The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art
ParisFondation Louis Vuitton
The Morozov Collection: Icons Of Modern Art
September 22, 2021 – April 3, 2022
The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art brings to light the forgotten story of Russian brothers Mikhail Morozov (1870–1903) and Ivan Morozov (1871–1921), who amassed one of the world’s most spectacular collections of Impressionist and modern art. It is the first time that the Morozov Collection, which comprises nearly two hundred paintings and sculptures, has been shown outside Russia. Curated by Anne Baldassari, the exhibition traces the history that accompanies the wealthy Muscovite art patrons’ efforts to construct a bridge between the cultural lives of the East and the West. The Morozov brothers’ contribution towards erecting and fortifying Russia’s avant-garde scene, or “Silver Age,” is immeasurable and arguably unmatched. The exhibition is the second chapter of a cycle organized at the Fondation d'entreprise Louis-Vuitton in Paris in partnership with the State Hermitage Museum, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, and the State Tretyakov Gallery. It follows the exhibition of a previously unseen collection of another Russian art enthusiast, Sergei Shchukin, a friend and rival of the Morozov brothers.
Like Hermes, the patron god of travel, sports, invention, literature, and trade in Greek mythology, Mikhail (the eldest of the Morozov brothers) had many passions. Whilst he avoided serfdom due to his father, who set up a ribbon workshop with five rubles from his wife’s dowry and eventually liberated his entire family, Mikhail was enslaved to his grandiose ambitions. He sought recognition in painting (and was taught by Sergei Vinogradov), in the sphere of literature (having published a monograph on Charles V), and even art criticism (reviews which he occasionally published in Novosti dnia and Severny Vestnik). However, Mikhail was by no means an expert in each of these fields. To be classified as such is a death sentence to the ego of any highly driven individual, particularly one with such an insatiable thirst for praise as Mikhail. It was only fitting, then, that art collecting became his last chance to prove himself. And what better place to start this journey than the capital of art: Paris.
Mikhail Morozov began visiting France’s capital regularly in 1898. The collection grew briskly. It was not long before Morozov reached the same stature of Muscovite collectors as the Shchukin family, members of whom he competed for the canvases of leading contemporary artists. When Sergei Shchukin, a wealthy textile merchant and an early connoisseur of modern art, was eulogized as the first owner of Édouard Manet’s Le Bouchon (La Guinguette) (ca. 1878), no one had dared cast doubt over the accolade for over a century. Eventually it was discovered that the piece was, in fact, purchased by Mikhail, and it is for this reason that we are able to enjoy Manet’s canvas—where the leading motif is secondary to impression—as part of the exhibition. The confusion stems from the erroneous first monograph on Manet, where Shchukin had been identified as the owner. The fallacy was an incredible victory for Shchukin’s image. Possessing a Manet, as far as the art world was concerned, was equated with prestige—at the time, there were only two works of Manet in Russian collections: Portrait of Antonin Proust (1877), and a sketch, purchased by Ilya Ostroukhov from Ivan Shchukin, and a sketch for the painting Corner of a Café-Concert (1879), which was part of Mikhail Morozov’s collection.
In addition to playing a pioneering role in discovering Manet in Russia, Mikhail Morozov also introduced Moscow’s highbrows to the canvases of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. In 1901, Mikhail Morozov bought Van Gogh’s La Mer aux Saintes Maries (1888). The compositional order where the boats are almost coercively pushed out from the frame by the thickly handled paint of the waves transgressed classical seascape conventions. This painting, a herald of Fauvism, was later joined by five other van Gogh paintings purchased between 1908 and 1909 by his younger brother, Ivan. The Morozovs’ approach vis-à-vis Van Gogh and Gauguin appears solicitous. The brothers aimed to reconstruct the working relationship between the two artists, epitomized by their canvases created in 1888 that emulate each other: Café à Arles by Gauguin and Le Café de Nuit by van Gogh.
