Russia's Champagne Taste

A historical irony pervades "From Poussin to Matisse: The Russian A Taste for French Painting" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The old masters wound up in the Soviet Union largely because Russian noblemen, with the purchasing power of contemporary Japanese, prowled France to buy up art dispersed by the Revolution. The modern paintings in the exhibition came mostly from the collections of two turn-of-the-century bourgeois Muscovites who were ahead of the French themselves in appreciating the likes of van Gogh and Matisse. Then, in 1918, the Bolsheviks nationalized the lot--all of which they dismissed as decadent capitalist nonsense. The result? Splendid paintings, old and modern, preserved in two stately museums--the Hermitage in Leningrad and Moscow's Pushkin. This show, the latest in a series of art exchanges prompted by the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev summit, draws on the Soviet state collections to give a picture of the Russian passion for French culture. There is a great, complex Poussin, an eye poppingly erotic Boucher and a roomful of Matisses that's as glorious as, well, a roomful of Matisses. (After June 29, the show will go to Chicago.)

In the 18th century, Russia looked to the West and to France in particular; even the language of the St. Petersburg court was French. During the reign of Catherine the Great the Hermitage Museum was founded, though back then it was the private preserve of the court. From its holdings come several pictures that are signposts of the history of Western painting after the Renaissance. Nicolas Poussin's "Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites" (1625-26), painted in Rome, is a swirling yet subtlely ordered panorama of bloody battle. The narrative key--Moses' fatigued arms being propped upright to summon God's help--is tucked far in the background. Close up, the artist concentrates on the awful wonders of combat: beautiful bodies, graceful aggression and not a little bit of terror. From Poussin's fluid, atmospheric version of classicism, it's a considerable jump to Jacques Louis David's "Sappho, Phaon, and Cupid" (1809). The remarkably vacuous-looking poet leans back into the caress of the self-satisfied Phaon (whose rejection will soon send her suicidally plunging into the sea), while the little love god plunks his harp. The picture exemplifies everything that's wrong with neoclassicism--boringly stable composition, even-steven hue distribution and practically shadowless light--but it's a polished painting and campy fun to look at.

But the show stopper is the Pushkin Museum's "Hercules and Omphale" by Francois Boucher, painted in the early 1730s. This small rendition of the enslaved Hercules couchwrestling with the Queen of Lydia is, as a decorous Soviet scholar puts it in the catalog, "sensuously executed." Oh my, is it! Forget the R-rated depiction of hetero-eroticism--the mere undulating pigment of this picture could get it banned in Cincinnati.

The modern art in "French Painting" is just as generous, if less explicit, in its pleasures. Many of the" pictures come from the collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, the patrons who originally bought a number of the works in the recent "Matisse in Morocco" exhibition. After their collections were appropriated by the communists, the pictures were kept inside the State Museum of Modern Western Art. Stalin shut it down and the paintings were split between the Hermitage and Pushkin museums. There were certainly enough to go around: a sweet but not saccharine Renoir, some meaty still lifes by Cezanne, and a few primal Gauguins, including an eerily Francis Bacon-esque self portrait.

But the artists shown to best advantage are Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. Bonnard, sometimes thought of as a late impressionist who simply stayed too long at the fair, is here revealed as a bit of a symbolist. Instead of painting sunlit baths or dappled landscapes, he sneaks two mythical cloven-hoofed pipers into a corner of "The Beginning of Spring, Small Fauns" (circa 1909). Matisse--referred to by the Soviet curators as "the greatest French artist of the 20th century"--is represented by 10 paintings, none of them less than gorgeous. "Conversation" (1909) is a pinnacle of modernism, combining a formalist exercise (how to use dark blue) with distilled psychology (a man standing, a curvy woman seated, the metaphorical window of their relationship in between). The unfortunate cracking on the surface of the painting traces Matisse's revisions, proving that there's a lot of labor in his love.

Spread over the stylistic metamorphoses of nearly 300 years, "From Poussin to Matisse" can hardly express precisely the Russians' champagne tastes--let alone indicate the common denominator of all French painting. But it does provide an occasion, however opportunistic on the diplomatic front, to display some singular works of art in the name of glasnost.

What's the difference between a mere exhibition of great drawings and a truly great drawing exhibition? In the latter there are no compromise inclusions, the installation is nothing short of astute and the catalog is scholarly and elegant. Such is the case with The Morgan Library's "Five Centuries of Master Drawings from the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam" (through Aug. 5, then traveling to Ft. Worth and Cleveland). The drawings possess a precision and virtuosity seldom seen today when disposable media images are spewed out like ticker tape.

Start with Pisanello, whose "Four Studies of a Female Nude, an Annunciation, and Two Studies of a Woman Swimming" would have been a revelation of anatomical clarity in 1920, let alone 1420 Proceed to the Dutch and an incredibly deft ink drawing of an owl's nest by Hieronymus Bosch. Forward--but not too fast--to Rembrandt, who is as immediate in his drawings as he is profound in his paintings. In "Saskia at a Window" his adored wife, who lost three infant children before she died at the age of 30, gazes out of a sepia-washed rectangle that looks as deep and cool as a Dutch parlor should. Her cap, collar and pudgy hand are limned with a matchless economy.

The museum which lent the drawings was founded in the 1840s when the collection of a Mr. Boijmans, turned down by Utrecht, landed in Rotterdam. It then went through a fallow period with scant acquisition funds. A century later, Franz Koenigs's incomparable collection (including 30 Rembrandts) came to the museum in tragic circumstances. In 1940 a Jewish I bank holding the drawings as collateral had to close; since Koenigs could not repay his loan on short notice, the collection was to be shipped to America for sale. In stepped a patron, D. G. van Beuningen, and the drawings were saved. Almost--Hans Posse, Hitler's art acquisitor, who went around Europe making offers people couldn't refuse, bought some of them. They are only now resurfacing. Their melancholy provenance makes this exhibition all the more a privilege to see.