Archive for April, 2012
Moviegoers were captivated last year with Woody Allen’s movie, “Midnight in Paris”. Millions of viewers fantasized going back in time to Paris in the 1920s to drop in on Gertrude Stein’s salon and meet American writers and fellow expatriates, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
That is not my fantasy. Mine would be to find myself in the Paris apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus on a Saturday evening in 1906. On such a night, starting at 8 p.m., Leo and Gertrude Stein would convene their regular Saturday salon. Leo would hold me spellbound as he spoke about the groundbreaking, avant-garde art he and his family were collecting. I could gaze at now-priceless masterpieces hanging on every inch of wall space. Had I arrived on a good night, I might even share words and a drink with fellow guests, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. I’d be present close to modern art’s creation.
I came close to having that vision last October when I entered the galleries of Paris’ Grand Palais museum and came face to face with many of the iconic paintings that now reside in museums around the world. As I entered the opening galleries, I gasped in astonishment. I had no idea that the Stein family was responsible for acquiring such works, nurturing the careers of now-heralded artists. Like great explorers, the Steins were the earliest champions of modern art.
Unlike much wealthier collectors of that period, such as the Potter Palmers of Chicago or the H.O. Havemeyers of New York, the Steins were neither particularly wealthy nor had they come to Paris with the intention of collecting paintings. They were well-educated, had some art training (Leo was an artist who had studied with art historian and connoisseur, Bernard Berenson) and exhibited discerning taste for the new.
The exhibit, “The Steins Collect”, now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 3, is the culmination of a decade-long commitment by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the French Union of National Museums–Grand Palais and the Met. It is truly the proverbial once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, made possible due to a one-time exception by the heirs of Elise A. Haas, allowing Matisse’s “Woman with a Hat” to travel. Viewers owe a debt of gratitude to the three museums and the lead curators (Janet Bishop at SFMOMA, Cecile Debray at the Grand Palais and Rebecca Rabinow at The Met) for bringing the exhibit to fruition with great flair and newly unearthed scholarship. The first examination of the Stein Collection in more than 40 years, it reunites close to 200 works, now scattered to all corners of the globe.
Leo was the collection’s driving force in its early years. Deciding to become an artist, he moved to Paris at the end of 1902 from Florence where he had met and been influenced by Berenson. His sister, Gertrude, joined him in the fall of 1903. Their brother and sister-in-law, Michael and Sarah Stein, arrived in January, 1904. Leo’s early aesthetic was more classical in outlook. The artists he called “The Big Four”: Manet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne informed his aesthetic though the first three artists were beyond his means. He purchased his first Cezanne from legendary dealer, Ambroise Vollard, in 1903.
In Paris, Leo was delighted to learn he could afford contemporary oil paintings. Leo and Gertrude were transfixed by the art on view at the second Salon d’Automne in 1904. Works by Cezanne, Odilon Redon, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec were featured. Two weeks later, they emptied their bank accounts of close to $7,000 and bought two Cezannes, two Gauguins, two Renoirs and a Maurice Denis.
Six weeks later, they purchased Cezanne’s “Madame Cezanne with a Fan”. They acquired the centerpieces of their young collection, Matisse’s, “Woman with a Hat” in 1905 and Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude in 1906. During their lifetimes, the Steins owned 180 works by each artist.
Throughout the decade from 1904 until 1913, the Steins were modern art’s most influential tastemakers. Alfred Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, has written: “For the two brief years between 1905 and 1907 he (Leo) was possibly the most discerning connoisseur and collector of 20th-Century painting in the world.” Years later, Gertrude tried to inflate her role in assembling the collection but Rebecca Rabinow, curator of the exhibition at The Met, told me in an interview, “If Leo hadn’t been around, I don’t think there would have been a collection.”
