From Mexico, With Love:
Russian Art and Rasputin

Curator in the making: Víctor Manuel Contreras, the Mexican sculptor, among his Yusupov family memorabilia
Photo © Janet Jaman

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There is nothing immediately striking about the facade of number 102 on the Callejón Borda. The yolk-coloured exterior is as impressively tall as most other 16th-century properties in Cuernavaca, a sun-drenched hour south of Mexico City. The shock of magenta bougainvillea that spills over from the courtyard is about as commonplace as roses in an English garden. And the water meter, which lies exposed in a crudely chiselled hollow at the foot of the entrance, is just plain ugly.

But walk up the three stone steps and through the wooden door, and you teleport, via rooms filled with paintings, letters, documents and personal effects, to the world of Prince Felix Yusupov, son of the wealthiest family in pre-revolutionary Russia. He was immortalised by his leading role in the murder of Grigori Rasputin, the mysterious and powerful mystic whose malign influence over the tsar’s wife some credit with sparking the Russian revolution.

The creator of this time machine is Víctor Manuel Contreras, the Mexican sculptor whose monumental bronze works furnish public spaces in Mexico and the US, and figure in collections in at least a dozen countries.

Contreras met the Yusupov family in 1958 when he was a teenage art student in Paris. He had exotic good looks, a gnawing curiosity for life and an easy charm that seemed to open doors wherever he turned – the most important of which was the one at Rue Pierre Guerín 38 bis in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, the family house of the Yusupovs during their years in exile. The Mexican artist bonded instantly with the ageing Prince Felix, a man he describes as “beautiful”. An initial lunch invitation turned into an offer to stay indefinitely.

And stay he did. During the next five years, the young artist would breakfast, lunch and dine with Prince Felix and Princess Irina, his elegant wife renowned for her arresting beauty. He got to know almost every aspect of their lives, acquiring a unique insight into not only one of the richest families in Europe, but also the Russian aristocracy in exile after 1917.

Thousands of people belonging to Russia’s nobility fled the country as it slid towards revolution, leaving an estimated 100,000 large buildings and stately homes to fall into government hands. Many of the families left everything behind, frequently escaping the country dressed as peasants to begin new and often financially precarious lives in Denmark, France and beyond. Some of them were forced to take up jobs for the first time and, in some cases, even waited on tables and drove taxis.

The Yusupovs arrived in Paris in 1919, having fled Yalta aboard HMS Marlborough along with the remnants of the Romanovs. They were intimately entwined with the imperial family for centuries, occupying powerful positions ranging from minister and private counsellor to the tsar and general-in-chief. Princess Irina was the niece of Tsar Nicholas II.

For almost 100 years prior to the revolution, the Yusupov dynasty lived in unrivalled splendour at the immense yellow and white Moika Palace in St Petersburg. By the time Boris Nikolaevich Yusupov, who was marshal of the imperial court, inherited the family fortune in the 1830s, the Yusupovs were thought to own 675,000 acres of land and have 40,000 servants and workers.

In later life, Prince Felix would recall childhood memories of his mother’s flowing silk gowns, lavish fur coats and jewellery collection. Among other things, the Yusupov family owned the Sultan of Morocco diamond, the fourth-largest blue diamond in the world.

Estimates of the family’s wealth prior to the revolution vary, but the fortune, which was built mainly on oil and mining, could have been equivalent to as much as $10bn today.

In contrast to that splendour, life in exile was very different. Contreras says that the Yusupov family’s house in Paris had just three bedrooms on the second floor, at the top of a wooden staircase. Staffing, which had resembled something akin to a small army at the St Petersburg palace, was also minimal: it consisted of Denise, a woman of Franco-Russian origin, who did all the housekeeping and cooking. The only security was a small sign outside that read “Chiens mechantes” – beware of the dogs. Inside, there was only Gus Gus, the family pug, and Muni, a tail-less cat that the princess had rescued from the street.

Yet for all the upheaval, the Yusupovs accepted their circumstances without rancour. “They didn’t miss their lives in Russia,” says Contreras. Nor did they expect to return. “They were realists – they thought that the revolution would fail, but they also thought that they might not get to witness its failure first-hand.”

As for the fortune that they were forced to leave behind, Contreras says they were never less than philosophical. “They always used to say, ‘We were the richest people in the world, but we didn’t know who our friends and enemies were. Now, we may not have great riches, but we do have great friends’.”

The Yusupovs did at least manage to take some of their possessions with them when they left Russia – bound initially for London from Malta, and then for Paris.

