by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pushkin Museum, Moscow
Café at Arles by Paul Gauguin, 1888

Gauguin and the Russian Avant-garde

By Roderick Conway Morris
FERRARA 3 June 1995


Gauguin achieved critical success in his lifetime, but never reaped the financial rewards. His first trip to Tahiti (1891-93), convincingly proved the unique qualities of his genius - but at his homecoming exhibition only 11 of the 44 canvases found buyers. Two years later, after only 9 out of 47 pictures sold at another show, he returned to Polynesia, produced the remaining series of paintings that were to confirm him as one of the great artists of all time, and died in the Marchesas Islands, disillusioned and in dire poverty, in 1903.

Unknown to Gauguin in his remote Pacific isolation, whilst buyers in western Europe remained reluctant to invest in his paintings even at the modest prices at which they were then offered, an immensely wealthy Moscow collector, Michail Morozov, had become an ardent admirer of his work, soon to be joined by his brother Ivan and another connoisseur, Sergei Shchukin. Such was the enthusiam of these three that, within less than a decade, they made Russia an unparalleled depository of the artist's work.

The story of this flurry of Russian interest in Gauguin and the consequent impact it had on the country's own artists is the subject of a very attractive and instructive show, 'Paul Gauguin and the Russian Avant-garde', featuring a dozen superb Gauguin canvases, most of which have never been loaned before, as well as bronzes, woodcuts, drawings and Russian works, at the Palazzo dei Diamanti (till 2 July).

Sensibly the exhibition catalogue, with its excellent introductory essay by Albert Kostenevich of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, contains sumptuous illustrations of all the Russian Gauguins (many of which are little known in the west), including those that were deemed too fragile to travel to Italy.

Both the Morozov and Shchukin fortunes came from textiles, which the former family manufactured and the latter were traders in. The founder of the Morozov empire had only succeeded in buying himself out of serfdom in 1820, yet by 1890 the company employed 39,000 workers.

Varvara Aleksivna Morozov, mother of Michail and Ivan, was a strong-willed, progressive, free-thinking blue-stocking, but her liberated ideas seem to have produced a contrary reaction in her sons, who espoused deeply conservative views. Michail Morozov (1870-1903) was a flamboyant, larger-than-life figure, a writer of articles, history and novels, and a bon viveur who once lost a million rubles in a single night at cards. Through generous donations Michail managed to have himself elected to the Synod of the Kremlin's Assumption Cathedral (and, having achieved his aim of annoying his mother, shortly after resigned).

A reactionary in politics, Michail was the reverse when it came to collecting contemporary art. Having bought Manet, Renoir, Degas and Monet, he took a strong fancy to Gauguin's work, and in 1900-1901 became the first non-French purchaser of of the artist's canvases. Triumphantly bearing 'Tarari Maruru' (Landscape with Two Goats) and 'Te Vaa' (The Canoe or Tahitian Family) back from Paris, Michail revelled in the idea of 'astounding all Moscow' with them.

After Michail's premature death in 1903, his younger brother Ivan (1871-1921) followed in his footsteps, himself acquiring Impressionist works. And, though an infinitely more sober and cautious character, fell equally under Gauguin's spell. In 1907 alone he bought 8 of his canvases, and the following year 'CafÉ at Arles', from the artist's brief and tempestuous stay there with Van Gogh in 1888, the first of Gauguin's non-Tahitian works to come to Russia.

Meanwhile, another wealthy Muscovite collector, Sergei Shchukin, was also taking an interest in Gauguin, buying his first canvas in 1903. A vegetarian of simple habits, who preferred to walk than use a carriage, Shchukin had begun collecting in the1890s. The first to introduce Monet and Cezanne to Russia, he was a more naturally-gifted connoisseur than the Morozov brothers. As Matisse later recalled, comparing Shchukin and Ivan Morozov's visits to a Paris dealer: 'When Ivan Morozov went to Ambroise Vollard, he used to say: I'd like to see a really lovely Cézanne… Shchukin would ask to see all the Cézannes and make his own choice.'

Shchukin eventually bought 16 Gauguins, paying 100,000 francs for one canvas, for which, earlier in the same year, shortly before Gauguin's death, the artist had been offered a mere 1,100 francs. Shchukin daringly decided to display his entire Gauguin collection on one wall of his palatial dining room - 'the pictures so close together that it was impossible to tell where one ended and another began'. This extraordinary arrangement, dubbed the 'iconostasis', became one of the principal attractions of the house, which was open every Sunday so that the public could enjoy the collection.

The Shchukin 'iconostasis' points up one of the possible reasons for Gaugin's special appeal to the Russians. The sheer exoticism of the Tahitian pictures was certainly part of their attraction, but the artist's rich, warm palette, his strongly delineated human forms and the yellow-gold backgrounds suggestive of Paradise - all key elements in Eastern Orthodox art - also, perhaps, struck a deep, if not fully conscious, chord.

As the second part of the show reveals, the sudden influx of so many Gauguins had an immediate and forceful influence on a number of young Russian artists. Particularly impressive is the manner in which some of them, though clearly inspired by the French artist, managed to absorb his lessons and still produce works very much their own.

Natalya Goncharova (1881-1962), for example, took up Gauguin's Tahitian fruit-picking scenes, with their underlying symbolism of the Garden of Eden, innocence and sin, and produced between 1907 and 1909 a charming set of four pictures 'Gathering the Fruit', where, despite the bold outlines and bright, blocked-in colors, the Russian peasants' body gestures while at work are captured with considerable subtlety. And Michail Larionov (1881-1964) echoed, but thoroughly domesticated, Gauguin's still-lives and rustic backdrops in his 'Window, Tiraspol' of 1909.

It was the Morozov and Shchukin families' ultimate intention to bequeath their collections to the nation, but their plans were overtaken by Bolshevik expropriation (and the great contribution they had made was deliberately obscured). During the 1930s the collections began to be divided between the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, a process completed after the last war. Meanwhile, judged politically incorrect during the Cold War, Gauguin's canvases were long withheld from public view. Thus it is only in more recent years that the Russian public has been able to rediscover the richness, both in quality and quantity, of their legacy of this marvellous artist's work.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024