If one were to have visited the Steins’ small apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus in 1906, one would have seen paintings, hung floor to ceiling, crammed on three walls. There were works by Cezanne (3), Renoir (2), Gauguin, Picasso (3), Matisse, Manguin, Bonnard, Daumier, Delacroix, Denis, Toulouse-Lautrec and several by Leo Stein. In the mid-1930s, Gertrude reminded her readers that the art they showed was once scorned. “It is very difficult now that everybody is accustomed to everything to give some idea of the uneasiness once felt when one first looked at all these pictures on the walls.”
The exhibit I saw six months ago at the Grand Palais opened with a room devoted to art by “The Big Four” and then devoted subsequent rooms to displaying the art collected by each of the Stein siblings and their companions in turn. Rabinow, however, has taken a different tack toward hanging the collection in New York. Her aim, she said, was to have the collection speak to its specific moment in time. “I arranged the paintings so that the art tells stories.”
In the entry room, Rabinow hung paintings Leo saw from 1900-1903 that he didn’t buy. Leo and Gertrude had a rule that they would only buy works by artists they were friends with. A showstopper of Rabinow’s design is an exact replica, down to the exact dimensions, of Leo’s small studio (460 sq. ft.) complete with an in-gallery projection of the original artworks onto the studio walls. If you can’t make it to New York, you can view a video of the projection on the Met’s website, www.metmuseum.org. But you should, by all means, hop a plane or train if you want a special thrill.
While the exhibition is a full immersion by itself, I cannot end without praise for the lavish, nearly 500-page catalog, published by Yale University Press. I cannot recommend it too highly. It is a necessary complement to the exhibit that squares the circle, so to speak. The eleven original essays (including those by the three lead curators and a highly incisive profile of Leo Stein by Gary Tinterow, a former senior curator at The Met and now director of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts) are an entertaining read and a rich trove of fascinating biographical details about each member of the Stein family, along with new research findings. The catalog contains 500 plates, many in color, a helpful chronology, pages from Sarah Stein’s Notebook of Matisse’s teachings, photos of the Stein residences illustrating how they displayed their art and, last but not least, an invaluable inventory of the Stein Collections with dimensions, current ownership and past provenance.
Every aspect of the exhibition and catalog manifests the labor of love this endeavor was for all parties concerned. I offer a bow of deep appreciation for making that moment in time come alive for me. Go treat yourself to the same experience!
Editor’s Note: The postings this week and next focus on two magnificent art exhibits currently up. One is 750 miles away at the Metropolitan Museum in New York while the other is only 90 miles from Chicago at the Milwaukee Art Museum. If hopping a plane is out of the question, I’d strongly recommend the journey north before the show closes on May 6th. I’m sure you will be moved by the arresting and highly-accomplished works.
At the moment, while the Art Institute treads water, preparing for its upcoming Roy Lichtenstein show, genuine art excitement can be found just up the road at the Milwaukee Art Museum where a stunning collection of 200 paintings, sculpture and objects, part of the Anthony Petullo Collection, is on view. Mere words alone cannot do justice to the show’s visceral power. I only know that, soon after entering the exhibit, I was in the grip of the virtuosity on display in a way I seldom experience at an exhibition, where keeping a critical distance is the norm.
At the entry to the “Accidental Genius” exhibition is artist David Lloyd’s wall-size, blown-up portrait of English actress, Susanna York. Her gaze is captivating but one senses something askew about the likeness. That “off” quality serves as a metaphor for this bold assortment of works and styles by “self-taught” and “outsider” artists, no-name figures lacking academic training or existing outside mainstream culture due to psychological illness or some developmental disability.
The show highlights the artists’ mesmerizing talents as well as Petullo’s loving obsession for these works. Such previously-maligned and marginalized creations are now avidly pursued by collectors and museums. Go and treat yourself to a visual feast. After viewing the artists’ intuitive handling of color, composition, draftsmanship and detail, you may agree with me in finding current art babble surrounding these works too parochial. The current art canon should embrace such creations and label them Art–plain and simple, free of limiting modifiers. After all, many of the artists we now revere, names such as Cezanne, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Gauguin, didn’t go to art school either.