There were the diamonds that they smuggled in the nappies of Irina Felixovna, their baby girl and only child. There was the stunning string of pearls that belonged to Princess Zenaida, Yusupov’s mother, and that is now in Contreras’s possession.

There were also the two Rembrandts – “Portrait of a Gentleman with a Tall Hat and Gloves” and “Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan”, both circa 1658-60 – that helped finance the couple’s life in Paris. Recounting the prince’s stories, Contreras claims that these works were, in effect, stolen from the family after Joseph Widener, a US financier and art collector, refused to return the paintings left to him as collateral for a $2m loan in 1921.

In fact, several periodicals of the time suggested that the loan was for £100,000, and that Widener later refused a cheque from Prince Felix as repayment of the original loan plus interest, opting to keep the paintings instead. In any event, he never recovered his beloved Rembrandts, both of which hang in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, today.

Life in Paris was mostly calm. Princess Irina would venture out of the house infrequently, instead spending much of her time playing solitaire while smoking long, dark-coloured cigarettes. Contreras remembers her as “distant, formal and of few words”, but also as strikingly handsome, even for her advanced years. “She was made of porcelain,” he says. “She had beautiful eyes.”

Prince Felix, who in Russia had a reputation for flamboyancy and liking men, was more sociable, and would frequently entertain the likes of Tamara de Lempicka, the Polish-born artist, Ingmar Bergman, the film director, Jean Cocteau, the French novelist and poet, and his lover, Jean Marais, the actor. Contreras even recalls a couple of visits to the house by General Charles de Gaulle.

Prince Felix took the young artist on regular visits to help less fortunate Russian émigrés living in Paris – one aspect of his active and well-known philanthropic work – and said that he even sometimes cured the infirm with his hands. “He was mystical and possessed special powers,” insists Contreras, bizarrely echoing one of the main accusations against Rasputin.

Special powers or not, the artist admits to having fallen under the prince’s spell. “We fell in love,” he says. Even though there is plenty of literature about Prince Felix’s supposed homosexuality, Contreras says that their relationship was always platonic.

It is without doubt his involvement in the murder of the “mad monk” that has most defined Prince Felix’s place in history. Rasputin rose from humble origins to occupy an influential position with the Russian royal family, in particular Alexandra, the tsarina. And it was that growing influence that so worried many members of the nobility.

But according to Contreras, and in spite of the prince’s extensive, though inconsistent, writings about that night in December 1916, the Russian nobleman only brought up the subject a couple of times during the artist’s five years with the family.

The first time was after dinner at home when Princess Irina had left the table. “He just suddenly opened up,” remembers Contreras. He told him about the first time they had met. Prince Felix claimed to have fallen to the ground from the power of Rasputin’s initial gaze; that was the moment he knew that he had to save Russia from the mystic’s evil designs.

Much has been written about the night of the murder, and much of it by Prince Felix himself. The version he told Contreras tallies closely with the bulk of his written accounts, and includes details of how he lured Rasputin down to the basement of the Moika Palace, and how he and two accomplices laced a tray of cupcakes and wine with enough cyanide to kill five men.

It also describes the prince’s horror when the poison failed to act, and how he and his friends shot Rasputin four times and then bludgeoned him repeatedly before finally tossing him into the icy river.

The exact events are tightly bound in controversy, but Prince Felix’s involvement is beyond doubt, and Contreras says that he never expressed regret. Indeed, he describes one episode when he accompanied the prince to a Parisian café, and a journalist approached to ask if he thought that Rasputin’s murder had brought on the revolution. “His answer was short and firm,” recalls Contreras. “‘The revolution happened because I didn’t kill him in time to stop it,’” he remembers Prince Felix saying.

One of the ceiling lamps that supposedly hung in the basement of the Moika Palace today hangs in Contreras’s house in Cuernavaca. Made by Tiffany, the red and cobalt-blue tones illuminate a narrow staircase that leads to two rooms filled with paintings, photographs, religious icons and documents that the prince left to the artist.

Contreras, who is now approaching 70, says the idea is to turn the house into a museum displaying the collection. All that needs doing, he says, is to bring out pieces that he stores in the bank, sort out a few insurance issues and install more sophisticated alarms.

But almost in the same breath he admits that he is still not convinced that Cuernavaca is the right venue. He is not sure; he is going to have to think about it a little more. And until he decides, this unique collection will remain locked away in a small and little-visited Mexican town.

Source and Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 2011
by Adam Thomson
NOTE: Royal Russia makes no claim to copyright of this article.
27 May, 2011