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Putin and Hollande back Paris show to reunite Modern master collection from Russia

Billionaire Bernard Arnault jumps at chance to present art seized by Lenin from Sergei Shchukin

by Sophia Kishkovsky  |  1 March 2016
Putin and Hollande back Paris show to reunite Modern master collection from Russia
Last year the Fondation Louis Vuitton borrowed Matisse’s The Dance (1909-10) from the Hermitage for its exhibition Keys to a Passion. The Bolsheviks seized 50 Picassos, 38 Matisses, 13 Monets, eight Cézannes and four van Goghs from Shchukin
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The French grandson of the great Russian art collector Sergei Shchukin says that a planned exhibition in Paris reuniting works that originally hung in his grandfather’s Moscow mansion was among the items on the agenda when the French president François Hollande and the Russian president Vladimir Putin met in New York for a session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2014.

The 73-year-old grandson, André-Marc Delocque-Fourcaud, says that securing an agreement for the exhibition, which was announced last month, has been a “fairy tale”. His grandfather was instrumental in supporting Modern artists including Picasso and Matisse. His enormous Modern collection was seized by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and the works have long been divided between the Hermitage in St Petersburg and Pushkin State Museum in Moscow. The Paris show at the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton will be only the second time that the collection has been reunited outside of Russia. The show is organised by the French curator and former director of the Musée Picasso Paris, Anne Baldassari.

“I’m sure [Hollande and Putin] had more important things to discuss, but symbolically and politically it’s very important that this project was on the schedule,” says Delocque-Fourcaud. His hope is that the two heads of state will open the show of around 130 works. Entitled Icons of Modern Art: the Shchukin Collection, Hermitage Museum—Pushkin Museum, it is due to open on 20 October (until 20 February 2017).

The coup for the Vuitton museum comes amid worsening relations between Europe and Russia over the Syrian conflict, a situation that has been compared to a new Cold War.

Why not Paris?

The director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky, first suggested a “big show” of the Shchukin collection in Paris, says Delocque-Fourcaud, who has wanted to see an exhibition celebrating his grandfather’s collection since 2012. But finding a French public museum with the funds to organise such an ambitious exhibition proved impossible. At Baldassari’s suggestion, Delocque-Fourcaud approached Jean-Paul Claverie, the cultural adviser to Bernard Arnault, the billionaire chairman of LVMH, who opened the Fondation Louis Vuitton in 2014. Claverie and Delocque-Fourcaud worked together 25 years ago in the office of Jack Lang, France’s culture minister under François Mitterrand.

Within days, Claverie called back to say that Arnault was “totally enthusiastic”. Within a week, the support of the Fondation Louis Vuitton had been secured. “They said, ‘Your only job is to make the exhibition.’ There are no financial problems because LVMH is a rather rich company, after all.”

Claverie, speaking in Moscow soon after the partnership agreement with the Hermitage and Pushkin museums was signed, said: “We hope that Mr Putin and Mr Hollande will be the first guests, together with Mr Arnault. What is important is that this is an exhibition connecting works from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century in such contemporary architecture.”

Curator’s persistence

After Baldassari was controversially dismissed as the director of the Picasso museum in May 2014, Delocque-Fourcaud seized the opportunity to bring her on board for the Shchukin exhibition. He says that discussions are ongoing about which works will travel to Paris. Some are too fragile to be transported. But thanks to Baldassari’s persistence, the Pushkin has agreed to lend paintings that “have never been seen in Europe”, including, possibly, Picasso’s Old Jew with a Boy (1903).

Delocque-Fourcaud says: “[Anne] doesn’t understand the word ‘no’. She is breaking down the Pushkin’s defences.” Baldassari’s persistence is also responsible for all of the Vuitton museum’s galleries being given over to the exhibition.

Delocque-Fourcaud says that he and his family are happy to work with the Russian museums that now hold his paintings. In the past he has been upset when works were lent to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and London’s Royal Academy of Arts, for example. And although he has donated works to the Pushkin, the family still demands that the Russian government acknowledge that the Bolsheviks’ appropriation of his grandfather’s art was a crime.

“We think that the place for the paintings is in a museum and the country is Russia. The fact that we can’t get any compensation and we are not demanding their return, doesn’t mean that we agree to their illegal confiscation,” he says.

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