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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Matisse Collection Comes to Moscow

The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts will open an immense retrospective of the works of Henri Matisse on Thursday, bringing to Russia one of the most acclaimed events in the art world this year.

The exhibit, after drawing huge crowds in Paris and New York, has generated excitement and legal debate here even before it opens. The attention comes as no surprise, as Matisse and Russia have always had a close relationship.

"Matisse is coming home in a way", says Yelena Sharnova, one of the museum's curators, referring to the fact that Russians were among the first to collect his works. Most notable among the Russian collectors was Sergei Shchukin, one of the first art connoisseurs in any country to be seduced by impressionism. Later, in 1910, he became Matisse's Russian patron when he commissioned two paintings - "Dance II" and "Red Harmony", both of which are in the exhibition.

The Moscow leg of the retrospective - which moves to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, its last stop Sept. 6 - is being sponsored by the Russian government and the French oil firm Elf-Aquitaine.

The collection's nearly 400 works - including paintings, sculptures and graphics from museums and collections in New York, Chicago, Paris, St. Petersburg and Moscow - represent all periods of Matisse's artistic career, from his impressionism of the 1890s to his abstract cutouts of the early 1950s.

But since many of the works originally come from private Russian collections, such as Shchukin's, that were confiscated by the Soviet authorities after the 1917 Revolution, a number of collectors and their heirs have tried to reclaim their lost paintings.

This resulted in a lawsuit in Paris, in which an heiress claimed to be the rightful owner of 14 of the exhibition's canvases.

Added to the art from the New York retrospective will be a large collection of graphics from St. Petersburg that did not make the trip to America, plus several dresses worn by women who modeled for Matisse.

It will be a reunion of sorts for some of the paintings. Matisse painted a series of canvases that depicted his studio in various shades, but they ended up scattered around the world, Sharnova says. For the first time, "Pink Studio", which hangs permanently in the Pushkin, will be seen next to "Red Studio", which came from New York, she says.

If the Matisse retrospective here is even a fraction as popular as it was in New York, it will be a success. The show at the Museum of Modem Art received great praise from critics in America and throughout the world. William A. Davis, an art critic at the Boston Globe, called it a "one-of-a-kind artistic blockbuster" that "fills hotel rooms and alters travel patterns as people cross continents and oceans to see it". This type of acclaim was almost universal.

Valery Turchin, an art critic for the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, hailed the retrospective's stint at the Pushkin as "a wonderful project".

"Matisse's art opened the 20th century", Turchin said, "and now we are closing the 20th century with Matisse".

Henri Matisse was born in Le Cateau, France, in 1869. In 1890, when he was a law clerk, Matisse fell ill with appendicitis. His career as an artist began when his mother gave him a box of paints to pass the time while he lay in bed recuperating from the operation. In 1891 he gave up law for painting.

His early popularity came as a neo-impressionist; In 1905 he took part in the famous Salon d'Automne, which marked the beginning of the fauvist movement. Fauvism was based mainly on color: the brighter and more unnatural, the better. In 1906, he met Picasso, and although Matisse was never impressed with cubism, it began to seep into his work.

For a short time in the 1910s, Matisse's canvases were sadder and less vivid. When he moved to Nice in 1917, however, he regained his affection for pure color and developed the peaceful, radiant style that characterized his work for the rest of his life.

Peace and radiance are in short supply in Russia these days, and that makes this Matisse retrospective a welcome sight. Turchin, the Nezavisimaya Gazeta critic, says that Matisse is the polar opposite of the dark, sinister side of life. "He is a jolly, happy, bright painter, and it is excellent that in this difficult time his work can be shown here".

Turchin adds that it is no coincidence that so much of Matisse's work was collected by Russians. "There is a small piece of Matisse in every Russian soul", he says.