In Mikhail Morozov’s collection, the number of Russian works corresponded to foreign works. It is thus difficult to establish his preferences. His brother’s penchant for Western artists, however, was unambiguous. Looking around the exhibition, it quickly becomes apparent that, at the most basic level, Mikhail Morozov’s collection can be encapsulated by one word: eclectic. The textile merchant’s approach to purchasing art was straightforward—he bought what he liked. The element of surprise is an intrinsic component of the show, as it is revealed to the viewer that pieces such as Louis Valtat’s post-Impressionist Les Falaises Violettes (1900) are part of the same collection as Vasily Perov’s The Dovecote and Botany, an example of the Russian version of Art Nouveau or Edvard Munch’s expressionist and Symbolist work, White Night (1901). Replicating Mikhail Morozov’s modus operandi regarding purchasing art would likely end disastrously for many aspiring collectors, as it was not rooted simply in his gut feeling. There were more ingredients to his recipe for success: namely dauntlessness and luck—neither of which, ultimately, would lead to such levels of achievements without inherently good taste. Thus, the eclecticism of his collection should not be mistaken for dilettantism.
Mikhail Morozov’s final acquisition was the portrait of the singer Yvette Guilbert by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec that was bought at the sale of Arsène Alexandre’s collection in 1903. Yvette Guilbert Singing “Linger, Longer, Loo’”(1894) depicts a famous singer of the Moulin Rouge whose album Toulouse-Lautrec later illustrated. The drawing, completed with a few effortless strokes of India Ink, marks the then-contemporary turn to a simplified visual language essential in effective poster-making. The eldest Morozov brother’s ambitious purchase plans scheduled for the summer of 1903 included paintings of Jean-Baptiste Corot (to complement the ‘panel in the style of Corot’ that Konstantin Korovin painted for him in 1895), Jean-Francois Millet, and Stefan Bakałowicz, a Polish painter (incorrectly) deemed as “the Russian Alma-Tadema,” were interrupted by his sudden death. Instead of wailing over the deceased, Vinogradov bemoaned the unrealized potential of the collection: “What a treasure of art Mikhail Morozov would have created if only he had lived,” he grumbled. We can only imagine. However, Mikhail Abramovich created a Herculean skeleton of a collection, to which his younger brother, Ivan Morozov, has added meat and flesh in the form of countless masterpieces. As such, Ivan’s collection of paintings became an extension of his late brother’s assemblage of art.
During his short life, Mikhail paved a relatively smooth road to success for Ivan in the world of art collecting. While Ivan was preoccupied with managing the family company, Mikhail was building a reputation for the Morozov clan across Paris’s Salons and galleries, where he was becoming an increasingly familiar figure. The younger brother finally accompanied Mikhail on his trip to Paris in 1903. At this point, Ivan had a relatively nascent collection of exclusively Russian art that mirrored his older brother’s tastes: Mikhail Vrubel, Isaak Levitan, Konstantin Korovin, Valentin Serov, Aleksandr Golovin, Alexandre Benois, Konstantin Somov. Thus, lacking confidence in navigating The Salon of the Société Nationale des beaux-Arts in the Grand Palais, a feeling magnified by its scale (with 1500 paintings and five hundred drawings exhibited), he returned to Russia empty-handed and instead sought counsel from his brother’s former advisor, Sergei Vinogradov. Encouraged by his guidance, in 1904, Ivan bought Camille Pisarro’s Terres labourées (1874), a muted pastoral scene from Ambroise Vollard and Alfred Sisley’s lyrical landscape Le Jardin Hoschedé à Montgeron (1881), both of which are part of the show. Three years later, Ivan acquired his second Pissarro, Autumn Morning at Eragny (1897), which one could describe as a twin of Sisley’s The Garden of Hoschede, Montgeron (1881) separated at birth.
