Icons of Modern Art



February 8, 2017


My friend Gary in Bangkok described his strategy when he visits a museum: “When I go to an exhibit,” he told me, “I choose one special painting and then stare at that work of art for at least thirty minutes.”

The Icons of Modern Art, the Shchukin Collection at the Fondation Louis Vuitton has on display more than one hundred and twenty paintings.  I have planned three visits.  But with hundreds of visitors streaming through the galleries at any one time, how shall I follow Gary’s advice?

Well, I did my best.

My first “stop” is at the Portrait of Sergei Shchukin, the late collector of the Icons of Modern Art. 

Sergei Shchukin was a 20th Century Russian industrialist who purchased hundreds of late 19th Century and early 20th Century paintings. 

I decide to stop and stare at him. 

The artist Xan Krone depicts an elegant, posture-perfect man.  Shchukin’s hair is perfectly coiffed; his mustache perfectly trimmed.  His hands clasped, yet in repose.  He wears a tailored suit with stylish and understated tails. I am especially impressed with his perfectly pressed trousers – the front crease is knifelike.

I stare at Shchukin and wonder, “How does he do it?  The paint was barely dry on the canvasses he purchased.  Yet, this one man, elegant, educated and wealthy to be sure, this one man recognizes genius.  What is his secret?”

My second “stop” is at the Chalet in the Mountains by Gustave Courbet.  The small oil painting depicts a lovely mountain landscape with a country house in the foreground.  To add a “human touch,” Courbet places a clothesline in front of the house.  Clothes are drying in the mountain breeze.

After standing several minutes, I am thinking, “It’s the clothes and the smoke from the chimney and the shadowy figure that transform the painting from a lovely landscape to a masterful moment in time.  If ‘clothes make the man,’ then undergarments make the picture.”

One of the grand works on display is Luncheon on the Grass by Claude Monet.  At first glance, the parkland scene is idyllic with a group of well-dressed men and women about to enjoy a delicious lunch together.  But on close examination, despite the sun-lit leaves and the bright pink blossoms, the scene is bleak.

Take a close look at the painting and then see if you agree with me.

On the left, a young man approaches two women, but they chat with each other while ignoring him. The man seated on the grass glances at the approaching women with a look of utter distain.  In the center, a man seems interested in the woman near him, but she is more interested in fixing her hat.  The seated woman appears to be gazing at no one.  The other seated woman has selfishly spread her skirt across the table cloth and places her bonnet on top of her skirt.  The man to her left seems interested in her but she stares at the man lying on his elbows.  The two empty wine bottles are a clue to his demeanor.   The man leaning against the tree seems more concerned with his pipe than with the folks near him.  The man on the right in the dark background adds a final touch of “darkness.”  Only the dog is paying attention.  Perhaps he is anticipating a delicious lunch.  But so far, the food lies untouched.

 C'est ce que c'est. Les Français sont les Français. Qui peut l'expliquer? Qui peut me dire pourquoi?

My final “stop and stare” is from a bench in a large gallery.  I am surrounded by Picasso! 

The realistic Young Boy is a boy with elongated, feminine fingers.  The other Young Boy seems to be Picasso’s rendering of Michelangelo’s David.

Three Woman, a monumental cubist painting, is my focal point.  It inspires my ensuing discussion with a French couple also seated on the bench. 

“What is this painting?” I ask.  They respond, “Three women.” “Are we sure about that?  Look closely at the muscles, at the torso, at the feet and hands.  Are we certain that these figures are woman?” 

Picasso surely loved the women in his life.  Yet, I am thinking of the androgyny of The Young Boy.  Are these paintings a clue to Picasso’s ambivalence?  Or are they a reminder of his genius at depicting women and men as we truly are.

A final word about the Louis Vuitton Foundation:


The building is a magnificent structure designed by the Canadian-American Architect, Frank Gehry.  Normally the façade and the glass panels around and above the structure are white. 


But recently, an artist installed a series of decorative(?) panels of red and blue and yellow.

C'est ce que c'est. Les Français sont les Français. Qui peut l'expliquer? Qui peut me dire pourquoi?

As my French friend Didier in Bangkok remarked, “The opportunity to visit the Fondation Louis Vuitton is alone worth the price of travel to Paris.”

Et donc il est.  Et c’est ainsi.





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