by Brooke Chilvers
We’d been gone from our cozy cottage in France for more than six months and arrived at the Paris airport in a frightening fog with high winds. And then it began to snow. No joke, it was April Fool’s Day.
Gérard was waiting for us at Arrivals, and his wife, Christine, had filled the bread basket at home with croissants and chouquettes — little bits of Swedish pearl-sugared puff pastry that both young and anciens adore. A snooze. A shower. A hot lunch with all the courses and appropriate adult beverages.
Despite the crazy weather whipping around outside, less than eight hours after landing, Christine and I are huddled in the darkened movie theatre I miss so much. Most of the oldsters are wearing masks. Except Christine. The string of blockbuster animated-film announcements smelled of grandparents and Easter vacation.
But I’m here to pay homage to the cherished remnants of a France I’d known 50 years ago, when I was young. We’re watching Le Temps des secrets, the adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s (1895–1974) beloved autobiographical novel about his youth in the shrubby, herb-scented countryside around Marseille in the summer of 1905. I can’t tell you the names of the actors playing the grownups and children, but I knew their faces better than nearly every acteur on the 2022 Oscars red carpet.
Opening just before the first round of the French presidential elections (April 11 and 24), this nostalgic blast from an unrevivable past feels almost political. But it’s Easter. And French parents are still intent on passing on Pagnol’s schoolteacher-father’s famous reverence for a secular republican national education and a complete separation of church and state, even if most kids today don’t recognize the author’s name.
After six-and-a-half months in the wintry woods of Clarke County, Virginia, the film felt like a warm bath in my favorite culture.
Twenty-four hours later, the commuter train to Paris and the bustling Métro were equally transporting. Masks are required on public transportation, but there were handfuls of non-compliers. With the vision of visiting St. Petersburg and Moscow’s museums fast receding, it felt imperative to see the exhibition, at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, of 200 key masterpieces of French and Russian art, collected in pre-Revolutionary Russia by two Moscow industrialists, the brothers Mikhail (1870-1903) and Ivan (1871-1921) Morozov.
Post-Revolution, in October, 1918, their vast art holdings were nationalized and later dispersed by Stalin to the State Hermitage Museum, Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, and State Tretyakov Gallery, as well as Minsk (the capital of Belarus) and Dnipro (Ukraine). Paris, at least, was within reach, even if the plunge into city life was painful.
The stream of galleries in the foundation’s ship-shaped structure, signed by Frank Gehry, are vast and filled with transparent light – perfect for the roomful of richly colored Polynesia-period Gaugins; the enormous Monets of Normandy ponds and bloom-bursting vegetation that have all long disappeared; van Gogh’s solemnly lit, and painful to see, La Ronde des prisonniers, as well as his frothy, cornflower seas and crisscrossing sailboats in La Mer aux Saintes-Maries; the rosy Renoirs; and the monumental murals Ivan commissioned from Maurice Denis for his chapel-sized music room, along with nude sculptures by Aristide Maillol that reportedly lifted the taboo on the naked female body in art.
Cézanne, Pissarro, Matisse – they are all there, alongside two of Picasso’s most important early paintings, Les Deux Saltimbanques (1901) and Acrobate à la boule (1905), which make you almost wish the artist’s work had never evolved.
Equally interesting was discovering a generation of brilliant Russian artists – Alexandre Golovine, Konstantine Korovine, Ilia Repine – but especially portrait artist Valentin Serov (1865–1911), who captures the formidable presence of the gargantuan Mikhail in his full-length 1902 portrait. Before Mikhail’s insatiable hunger as a drinker, gambler, and glutton killed him, he’d identified and collected 39 French and 44 Russian masterpieces.
Serov’s 1910 portrait of Mikhail’s lovely wife, Margarita (1873–1958), married at 18 and widowed at 30, shows her beauty and intelligence. Margarita spent the next chapter of her life with her princely but progressive soulmate, Prince Evgenii Nikolaevitch Troubetzkoy, and was the rare Russian of her class to remain after the revolution.
Serov’s 1910 portrait of Ivan shows a solid man, framed by Matisse’s still life, Fruits et bronze, defining him forever as a discerning and consequential collector of French art. Initially sticking to running the family’s flourishing textile factories, which attained huge success with orders for the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Ivan began collecting only after Mikhail’s death.
Serov lusciously painted, in purple velvet and grey fox, the equally luscious Yevdokiya Morozova (1885–1959), Ivan’s long-time mistress and finally his wife. If you do the math, he’d been smitten by the teenage singer when she was just 16.
He also painted cousin Alexei Morozov (1857–1934), considered the most disciplined and religious of the clan of Old Believers, a persecuted minority within the Eastern Orthodox Christian church. Few of the Russians seem any good at painting hands, and even Serov shows the ardent collector of icons and Russian porcelain with his hands thrust deep into his pockets.
Serov also painted thumping historic scenes and Russian fables. He is so beloved in his country that, at the 2016 Moscow exhibit dedicated to his works, the crowd broke down the museum’s doors.
A surprising number of Morozovs and their class continued pampered lives throughout uprisings and revolutions; I would love to know more about how they managed this.
An exception was the youngest and least industrious brother, Arseni (1874–1908), a lover of hunting, hunting dogs, his extravagant palace, and showing off. Absurdly, at age 35, to prove to his friends his tolerance of pain, he shot himself in the foot and died several days later of septicemia. “Why build a stupid, senseless palace for a stupid and senseless man?” asks one of Tolstoy’s characters, referring to Arseni.
And thus, I can find no Serov portrait of Arseni Morozov.
Forty-eight hours after arrival, Brooke Chilvers was dreaming of someday seeing, in Moscow, Serov’s Peter II and Empress Elizabeth Petrovna Departure on Hunting (1900), with its dashing steeds and feverish Borzois pounding towards the countryside.