Cezanne in Exchange For a Suitcase

PHOTO by Pavel Smertin / TASS
LVMH CEO met with President Vladimir Putin on Nov. 24

Just over a month ago in Paris, on Oct. 22, the exhibition "Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection," which was organised by the Louis Vuitton Foundation in close coordination with the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, opened, and the exhibition has resonated with the press. After all, Moscow merchant and art patron Sergei Shchukin’s extensive collection of French Impressionists and Post-Impressionists had left Russia for the first time.

Never before had paintings from the Shchukin collection, including those of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne, Henri Rousseau, Andre Derren and other masters, been gathered in one place.

According to Ann Baldassare, a curator of the exhibit, "since 1948, when the collection was split, it has never been brought together as one artistic piece." The Louis Vuitton Foundation will play host to the 130 works of European avant-garde until Feb. 20, 2017.

The exhibition is a symbolic event for Russian-French relations, as it marks the bilateral Year of Tourism between the two countries. The exhibition would not be possible without Bernard Arnault, France's wealthiest man and CEO of the LVMH Group.

Henri Matisse, ‘Dance,’ 1910

"I had the opportunity to see these amazing paintings in the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum, but until recently I had no idea about their history," Arnault told Europe1, a French television channel. "It's a big premiere."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Arnault said, was involved in organising the event. "Vladimir Putin had to sign off on the collection leaving the country," according to Arnault. "This reflects how unbreakable cultural ties between France and Russia are, and I think he has a sense of beauty."

At the exhibition’s opening, Arnault thanked the presidents of Russia and France for supporting his efforts. He expressed hope that France’s President Francois Hollande will find time to visit it, and reiterated that President Putin would be a welcome guest. "I think Putin is interested in everything that represents Russian culture," Arnault said. "Russia is a key partner for all countries in the world."

President Putin with Arnault in the Kremlin on Nov. 24, 2016

In October, it was expected that Vladimir Putin would personally visit the exhibition but hope did not become reality.

The Russian president’s visit to France, scheduled for Oct. 19, was cancelled due to soured Russian-French relations in connection to Syria. However, Putin met with his French counterpart on Oct. 19 at a meeting of the so-called Normandy Four in Germany.

Putin and Arnault managed to meet in Moscow on Nov. 24. The French press describes the relationship between the two as friendly and, according to the L'Express, Arnault and President Putin have known each other since 2003, when the Russian president was given an exquisite reception at the Château Cheval Blanc estate, which is owned by the French billionaire.

Chteau cheval blanc
Château Cheval Blanc winery in Bordeaux, France

Yet the Louis Vuitton Foundation was once cold-shouldered at Red Square. It happened in November 2013 when a giant suitcase-shaped pavilion with the LV logo appeared on Red Square.

The installation, which sparked a public backlash, was set up to house a travel exhibition organised by Natalia Vodianova’s Naked Heart Foundation. Many Muscovites perceived the giant Louis Vuitton suitcase on the country's iconic square as an advertising campaign that was desecrating the historic site. The resulting uproar caused the pavilion to be dismantled.

This nonetheless did not affect the company's relationship with Russia. After all, the father of two of Natalia Vodianova’s five children is Arnault’s son, Antoine, so his grandchildren are half Russian.