20 April 2014

The Pearlman Collection at the Ashmolean

Exhibitions based on collections provide a fascination which can’t be found in shows given over to individual artists or to particular periods in art history. I think it lies in the way the collector (or collectors) exercised their taste given the opportunities and resources which were available. Gertrude Stein and her brothers, for example, were wealthy and were collecting contemporary talent in the right place and time, Paris in the 1920s. Sterling and Francine Clark had been in a similar position a decade earlier. The Radev Collection, on the other hand, reflects its creators’ tastes and long-term opportunities to make acquisitions rather than their funds. So what of Henry and Rose Pearlman’s collection, now on an international tour starting at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford: Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of Modern Art from the Pearlman Collection?

Henry Pearlman was born in New York in 1895 and set up Eastern Cold Storage in 1919. One can well believe that his company would have done well in the war years and certainly in 1945 he was able to make his first significant purchase of modern art, Chaïm Soutine’s Village Square, Céret (above, top). For nearly 30 years he went on building up his collection, most of which is now at the Ashmolean. The show starts with a large number of late Cézannes, mostly watercolours (not often displayed, no doubt for reasons of conservation), eg Three Pears, (Trois Poires, 1888-90 above lower), from the painter’s later years in Aix en Provence. These lead on to the next room’s Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir (Citerne au Parc du Château Noir, c 1900, below in Pearlman’s office) and one of the versions of Montagne Sainte-Victoire (c 1902, poster above), much-painted by the artist.

Nearby are Vincent van Gogh’s Tarascon Stage Coach (Tarascon Diligence, 1888, again below in Pearlman’s office) and less satisfactory works by Gauguin, Degas (After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself /Après le bain, femme s'essuyant, 1892, above left) and Toulouse-Lautrec (Messaline, 1901, above right). I found the latter interesting because it was inspired by a visit to the opera in Bordeaux shortly before the painter’s death at Chateau Malromé. Earlier and more pleasing, if undemanding, works are Sisley’s Seine at Verneuil (La Seine à Verneuil, 1889, below, left) and Camille Pissaro’s Still Life: Apples and Pears in a Round Basket (Nature Morte: Pommes et Poires Dans un Panier Rond, 1872, below, right).

Finally, there are more works by Soutine, and two oils and a sculpture by Modigliani. Pearlman discovered after purchase that the small Daumier oil shown nearby, Head of an Old Woman (Tête de Vieille Femme, 1856-60, left), was one of the first purchases made by Leo and Gertrude Stein. It is a pity that Pearlman hadn’t started his collection a decade or two earlier when the opportunities for acquisitions of works by the painters he liked might have been greater (the absence of any cubist work is intriguing when Cézanne is often regarded as their precursor). He displayed what he considered to be his major pieces in his office at Eastern Cold Storage: the van Gogh, its acquisition surely being his apogee as a collector, Modigliani’s Jean Cocteau 1919-17, and Cézanne’s Cistern in the Park of Chateau Noir, (below).

Cézanne and the Modern provides a welcome opportunity in the UK to see works by Soutine and Modigliani as well as some fine Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. The Pearlman website contains some interesting background information including Henry’s reminiscences, eg:
I found art dealers at first quite difficult to understand with regard to pricing works of art. Being accustomed to a business where selling price is based on cost plus small overhead and ten percent profit, I found that art dealers' prices in most cases bore little relationship to their costs, but were based on what the traffic could bear. I know of a pair of Douanier Rousseau portraits, for example, that were purchased at an auction in the Midi of France for about twenty dollars, repurchased by my French dealer friend for under $600, then sold to one of the New York galleries for $12,000; when I saw them exhibited here and asked the price I was advised that they could be bought for $30,000. Not being interested in owning these Rousseaus, I was amused by the gyrations of the prices. The last price I saw them offered for was $150,000 for the pair.
The show continues at the Ashmolean until 22 June and will be at Le Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence from 12 July to 5 October. After showings in Atlanta and Vancouver it will return to the Princeton University Art Museum, where the Pearlman collection is on long-term loan, in 2015.

14 April 2014

Could Paddington leave the train?

It seems that the UK debate as to whether to leave the EU, a possibility known as Brexit, pauses only for moments to be thankful that we didn’t join the euro. The latest and somewhat surreal development is that the Institute of Economic Affairs has awarded its Brexit Prize of 100,000 euros (!) to a 30-year old Foreign Office employee, Iain Mansfield, for his outline “blueprint for Britain after the EU”. According to a piece in The Times Diary (TMS) (£) on 11 April, Our Man in Coventry*, William Hague is “said to be furious” about the award and Mansfield has “seemingly since been silenced”, deleting his Twitter account and personal website.