Unfortunately, Ivan’s first visit marked Mikhail’s last. As his late brother and Sergei Shchukin were introduced to the Paris art market in 1989, Ivan had half a decade’s worth of catching up to do. Ivan Morozov knew that his collecting needed momentum to bridge the gap between him and Shchukin. A piece from an artist with such magnitude as Renoir would serve as this bridge. In 1908, Ivan Morozov purchased La Grenouillère (1869), a motif employed by Renoir and Monet, as they painted side by side on an island on the Seine. Based on a witty wordplay, the name of the painting, other than being French for “frog pond,” was a colloquial term assigned to women, who, in Renoir’s son’s words, were: “not exactly prostitutes, but a class of unattached young women, characteristic of the Parisian scene [at the time].” Just as frogs, the women would jump from one lover to another. Purchasing the painting would have been an exhilarating sensation and great triumph, given that Renoir’s early work was as rare as hen’s teeth and the most expensive of the entire regiment of Impressionists by some margin. The driver behind Renoir’s swollen prices, in part, was Durand-Ruel, who purchased them a quarter of a century ago and sold them with a cosmic profit, including to Morozov. Purchasing expensive art made Morozov a target of derision, as cynical observers assumed he was a gullible foreigner and Paris’s gallerists’ favourite prey. His nose for quality was often unfairly overlooked, and accomplishment instead assigned to inexhaustible resources. Of course, having access to a considerable fortune enabled Ivan’s (and Mikhail’s) avocation. However, Ivan Morozov was not an impulsive buyer—not only would he haggle over the prices, but he would ponder acquisitions for prolonged periods.
Customarily, the paintings presented to Ivan Morozov were of exceptional quality. However, in one instance, Morozov seems to have been manipulated into acquiring an “unsaleable good”, much to the satisfaction of the envious spectators. Renoir’s Head of a Woman, a delightful portrait with a blue pastel background, albeit oddly composed, is now proudly exhibited as part of the Louis Vuitton Foundation show. Ambroise Vollard describes how the picture ended up in his gallery. The gallerist happened to be in Renoir’s studio when the painting, once gifted to Degas, was sent back by its recipient to its author after the artists quarrelled. Infuriated by the insolence, Renoir grabbed a palette knife and slit the canvas. When he aimed the blade at the face, Vollard interfered, as he recalls in his memoirs, Recollections of a Picture Dealer:
“But, Monsieur Renoir!” I cried. He paused with his arm in mid-air: “Well, what’s the matter?”
“Monsieur Renoir, you were saying in this very room the other day that a picture is like a child one has begotten, and now you are going to destroy that face!”
“You are a nuisance with your helpful advice!”
But he lowered his arm and said suddenly:
“That head was such a lot of trouble to paint! Ma foi! I shall keep it!”
He cut out the upper part of the picture.”
The woman’s head was sold to Ivan Morozov. Her body was thrown furiously by Renoir into the fire.
To his disappointment, the fragment of a Renoir piece did not seem to elevate Ivan Morozov to the ranks of Sergei Shchukin. Semoanova (2020) identifies 1906 as a landmark year for Morozov and his recognition as a leading collector of modern French art. Works that constituted the Morozov Collection were presented at a Russian exhibition under the aegis of the Salon d’Automne whilst Ivan was decorated with the Order of the Legion of Honour. There, Ivan Morozov met Baron Denys Cochin, whose mansion on Rue de Babylone he later visited. Unexpectedly, the visit had an incredible impact on the future of his collection, as it marks the day when he came across an artist who became a jewel in the Morozov Collection’s crown: Maurice Denis.
