Two Masterpieces from Must-see Show in Moscow

The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow has put together a show of art collections of Schukin brothers, kings of the Russian textile industry at the beginning of the last century. Thanks to one of them Russia boasts a great collection of (post)impressionists, fauvists, and cubists. It was split between Moscow and The Hermitage in St.Petersburg in 1948 and is now reunited and exhibited to mimic the way Sergey Schukin hung his paintings.

IMG_20190618_210127 - копия

While critics applaud this decision, I can’t see real value here. Yes, most Russian avant-guarde artists got introduced to Western art when visiting Schukin’s home, and it might be interesting to see their “starting point” through “their eyes”, but something tells me it was not the hanging that inspired them, but the paintings themselves, and most likely, not as a group, but individually. Gauguin was striving to recreate a paradise lost, but I don’t think he would view his objective accomplished only after a buyer builds a wall out of his work.

All this travesty of Gauguin tapestry ended up with one of Van Gogh’s most amazing portraits, that of Dr.Felix Rey, being hung near the ceiling, where it can’t be seen properly. The portrait was rejected originally (being used to mend a chicken coop), and now it is pigeonholed as a painting which quality is somewhat below Gauguin’s works by hanging it to fill an empty spot above them.

This portrait is worth its own wall. Van Gogh painted it as a form of gratitude, immediately upon his release from Saint-Paul asylum. He portrayed the closest and most caring person in his life at the time. It is an icon of compassion and hope.

Look at the blue whites of his eyes! Look at the Monalisian smile created by his mustache! Look at the sensual lips an Instagram diva would kill for today! This young intern would become a world famous tuberculosis doctor…


I wrote a bit about the secret to Van Gogh’s portraiture, and I can write a lot more about Van Gogh’s portraits, but let’s get back to the show, and, specifically Matisse.

We all know, thanks to Picasso, that great artists don’t copy, they steal. What is left unsaid, I believe, is that the theft must me meaningful: the stolen stuff needs to be processed and transformed by the artist into something new (even if Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst believe that out-of-court settlement would alone suffice, it would not). Matisse and Picasso were both thieves. They stole from Gauguin, from Cezanne, and from each other. Today, for the way they integrated African art into their own, they’d be facing cultural appropriation backlash on twitter. That thievery is well documented and appreciated. Yet, there was an artist in Italy from whom Matisse stole in broad daylight, and no one has noticed.


Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 15th c., the Battle of Ten Nude Men. The etching reflects the idea that men can’t but fight each other. Matisse’s Dance is about love and harmony that men can achieve if they stop fighting and include women into their circle. One can see some violent vibes in Matisse’s Satyr, of course, but it was painted a year before the Dance, so let’s not exclude the possibility that the man in this painting leans down to wake up and invite the sleeping nymph to a dance.


Matisse steals figures, alters them, and mirrors them, but his message is new and polar to that of Pollaiuolo.

Fortunately, the Dance is given its own – huge – space at the exhibition, but art appreciation is invariably spoiled by people queuing to have their photo taken in front of it:

IMG_20190618_204748 Matisse was a visionary, but he failed to foresee Facebook or Instagram. Were this painting a photograph or even a more realistic painting, it would be banned on both platforms, by the way.


  1. I can’t agree more on each point you make, and the photo taking in front of famous pieces has got out of control. I wanted to scream in the Oslo National Gallery when every moron stood in front of Munch’s Scream and tried to mimic it for a selfie. Grrrr! I propose that museums install life size copies of their popular pieces for the selfie addicts in a separate space and ban the practice in front of the originals. Shall we stat a petition?

  2. Well found Kirill.
    Thanks for this article, very clear and acceptable.
    What I find strange in the image of the gallery is that the paintings are placed so close to each other and on several rows and even at the beginning of the ceiling, it does not look like an art gallery but a deposit, a warehouse and the viewer certainly remains dazed by not being able to appreciate the works as it should.
    Here in Brescia, there is the Pinacoteca Tosio-Martinengo with a beautiful collection of works and they are arranged in an excellent way.
    If it happens to you, come and visit it, you’ll surely like it.

  3. I saw an exhibit for a large number of paintings from the Schukin collection several years ago in Paris at the Fondation Louis Vuitton. It was an incredible show. Luckily, the paintings were grouped by artist and hung singly. The Matisse and Gauguin works were stunning. I believe it was the first time most of the paintings in the exhibit had been displayed outside of Russia.

  4. it must have been 1995 or 1996, that a colleague told me another scientist had taken about one-and-a-half pages from by thesis and copied this in a chapter of his teaching book. I answered – after reading – that I hardly ever had seen a writing this high quality.
    Now waiting to hear that other artist have stolen an idea visualized by me, six years and a bit, after entering the art scene…

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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