This personal website has in the past touched on the possibility of France leaving the eurozone. For example, last year I posted about an article by Philippe Villin in Le Figaro Magazine which was a spoof of the speech which François Hollande would give when the time came. And back in 2011, I commented on the way that some till receipts in France still show the price that would have been paid in francs. Now I’m beginning to wonder whether the UK debate is being framed in the wrong way. At the end of Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers, George, a Professor of Moral Philosophy, observes that “… all the observable phenomena associated with the train leaving Paddington could equally well be accounted for by Paddington leaving the train …”. Or, in this case and putting it another way, rather than Britain leaving the EU, what if the EU were to leave the euro?

This is the suggestion being made by François Heisbourg, an énarque like Villin, but writing much more seriously in the current issue of Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, the journal of the IISS (Heisbourg is Chairman of the IISS Council). Last year his book, La Fin du rêve européen (The end of the European dream) was published in France, but so far it has only been translated into Greek! We can probably assume that his article, The EU Without the Euro, conveys the essence of his ideas.

Put crudely, Heisbourg believes that however unpleasant the abandonment of the euro might be, the alternatives are worse:
There would be no need to contemplate an economically risky, technically tricky and politically backward-looking option such as the orderly dismantling of the euro if more promising policies were at hand.
He rules out the creation of fully federal Europe capable of underpinning the euro as politically impossible. On the other hand:
… the actual set of policies currently followed, sometimes described as 'muddling through', [would be] more aptly called 'muddling down' in terms of its effects on growth and mass unemployment.
What he wants to avoid is a disorderly break-up of the euro, better “a deliberate and orderly unravelling of the euro in the framework of a preserved European Union”. His comments on the current situation are interesting:
… there are now two eurozones. One, composed of Germany, Finland and Austria enjoys limited unemployment … an early retum to pre-crisis levels of GDP … and great impatience with efforts by less fortunate states to transfer their liabilities to the EU level. The other eurozone has yet to recover to pre-crisis levels, with mass unemployment and long-term joblessness creating a 'lost generation', and unbelievably patient electorates who have not at the time of writing, voted in latter-day fascists or Bolsheviks. France falls squarely in between these two blocs. In short, muddling down does not look good.
Post-euro, Heisbourg would prefer a return to the European Monetary System with each country having its own currency and aspiring to stable exchange rates, to the alternatives of sub-euro common currencies:
Some have gone further by suggesting, facetiously or in earnest, the creation of a northern euro - a 'neuro' or, worse 'Bis-mark' - eventually balanced by a southern euro, or 'sudo' (as in pseudo'). It is not clear why countries that would have dismantled the euro to recover a degree of monetary autonomy would want to jump into another straitjacket.
Heisbourg sees the challenges in a “return to national currencies [which] would be universally considered a humbling setback” as being political rather than technical. He identifies precedents which support its feasibility and observes that disagreements with the suggestion he first made in La Fin du rêve européen were not mainly based on its technical difficulties. However political support from both Germany and France would be a necessity in his view. Making the best of the consequences of having to walk back from the euro (he quotes Churchill on Dunkirk – ‘wars are not won by evacuations’), he suggests that “the fact of being seen as acting decisively and competently will redound, Dunkirk-style, to the EU’s credit”.

On the subject of the UK, and pertinent to Paddington and the train, Heisbourg thinks that:
This could also be a Union in which traditional British euroscepticism would have fewer reasons to develop into full-blown, exit-prone europhobia. … Although there can be no guarantee that an EU without the euro would eliminate the risk, the probability of a British exit is much higher in all other scenarios. … an EU of which the UK is a member and whose long-term status is no longer in question would be strategically stabilising, not least as a war-shy, balancing-to-Asia United States adopts a more instrumental, tough-love attitude towards NATO and its European neighbours.
He goes on to make some interesting observations about the circumstances of individual nations in the immediate post-euro phase, and regards France as possibly being the most acutely affected in the short term. He concludes by calling for more research and debate, at which point earlier passages in his article are worth revisiting:
… upstream debate could in its academic stages be broad-ranging and systematic, with a view to assessing the most promising political avenues; political decision-making could be careful and deliberate, albeit under the conditions of secrecy called for in monetary affairs; and implementation would have to be sudden and comprehensive.
In order to be successful, the demonetisation of the euro and the recreation of national currencies has to occur during the compressed time frame of a longer-than-usual bank holiday, initially with a very small group of institutional actors (no more than the heads of a couple of states and the Chairman of the ECB), before the circle is broadened after the basic decision to unravel the euro has been taken.
Heisbourg’s closing words are that “the preservation of the EU must be [the] primary objective, to which the positive or negative fate of the euro must be subordinated”. Opinions, many much better-informed than mine, will differ about the practicability of adopting his proposal, but I imagine that most would accept his point that a successful implementation would be to the EU’s credit.

*Our Man in ... + Send to Coventry