PARIS — Art, luxury and a dash of geopolitics converged at the Fondation Louis Vuitton on Tuesday, as LVMH boss Bernard Arnault gave French President Emmanuel Macron a private preview of his latest blockbuster exhibition, organized with the help of the Russian government.
It was the latest show of unity between the two men, after Macron’s appearance at the inauguration of the Samaritaine department store in June. The French leader and First Lady Brigitte Macron joined diplomats and museum officials for the evening visit, followed by a concert led by Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.
“It has long been my dream to present this exceptional collection in Paris,” Arnault said in a speech. “Bringing all these paintings over in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic was quite difficult, but despite the challenges of the current health crisis, we finally managed to put on this beautiful show, which I think will be a great success.”
Reuniting 200 masterpieces of French and Russian art customarily spread out between three Russian museums, “The Morozov Collection, Icons of Modern Art” opened to the public on Wednesday and is set to run until Feb. 22. It features works by Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Monet and Renoir, among others.
Among the senior LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton officials in attendance were Antoine Arnault, head of image and environment at the French luxury group; his sister Delphine Arnault, second-in-command at Louis Vuitton, and Sidney Toledano, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Fashion Group.
Nicolas Ghesquière, artistic director of women’s collections at Vuitton, caught up with a playful Brigitte Macron. “Brigitte is always so warm,” the designer enthused. “We see each other regularly and are fortunate to share a beautiful friendship and history. She’s so inspiring that it’s always a pleasure to dress her.”
Vuitton is the first lady’s go-to brand for public appearances. “It’s something I’d never really had the opportunity to experience before, so I think it’s fantastic, because we talk a lot. Naturally, all her appearances are extremely important.
“They have to strike the right tone, so sometimes we have in-depth discussions because there’s a protocol, or there are color codes to respect, depending on whether you’re the host or the guest,” he said. “What’s great is that she’s a standard-bearer for French modernity and know-how, but she truly loves fashion.”
Russian model Natalia Vodianova, the wife of Antoine Arnault, was locked in conversation with Marina Loshak, director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, which shares custody of the Morozov collection with the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
“Even as Russians, we never see them together. That’s what’s so thrilling about this exhibition,” Vodianova said of the art works. “It’s really very special, like the Bonnard downstairs, these pieces that are normally split between the Hermitage and the Pushkin museum, and here they are together as they were when they were exposed in Morozov’s palace.”
It was hard to appreciate the poetry of the art works with dozens of photographers bustling to catch a shot of Macron and Arnault together. Near the end of the exhibition, which winds across three floors, the two eventually briefly took off their masks to pose in front of a portrait of Ivan Morozov by Russian painter Valentin Serov.
“We need more time, really,” Vodianova sighed, noting that she had visited the foundation’s landmark exhibition around the Shchukin collection, back in 2016, no fewer than six times.
Macron, who is expected to seek reelection next year, used his speech to send a pointed message to his political allies, at a time when France is mired in a diplomatic crisis with the U.S. after a submarine deal with Australia that French officials described as a “stab in the back.”
Noting that Arnault secured permission to borrow the Morozov collection from Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, Macron committed to strengthening ties with Russia, likening the relationship to the bond between Russian textile magnates Mikhaïl and Ivan Morozov, and the French artists they supported in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“I wish to pledge France’s sincere commitment to pursuing this path and to continuing to promote cooperation between our two countries,” the president said.
“Because when there is such a history, such taste, such reciprocal understanding of the French soul and the Russian soul, that is something that we must continue to pursue. It will be done in other venues, perhaps in a less fascinating way, but I think I can speak for President Putin and myself when I say it will be done with the same determination,” he said.
Arnault, meanwhile, said he hoped to match the success of the Shchukin show, which drew 1.3 million visitors — though with fewer international tourists in town, and limits on the number of visitors due to COVID-19 restrictions, that might be a challenging target to meet.
For the time being, he was content to witness the emotional impact of the exhibition. “During the preview, I saw people cry with emotion,” Arnault said.