The Revolutionary Russian Salon Hang
Between 1898 and 1914 Russian textile magnate Sergei Shchukin amassed one of the greatest art collections of all time. It was a veritable Noah’s Ark of big name modernists: Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gaugain, Matisse, Picasso, Degas and Renoir. Where did he put all these treasures? But on the walls of course.
Indeed, Shchukin’s home was the apex of the salon hang – virtually every inch of wall, from skirting board to ornamental ceiling, housed a work of art. He opened it to the public with the intention of nurturing Russian artistic and intellectual life but by 1917, the political tides had changed. Shchukin was forced to flee to Paris where he died in exile in 1936.
The story of Shchukin is one of boldness. Rather than adhere to conventions of refinement, he embraced maximalism – more was more. Entire rooms were dedicated to a single artist (one room housed sixteen of Gaugain’s Tahiti paintings). Rather than scatter the works at undulating heights, they were hung in a grid. Perhaps this reflects the cultural differences between France (where the salon hang originated) and Russia.
Shchukin's enviable 'Picasso' room.
There was a determination to Shchukin’s collecting, a bracing and unrelenting vision. In 1906, Henri Matisse exhibited ‘La Joie de vivre’ to outrage at the Salon des Indépendants. Viscerally shocked, Shchukin tried to buy it – compelled by his desire to collect every work he experienced “psychological shock” before. Alas, his rivals Leo and Gertrude Stein beat him to it. Later, Shchukin commissioned Matisse to paint two panels at his home, igniting yet another uproar. Shchukin was initially perturbed by the works, but soon came around.
This attitude towards collecting, rooted in instinct yet willing to be convinced otherwise, is refreshing. Shchukin held dinner parties where his guests baulked at his collection; he knew however, that they were wrong to fear the daring. Legend has it that he even slept with the windows open, acutely aware of the value in being uncomfortable – whether the irritant was art or Moscow’s biting winters.
In 1917, Shchukin’s collection was expropriated by Lenin himself, who condemned these twentieth-century masterpieces as trivial, “bourgeois and cosmopolitan”. But there was nothing minor about Shchukin’s adoration for art. Within five years, he lost his wife, brother and two sons. The art he surrounded himself with, hung in a grid across his entire home, was not not a superfluity. By venturing to the edges of artistic possibility, “good taste” and innovation, he made sense of his own personal grief. He lived in a palace of meaning.