Ivan Morozov’s mansion on Prechistenka Street had a dual purpose: it was home to the industrialist and a gallery to his collection. Therefore, the young collector approached the house consciously and methodologically to create a perfect human and art symbiosis. The way the paintings were arranged in his home was not incidental. This methodological and conscious approach to hanging his pieces is well illustrated by an anecdote that involves the critic Sergei Makovsky, who once visited Ivan’s residence. The writer quickly realized that the wall dedicated to Cézanne had a space. Makovsky’s startled face elicited a response from Morozov: “it is for La Cézanne Bleu [a landscape from Cézanne’s first period].” The space remained vacant for another year until Ivan Morozov found the “blue” landscape that he placed amongst his brilliant ensemble of 18 Cézanne pieces.
Morozov replaced the original disorderly finishes of his 1870 residence with the Art Nouveau style. His Music Salon was in desperate need of murals, and Ivan was equally desperate to commission decorative panels for his concert salon. His new all-time favorite artist, Maurice Denis, whose Polyphème (Paysage avec Polyphème) and Bacchus et Ariane he bought in 1906 and 1907 respectively, was entrusted with this responsibility. Upon receiving the exact dimensions of the salon, Denis writes: “You wanted me to take subjects from the world of classical mythology, and the story of Psyché, idyllic and full of mystery, seems to be ideally suited […].”In 1910, the fifth and final monumental panel by Denis was received by Prechistenka Street. At the Louis Vuitton Foundation, one entire room is dedicated to the Maurice Denis panels entitled L’Histoire de Psyché (1907) arranged as if replicating Morozov’s Music Salon. The iconoclastic panels with mythological allusions are tied together by a limited, repetitive color palette that signals their belonging to the same cycle. The flat application of vibrant paint, where shades of cotton candy pink are dominant, bridges antiquity with the modern and creates a decorative whole. Despite the immaculate execution of these phantasmagorical scenes, the critics considered them a pastiche of a sixteenth-century cycle by Raphael and rendered the paintings as infused with neo-traditionalism. In the eyes of the Russian avant-garde, this evident shift toward an academic neoclassicism made Denis a traitor of modernism and a defector of innovation.
An artist who managed to evade commentator’s reproval, despite resorting to the same decorative devices as Denis, was Pierre Bonnard, a proud member of the Nabi group. Ivan’s thirst for innovative house restoration solutions was not yet quenched. In 1907, he commissioned Bonnard a four-meter-high triptych, La Mediterranée (1911), that effectively transfigured the Morozov building from a mansion to a domus. As Denis’s nymphaeum reigned over the formal hall, Bonnard’s domain was the grand staircase. Morozov’s vision was not yet complete. Bonnard was asked to produce two additional pieces, and in 1912, Ivan Morozov received Le Printemps and L’Automne—one dedicated to spring and the other to fall. Placed side by side, the monumental decorative ensemble created an orderly yet absorbing continuum dedicated to the four seasons of the solar year. Bonnard’s paintings became the antipodes of depth as he erected a flattened, perspective-stripped, parallel world to the terrifying Russian reality, where anarchists were gathering force, and the revolution was looming large.
After the Bolshevik coup in 1918, the Morozov collection of some 500 items was nationalized, brutally broken up and distributed across provincial museums. Ivan Morozov’s mansion was converted into a museum, and in 1929, the anarchists ordered Denis’s reactionary and bourgeois decorative panels of Histoire de Psyché to be hidden. Ironically, the Bolshevik comrades instructed Matisse’s La Musique (1910), a piece once owned by Shchukin that by far surpasses Denis’s work in its modern and non-proletariat qualities, to be laid over the panels. With the introduction of Socialist Realism as the official style of the Soviet Union, the value of Denis’s figurative cycle was once again recognized, only to be ripped from the walls and stored in Novosibirsk during WWII a few years later. It appears that after the revolutionaries seized power, the fate of the Morozov Collection mirrored that of Psyche—shunned and neglected, the beauty of the assemblage, just like that of Psyche, was prohibited from being treasured. Like the divine intervention that relieved the mythical princess of hardship and restored her honor, so too has the Morozov Collection exhibition at the Louis Vuitton Foundation brought the Morozov brothers’ art assemblage to its former glory.