One of the highlights of my most recent trip to Paris was the Icons of Modern Art exhibition at the Fondation Louis Vuitton that showcased Sergei Shchukin’s collection of paintings. Town & Country magazine called it magisterial because of its size and the importance of the modern art contained within it.
Icons of Modern Art in Paris
Often, when an event is so aggrandized, the experience can be disappointing. This was not the case with this show, which included 130 Impressionist and Modernist masterpieces that happened to be some of the greatest works ever created. Paintings by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh dotted the walls inside the magnificent modernist façade with its swooping glass and steel “sails” envisioned by Frank Gehry.
Each room brought a new sense of wonder that one man had managed to amass such a collection, and I am no stranger to living with fine art of the quality I was seeing—I had simply never seen so much of it owned by the same person! It’s no wonder advisers to some of the world’s wealthiest private collectors were calling the show so staggeringly valuable it’s difficult to conceive, and they are accustomed to tossing around some ridiculously big numbers!
Shchukin was a Moscow textile magnate who frequented the Paris salons beginning in 1890. He was one of Russia’s richest men at the time and he would buy his first of 13 paintings by Claude Monet—Lilac of Argenteuil—just before his 44th birthday. It’s as Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of LVMH says in the video below, experiencing his collection was emotional at times.
I wandered through the rooms enjoying the vibrancy of the colors in some of the works and the moodiness of others, and was glad to be seeing them in the foundation’s spaces because they were large enough to provide breathing space between each one—the pale walls that soared above the framed compositions serving as a relief from the temperamental nature of each painter’s composition.
I saluted Shchukin for having made such an impact on modern art, and not simply because he accumulated so many important works, enabling the world to see them as a collection, but because his patronage of Matisse allowed the painter to continue to work during an important time in his development. No one argues now that his paintings are important cultural artifacts but his compositions were ridiculed during the time Shchukin supported him, some were even defaced.
It struck me as I neared the end of the exhibition that art has a certain alchemy that transforms a room, a miraculous fact given painters whose works I was taking in weren’t considering how their art would look in an interior (beyond the salon they all fretted about so fiercely then)—they were simply involved in the process of creation. My tour of the exhibition also coincided with Maison & Objet and Paris Deco Off, and as I took in the new product releases, it occurred to me that there was a resonance in the hues I was seeing in design and the works of modern art I’d seen.
The emerald greens, coppers, golds, navy blue and purple proliferating at the design shows had parallels in the paintings of Gauguin and the others. Gaugin’s rich oils transformed the medium when he created his Tahitian works, exploding the palettes the Dutch Masters had explored in such dark tones. I saw the tropical lushness of his paintings in fabrics during Deco Off, in furnishings at M&O, and on the walls of the de Gournay showroom, which we featured earlier this year on our Diary.
It’s all of a piece, I think—the modernists breaking new ground, just as manufacturers of home décor do now, and the lushness I’m seeing that seems to reflect a desire so many of us feel to protect the planet. As I was leaving the building, which itself was glowing warmly in the evening light, I thought about how it’s possible to make something from another period that was so revolutionary relate to the rich elements we’re bringing indoors, inspired by the outdoors, by way of some of the world’s most famous compositions. I truly appreciated the genius I’d witnessed within that remarkable building and I salute LVMH for its foresight in sponsoring the exhibition.
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