I found myself particularly transfixed by the work of Eddie Arning, David Lloyd, Henry Darger, James Dixon, Madge Gill, Carlo Zinelli along with the artists of Art Haus, a mental health facility outside Vienna. The six named artists have wildly contrasting styles that paid no mind to the art world, yet produced creations of stunning originality. When I passed a good number of the works, I instinctively moved within inches of the paper or canvas, drawn by the force of their images, color, hyper-precise line drawing or written text. Margaret Andera, the curator of “Accidental Genius”, deserves praise for her long-standing commitment to the collection that informs her intelligent selection and organization of the exhibition.
Every great collection reflects the eye and personality of its collector. While Petullo assembled his collection over three decades, he noted, in a telephone conversation, that half of the 320 donated works were acquired during an intense three year period, from 1990-93. While the collection contains work by several American masters like Darger and Bill Traylor, its strength lies in the quality and range of European self-taught artists represented, many of whom Petullo collected in depth. His donation to the Milwaukee Art Museum, according to director, Dan Keegan, “is the most extensive grouping of its kind in any American museum or in private hands.”
Petullo’s first collecting foray came in 1974 when he bought a work that caught his eye at the city’s Lakefront Festival of Arts. Over the next decade, he collected what he liked with no plan. He dubs those first purchases “early Dad art”. They now reside with his children and grandchildren. Gradually, this local businessman moved away from folk/naive art and gravitated toward self-taught and outsider art.
Petullo doesn’t like the artificial distinctions placed on this work. What attracts him so much to these artists? “They share an independent spirit, unrestrained by the rules of art training. Also they are inventive, having a free flow of creativity. Essentially, they create for their own enjoyment and fulfillment, with little or no regard for the rest of the art world.”
As Petullo’s eye developed and grew more discriminating, he concentrated on figurative, colorful, uplifting and optimistic work. Abstract or highly polished art didn’t move him. “I’m an imagist,”, he says. The art of Edward Hopper, Egon Schiele, The School of The Eight, and artists of the Fauve movement holds special appeal.
“I never bought art as an investment”, Petullo told me, advice he gives to every aspiring collector. “You have to realize that 98% of art never appreciates. And, as soon as the work leaves the dealer’s shop, it’s immediately worth 50% less than what you paid for it.” I asked if he had gotten some bargains when he began collecting outsider art in the early 1980s. “Well, maybe if you consider $20,000 or 30,000 a low price.”
Though he initially relied on one or two dealers to steer him toward outstanding work, Petullo soon developed firm confidence in his own taste. “You have to believe in yourself to build a great collection. You have to say “No” to them (dealers) if it’s not for you.” He laughingly recalled that Russell Bowman, a former director of the museum (now an art dealer in Chicago) once brought him a list of suggested artists to add to the collection. Petullo says he crossed off all but one or two names. He’d do it his way, thank you.
He made it clear years ago that his museum-quality collection was destined for Milwaukee. What criteria, I asked, did he use in deciding where it should go and had he considered a New York museum or The Art Institute (Petullo was born and grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois, where he has endowed two named professorships). He named four factors that governed the winning choice: “They needed to have strong interest in the collection, top curatorial talent, enough wall space and, very important, enough storage space.” He didn’t want the art to languish in an off-site warehouse.
New York’s Museum of American Folk Art didn’t have enough wall space and recently shuttered its doors. And the Art Institute was “too damn big”. The collection would be lost there and he thought the museum “not ready”, possibly meaning such art was deemed not yet worthy of admission. At Milwaukee, the Petullo Collection will join the Richard and Erna Flagg Collection of Haitian Art and the Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art. Those three collections, notes gallerist Jane Kallir in the lavish “Accidental Genius” catalog, “make Milwaukee one of America’s preeminent centers for the study of work by untrained creators.”
At a time when auction houses and one’s checkbook rule as the new arbiters of artistic value and social celebrity, it is heartening to see an older model of a generous collector motivated purely by his passion for art and his community. For more information on the artists and exhibition visit the Milwaukee Art Museum.