Thanks to Semenova and others following in her footsteps, Shchukin’s legacy is now secure. Her passion for her subject is certainly never in doubt. While her writing tends towards the hyperbolic at times – we are told that his was ‘the world’s most stupefying collection of twentieth-century modern art’ – this fast-paced and painstakingly researched book provides unique testimony of a supremely agile and intellectually curious patron, who from the edges of Europe injected precious energy into the vanguard of modern art.
The Collector is a resumé of three Russian studies of Shchukin by Natalya Semenova, who salvaged what she could from the mutilations of Communist censors. André Delocque is Shchukin’s grandson and he has been responsible for the adaptation. And the text has been translated. The book therefore is sometimes jerky and stilted, but the story it tells is magnificent. The heroic relationship between Shchukin and Matisse especially is a revelation in its tender detail: first quizzical meetings, hiatus, first serious purchases, bold commissions, Shchukin getting cold feet, Matisse heartbroken, Shchukin relenting. The poignant aftermath: Shchukin escaping with his family from the Red Terror, exiled in Nice and Paris, but ashamed to renew the relationship now that he was no longer able to buy from the Master.
Although the authors’ account sometimes verges on the gushing, they nevertheless transmit the daring of the man and his determination to face down naysayers. Nothing illustrates that more than when he had to abandon his painfully won hoard (which mostly now sits in the Hermitage in St Petersburg). Arriving in France, his paintings forfeited to the Bolsheviks but his fortune largely intact in a Swedish bank, he refused to rebuild. He spent the rest of his life without great art: all those Picassos and Matisses belonged to his past and he refused to look back.
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Perceptive, pacy, at times sentimental and over-florid, The Collector fleshes out the human story of the Shchukin family tantalisingly dangled by the exhibition, and finishes with an unputdownable coda. The Shchukins, including Sergei’s daughter, left by train via Ukraine and ran into trouble at the frontier: “Although little Irina had been prudently dressed, like the adults, in a simple black frock, nobody had thought to change the rich dress of the doll she carried, which immediately aroused suspicion.” A Bolshevik soldier grabbed it, but there was an outcry among the passengers; it was returned to the child — fortunately, for her parents had stuffed it with gold and diamonds to finance their first steps in exile.