Priceless Russian art trove and its tortured history comes to Paris

The line-up at the Louis Vuitton Foundation's new exhibition in Paris reads like a who's who of artistic giants from the Belle Epoque: Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Matisse, Cezanne...

Priceless Russian art trove and its tortured history comes to Paris
The Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY / AFP

What is most surprising is that they all come from one collection — a pair of Russian brothers from the late 19th century who just happened to have an absurdly good eye for who would become the geniuses of their generation. 

Mikhail and Ivan Morozov, born into a textile dynasty in the 1870s, went to Paris and came back with treasures — Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin — that were barely recognised as such at the time.

Indeed, Mikhail was the first to bring Van Gogh and Gauguin paintings to Russia.

Some 200 of their portraits, sculptures and photographs will be on show at the Louis Vuitton Foundation from Wednesday, on loan from Russian museums.

They had a torturous route through the 20th century — surviving revolution and years hidden away after World War II.

The new exhibition in Paris has also had its troubles, delayed three times by the pandemic and finally starting a year late.

But it promises to be another successful borrowing from the Russian archives, following the museum’s mammoth success with the Shchukin exhibition in 2016-17.

That show – a similar treasure trove compiled by a contemporary of the Morozov brothers — drew 1.29 million visitors to the Louis Vuitton
Foundation, which it said made it the most successful show in France for half a century.

No doubt much attention will go to the work by Van Gogh, who gets a room apart for his little-known late work “Prisoners Exercising”, featuring a familiar ginger-haired figure staring at the viewer, a self-portrait snuck into the grim setting.

Exile and recovery

Mikhail Morozov’s high living brought him an early death at 33, though he had already amassed 39 masterpieces.

His brother Ivan picked up the baton and became one of the world’s great collectors.

But it all came crashing down with the Communist revolution of 1917 in Russia.

Ivan was reduced to being “assistant curator” of his own collection as his home became a state museum, before soon fleeing into exile.

Later, the paintings were sent into hiding in the Ural mountains when the Nazis invaded in 1941.

They spent years out there, fairly well preserved by temperatures that often fell to minus-40 degrees, and it was only in the late 1950s that the Soviet government dug them out and sent them to the Tretyakov, Pushkin and Hermitage collections.

“The Morozov Collection: Icons Of Modern Art” is at the Louis Vuitton Foundation until February 22.

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Asterix: Five things to know about France’s favourite character

Asterix is hitting the box offices again, so to celebrate here's a look at France's most treasured hero.

Asterix: Five things to know about France's favourite character

If you have walked past a bus stop anywhere in France in recent weeks, then you have likely run into film posters advertising Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom.

Starring high-profile French actors Marion Cotillard and Vincent Cassel, France’s film industry is hoping that this film, capitalising on France’s nostalgic relationship with the comic series “Asterix” will bring box office success.

The Asterix comic book series was first published in 1959, and tells the story of a small Gallic village on the coast of France that is attempting to defend itself from invaders, namely the Romans. Asterix, the hero of the series, manages to always save the day, helping his fellow Gauls keep the conquerors at bay.

As the beloved Gaulish hero makes his way back onto the big screen, here are five things you should know about France’s cherished series:

Asterix is seen as the ‘every day’ Frenchman

“Asterix brings together all of the identity-based clichés that form the basis of French culture”, Nicolas Rouvière, researcher at the University of Grenoble-Alps and expert in French comics, told AFP in an interview in 2015.

READ MORE: Bande dessinée: Why do the French love comic books so much?

The expert wrote in his 2014 book “Obelix Complex” that “the French like to look at themselves in this mirror [of the Asterix series], which reflects their qualities and shortcomings in a caricatured and complacent way”.

Oftentimes, the French will invoke Asterix – the man who protected France from the Roman invaders – when expressing their resistance toward something, whether that is imported, American fast food or an unpopular government reform.

The front page of French leftwing newspaper Libération shows President Emmanuel Macron as a Roman while Asterix and his team are the French people protesting against pension reform.

The figure of ‘a Gaul’ is a popular mascot for French sports teams, and you’ll even see people dressed up as Asterix on demos. 

A man dressed as Asterix the Gaul with a placard reading “Gaul, Borne breaks our balls” during a protest over the government’s proposed pension reform, in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Asterix is the second best-selling comic series

The series has had great success in France since it was first launched in 1959, originally as Astérix le Gaulois. It has also been popular across much of Europe, as the series often traffics in tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of other European nations – for example, caricaturing the English as fans of lukewarm beer and tasteless foods.

Over the years, Asterix has been translated into more than 100 languages, with at least 375 million copies sold worldwide.

It remains the second best-selling comic series in the world, after the popular manga “One Piece”.

There is an Asterix theme park 

The French love Asterix so much that they created a theme park, located just 22 miles north of Paris, in the comic series’ honour in 1989.

The park receives up to two million visitors a year, making it the second most visited theme park in France, after Disneyland Paris. With over 40 attractions and six themed sections, inspired by the comic books, the park brings both young and old visitors each year. 

READ MORE: Six French ‘bandes dessinées’ to start with

The first French satellite was named after Asterix

As Asterix comes from the Greek word for ‘little star’, the French though it would be apt to name their first satellite, launched in 1965 after the Gaulish warrior.

As of 2023, the satellite was still orbiting the earth and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.

Asterix’ co-authors were from immigrant backgrounds

Here’s become the ‘ultimate Frenchman’, but both creators of the Asterix series were second-generation French nationals, born in France in the 1920s to immigrant parents.

René Goscinny created the Asterix comic series alongside illustrator Albert Uderzo. Goscinny’s parents were Jewish immigrants from Poland. Born in Paris, René’s family moved to Argentina when he was young and he was raised there for the majority of his childhood. As for Albert Uderzo, his parents were Italian immigrants who settled in the Paris region.

Goscinny unexpectedly died at the age of 51, while writing Asterix in Belgium. From then on, Uderzo took over both writing and illustrating the series on his own, marking Goscinny’s death in the comic by illustrating dark skies for the remainder of the book.

In 1985, Uderzo received one of the highest distinctions in France – the Legion of Honour. Uderzo retired in 2011, but briefly came out of retirement in 2015 to commemorate the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists who were murdered in a terror attack by drawing two Asterix pictures honouring their memories.