Donations of Western Collectors

Russians living abroad have not remained indifferent to the fate of the Museum of Private Collections. Ilya Silberstein enthusiastically described the project to representatives of Russian culture on each of his foreign trips. The first to respond was his personal friend Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky.

Nikita Dmitryevich Lobanov-Rostovsky was born in Bulgaria in 1935. He is descended from the famous family of Russian princes. After the Second World War, when he was still only in his teens, he made a daring escape to Western Europe from Soviet-occupied Bulgaria. In 1958, he graduated from Christchurch College of Oxford University with the degree of bachelor and master of geology. This was followed by the degree of master of economic geology at Columbia University in 1960 and master of banking at New York University in 1962. After briefly working in Argentina, Lobanov-Rostovsky moved to the United States in 1961. He has lived in London since 1980.

Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky was a leading economist and banking expert. He was an adviser to De Beers, the world’s premier diamond company. Director of the Association of Theatrical Museums in London, he also sat on the boards of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Institute of Modern Russian Culture in Los Angeles and countless other cultural organisations.

In the early 1960s, Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky and his wife Nina began collecting Russian fin-de-siècle theatrical designs. Forty years later, their collection numbers around one thousand works, making it one of the most important bodies of Russian art outside Russia. Their collection was exhibited at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in 1988 and 1994.

In 1987, Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky donated eighty works of art to the Museum of Private Collections, including Alexandra Exter’s famous series of Theatrical Decorations (1930).

Alexandra Exter was born in the town of Belostok near Kiev. From 1901 to 1908, she studied at the Kiev School of Art, where she was influenced by such young avant-garde artists as Alexander Bogomazov, David Burliuk and their elder colleague Nikolai Kulbin. Moving to St Petersburg in 1912, Exter made an active contribution to the art life of the Russian capital. She joined the Union of Youth and showed works at the Tramway V First Futurist Exhibition in 1915.

Alexandra Exter was a frequent visitor to Paris, where she met Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Fernand Léger. She was also a friend of the Italian Futurists Ardengo Soffici and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. A bright and talented decorator, Exter worked much for the theatre, designing the costumes for the productions staged by Alexander Tairov at the Chamber Theatre in Moscow (1916–17). In 1924, she emigrated to France, where she continued her experiments in theatrical art. She taught at Fernand Léger’s Académie d’Art Moderne and her own studios in Paris. The artist designed ballet costumes for Anna Pavlova, Bronislava Nijinska and Elsa Kruger.

From 1916 onwards, Alexandra Exter worked much for the theatre, realising her abilities as a constructor. Instead of painted decorations, she built her sets from simplified, three-dimensional forms.

The gouaches on permanent exhibition come from Alexandra Exter’s famous album of stencils (1930). Henri Matisse, Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova also worked in this technique. Parisian publishers commissioned albums of drawings on a certain theme, which were printed in limited editions and signed by the artists. The works in Exter’s album are not designs for a specific production. The compositions are based on the motifs of preceding theatrical works. In several cases, they demonstrate the artist’s own vision of the stage decoration of a certain show.

On the eve of the opening of the Museum of Private Collections in 1994, Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky also donated his collection of early-twentieth-century porcelain. His wife Nina is an international authority on works of porcelain. The donated works were manufactured at the State Porcelain Factory in Petrograd in the 1920s. The artistic director at that time was Serge Tchekhonine – a talented applied and graphic artist and theatrical designer. The exhibits include objects painted after designs made by both Tchekhonine himself and Mstislav Dobuzhinsky – a leading graphic artist and member of the World of Art.

The works now on permanent exhibition offer a fascinating insight into the history of Russian porcelain in the first third of the twentieth century. Applied artists overturned the traditional forms of painting and were more audacious in their graphic resolutions. Serge Tchekhonine adds a refined colourist accent to the white background in the Three Roses service. Talaber plays up the contrast between black and red in the fruit stand with a ram’s head.

The Lobanov-Rostovsky donation includes an example of Soviet agitprop porcelain. The script was applied with careful consideration to the surface of the object. The old mark of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, with the initials of Tsar Nicholas II, can be seen alongside the hammer and sickle, symbol of the Soviet period, on the bottom of Serge Tchekhonine’s Two Roses cup. This interesting juxtaposition is often encountered in post-revolutionary porcelain, when Russian artists applied their designs to the old stock of china existing from before 1917.

Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky was not only one of the first foreign collectors to donate works to the Museum of Private Collections. He was also instrumental in helping another collector, Semyon Vasilyevich Papkov (1902–1993), to present twenty-six theatrical designs and watercolours by Alexander Benois to the Pushkin Museum in 1989 and 1990. Papkov donated these works through the Rodina society of Russian ex-patriots in America.

The Papkov family emigrated after the revolution and lived for a number of years in Yugoslavia. Only the eldest son was able to receive a further education and went on to become an architect. The younger son, Semyon, studied engineering and worked as a building contractor. When Yugoslavia was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, Semyon and his wife Yulia joined the resistance movement. At one point, Yulia was sentenced to death by the Nazis, before being rescued by partisans. The deterioration of relations between Tito and Stalin after the war had serious implications for Russian émigrés living in Yugoslavia. Semyon was arrested and the rest of the family expelled from the country. After many years in various nations, the family finally settled in San Francisco. As Semyon was unable to continue his previous profession after being tortured in prison in Yugoslavia, he decided to open a private bakery. Semyon Papkov eventually had his own house in San Francisco, where he lived until his death in 1993.

Despite all these misfortunes, Semyon Papkov never lost his interest in art, inherited from his wood-carver father. He only began collecting, however, in 1972. Papkov corresponded with Anna Cherkesova, the daughter of Alexander Benois, and collected four hundred works by Benois and the members of his circle. He also acquired works from Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, with whom he began corresponding in 1974. Far from his homeland, collecting works of Russian artists allowed Semyon Papkov to feel that he still in touch with her national culture.

Alexander Benois was one of the leading figures in Russian art at the turn of the century. In 1926, he settled in France, where he was the artistic director of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Benois also created the sets and costumes for theatres in London, New York, Milan, Vienna and Copenhagen. The master’s theatrical designs reflect his exceptional ability to recreate different historical periods and national styles.

The set and costume designs now on exhibition were created in France between the 1920s and 1950s. Like all of Alexander Benois’s theatrical works, they are refined, decorative and historically exact. The exhibits include a crimson curtain for Maurice Ravel’s ballet La valse (1928) and the costumes of the Venetian Merchant in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko (1930) and the droll heroes of Yevgeny Schwartz’s play The Emperor’s New Clothes (1940).

Alexander Benois painted such large watercolours as Interior of the Artist’s Studio and Landscapes of Normandy between 1928 and 1948. These works demonstrate the artist’s talent as a watercolourist and convey the charm of one of the most attractive regions of France.

Another important donation to the Museum of Private Collections was the collection of Jacob Fyodorovich Shapshal (1880–1947). The artist’s son, the Swiss doctor Georgy Shapshal, donated forty-two paintings and three drawings to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts via the Soviet Embassy in Berne.

Very few Russians have heard of Jacob Shapshal. After studying in St Petersburg and Paris, he fought in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05). In 1906, he returned to Paris, where he exhibited works at the Société des Beaux-Artes Nationale, Salon d’Automne and Salon des Indépendants. In Russia, he contributed to the exhibitions of the Moscow Fellowship of Artists from 1911.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Jacob Shapshal returned to Russia. He enlisted in the army and was wounded in action. In 1916, he joined the Moscow Fellowship of Artists, contributing to their and other exhibitions in Moscow and St Petersburg. Shapshal emigrated to The Hague in 1924 and became a Dutch citizen. He continued to exhibit works at the Paris salons and in galleries. He also painted icons. In March 1945, a bomb fell on the artist’s studio, destroying many works. His son Georgy decided to preserve his father’s heritage for posterity by donating many of the surviving works to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in 1989.

Such early works as Cliff (1916) and Dam (1917) betray Jacob Shapshal’s interest in French fin-de-siècle art. Like many Russian artists in the early twentieth century, he was a follower of Paul Cézanne. Often endowing colour with a harsh form-creative function, Shapshal was stylistically close to the masters of the Knave of Diamonds, without ever engaging in the more radical experiments of the avant-garde. Such works as Female Portrait (1922) contain only soft echoes of Cubism.

The majority of Shapshal’s surviving works, particularly those painted in the artist’s émigré period, demonstrate the importance of the natural features of the subject in the stylistic resolution. The master travelled widely across Europe; the landscapes now belonging to the Museum of Private Collections are like pages from a travel log of impressions. In Self-Portrait (1929), Shapshal depicts himself against a cityscape, underlining the importance of the landscape in his art. The artist always attempted to capture the originality of each new place and convey its unique atmosphere and mood. He accorded each view its own special form of representation, immersing a foggy boulevard in a tender mist of colours or outlining a Venetian palace in refined contours.

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