopher Knight

If you're still busy boycotting French fries and any movie ever shown at Cannes, be prepared to miss a highlight of the summer art museum season. Houston's Museum of Fine Arts has inaugurated its planned series of collaborations with Russia's venerable Pushkin Museum and sent its first show on tour: "Old Masters, Impressionists and Moderns: French Masterworks From the State Pushkin Museum, Moscow," on view at LACMA from July 27 through Oct. 13.

When Catherine the Great decided in the mid-1700s to take her tough, superstitious, often backward country and transform it, the refinements of French culture provided a template. One stunning reform: She built up the Imperial art collection from a scant dozen works to nearly 4,000.

Not all the paintings and sculptures were by French artists, but the connection Catherine drew between artistic patronage and national stature was significantly inspired by her advisor and faithful correspondent in Paris, Denis Diderot. Members of the Russian aristocracy would scramble to follow her imperial lead.

The selections from the Pushkin's French paintings start around 1630 with Nicholas Poussin's florid romance, "Rinaldo and Armita," which freezes the moment when a pagan sorceress falls in love with a Christian knight. They continue through one of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' most Raphael-like pictures, "Virgin With Chalice" (1841), commissioned by Czar Alexander II.

But it's the Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern paintings that take center stage. And why not? The American public adores them, the financially strapped Pushkin needs revenue and LACMA periodically employs them to prime its attendance pump.

-- Christopher Knight

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