The Art Gallery of NSW is exhibiting an unparalleled collection of modern art, selected from the walls of the prominent Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Three years in the making, the exhibition features 65 of the most significant works of modern art in the world, from the impressionism of Monet to the abstractions of Kandinsky.

But what exhibition goers might not expect is that the story behind the collection is just as fascinating as the works themselves.

Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were two early collectors of modern art and members of the newly formed Russian elite. They were among the first collectors in the world to recognize the genius of Matisse, Picasso and their contemporaries.

Archival photos from the early twentieth century show rooms in Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace in Moscow, adorned from floor to ceiling with now invaluable works by the modern masters.

In 1908 Shchukin’s extensive private collection was opened to the public, and became a pilgrimage for modern art appreciators and the inspiration behind a generation of Russian avant-garde artists.

The pink drawing room of the Shchukin mansion hung by Henri Matisse in November 1911
Photo: Visual Documentation Department © Pushkin Museum, Moscow

“I think people are more and more interested in how works were displayed in the past, in museums and private houses, their history. It’s almost like the secret life of the paintings themselves,” AGNSW senior curator of historical European art, Peter Raissis, told Urban Village.

In 1909 Shchukin commissioned Matisse to paint his two enormous works Dance and Music for the main staircase of his palace. Under Stalin these and virtually all of the collected works were concealed in storage, for their ‘anti-realist tendency’ and ‘reactionary bourgeois nature.’

The multimedia installation by Saskia Boddeke and British filmmaker Peter Greenaway gives the audience a poetic interpretation of the dialogue that existed between Shchukin and Matisse, and also illustrates the backdrop of civilian unrest and rebellion that was sweeping Russia concurrently.

“What I get from the exhibition is this real sense of momentum and excitement,” said Raissis. “This was the beginning of modern art, from the Impressionists in the late 19th century right up to the First World War.

“These painters were really carving out a new way of seeing and representing the world.”

Landscape: Dunaberg near Murnau – Wassily Kandinsky, 1913

During the early twentieth century, much of Western Europe considered Russia and its people to be backward and underdeveloped, which makes the innovative spirit and far-sightedness shown by Shchukin and Morozov – whose adventurous vision would ultimately set the tone for modern art throughout all of Europe – even more remarkable.

The Masters of Modern Art from The Hermitage exhibit is exclusively at the Art Gallery of NSW until March 3. As well as the exhibition, there are a number of related events and workshops running throughout February. Visit the Art Gallery website for further details.