Masterpieces leave Russia for first time in 100 years

By the time Russian industrialist Sergei Shchukin's palace and fortune were seized by the Bolsheviks, his collection of 278 artworks by the likes of Matisse, Degas and Picasso was considered one of the finest in the world.

After the February Revolution, Shchukin emigrated to Paris and, in 1918, Lenin officially absorbed the paintings into the collection of the Russian State. Until his death in 1936, Shchukin was reportedly sanguine about his paintings' fate - he had planned to donate the collection to the public anyway.

The paintings were then hidden away for several decades during Stalin's reign, their very existence deemed "decadent". They gradually reappeared on the walls of the Hermitage and Pushkin museums in the mid-1970s.

How times change.

On Oct 22, in one of the most anticipated exhibitions this year, the Shchukin collection is leaving Russia for the first time in 100 years and travelling to the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, an institution funded entirely by the "decadence" that caused the collection to be seized in the first place.

The Vuitton Foundation has been strengthening its relationship with Russian museums for years.

In its inaugural exhibition last year, several works from the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum were on view. Later that year, it co-sponsored an opera with Russian arts institutions.

In reciprocation for the Shchukin exhibition, the foundation has promised a "return exchange" in Russia with art from its own collection.

There will be 130 pieces from Shchukin's collection on view at the foundation, with 12 works by Gauguin, eight by Cezanne, eight by Monet, 22 works by Matisse and 29 paintings, pastels, collages, drawings and gouaches by Picasso.

It is hard to overstate the art historical import of this collection, and it is equally hard, given the eye-popping prices currently paid for modern art, not to at least glancingly acknowledge the billions of dollars the collection is worth.

Works of this quality barely exist on the market anymore; when they do, they sell for amounts that would make even billionaires blanch. A colourful work by Gauguin, for instance, sold last year for a reported US$300 million (S$408.5 million).

Almost all the art in Shchukin's collection is by Paris-based artists.

So there is poetry in the fact that, on the centenary of the Russian revolution - almost exactly 100 years after Shchukin quietly closed down his house, packed up what belongings he could and escaped Moscow by train - the paintings have returned home, even if just for a visit.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Masterpieces leave Russia for first time in 100 years'. Print Edition | Subscribe