23 December 2011

Two Paris Exhibitions

Paul Cézanne was born in Aix-en-Provence in 1839, and it was in Provence that many of his most celebrated works were produced. However, encouraged by his school friend, Émile Zola, he first travelled to Paris in 1861 and would return there many times to paint in the city or in the surrounding countryside (Pontoise, below). About 80 works from in or around the capital provide the theme for Cézanne et Paris, currently at the Musée du Luxembourg.

Cézanne now seems to be classed as a Post-Impressionist rather than as an Impressionist (“un peintre déjà sorti de l’impressionisme”, said Renoir), and many of the works in the exhibition (portrait of Mme Cézanne, left) hint at later developments by other artists, particularly Cubism . He is often called the father of modern art ("notre père à tous" said Picasso or Matisse, or both of them). Nonetheless, Cézanne had exhibited at the 1863 Salon des Refusés and at the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874 when his works were among the most disliked.

The son of a banker, Cézanne had no financial need to sell his work and it was only after the solo exhibition put on by the dealer Ambroise Vollard (right) in November 1895 that his reputation became established. Cézanne died in Aix-en-Provence in 1906. By this time some wealthy young Americans had come to live in Paris, and their art collection is the subject of the second exhibition, Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… L’aventure des Stein, in the Petit Palais, across the Seine from the Musée du Luxembourg.

The Stein family were of German-Jewish origins and had become wealthy through the San Francisco tramway business co-owned by Daniel Stein. Daniel died in 1891 at the age of 59, three years after his wife who had died at 46. This left their four children, aged between 17 and 26, to pursue lives that, but for their intellectual inclinations, might have been labelled trustafarian in Britain a century later. Leo Stein (1872-1947) was the first to develop a serious interest in art. In 1900 he was studying 15th century Italian art in Florence under the influence of Bernard Berenson. However, while there he met Roger Fry (who was to introduce Post-Impressionism to Britain in 1910) and saw a Cézanne for the first time. At the end of 1902 he moved to Paris. In 1903 he purchased a Cézanne and was joined by his younger sister Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). By 1904 Leo and Gertrude had bought more works by Cézanne, as well as by Gauguin and Renoir. That year they were joined by the oldest Stein brother and would-be paterfamilias, Michael (1865-1938), and his wife Sarah (1870-1953). In the years that followed all four Steins were to make substantial purchases of works by these and other artists.  Hung in their two Paris apartments (Michael and Sarah's, left; Gertrude and Leo's, right) the paintings were to be admired during Saturday soirées held for Paris’s artistic avante garde.

Picasso became a close friend of Gertrude and painted her famous portrait  in 1905-6 (below), (photographed together by Man Ray in 1922). Gertrude had by then started her literary career and became a supporter of Picasso during his development of Cubism. She famously remarked of Picasso:
He alone among painters did not set himself the problem of expressing truths which all the world can see, but the truth which only he can see.

The exhibition brings together some of the exceptional works which passed through the Steins’ hands, and are now dispersed in museums and private collections around the world. Michael and Sarah collected many works by Matisse only to lose some of the best during the First World War while on loan to a gallery in Berlin. In the late 1920s Le Corbusier designed them a Modernist villa near Paris but they were to leave after a few years when the rise of fascism prompted their return to the US. By 1914 Leo had taken himself and his preferred pictures, mostly Renoirs, to Italy. This left his sister and her companion, Alice B Toklas, to be the core of the American literary and artistic community in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, (recently portrayed in Woody Allen’s comedy, Midnight in Paris). 

After the First World War, Gertrude could no longer afford to buy Picasso’s work and, although she continued to act as patron to emerging artistic talent, her later acquisitions turned out to be much less significant. The expensive exhibition catalogue (63 euros for the English edition) makes little mention of her experiences in France during the Occupation of the Second World War (she and Alice had been highly regarded for their American Red Cross work during the First). However, as Barbara Will has shown in Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Fay, and the Vichy Dilemma, Gertrude's judgement in becoming an apologist for Pétain’s Vichy France, particularly by translating his speeches for US consumption, was questionable, even if it ensured the preservation of her art collection. 

Both exhibitions contain works of the highest quality and are rewarding to visit. Cézanne et Paris is the more straightforward as a retrospective on one artist, whereas L’aventure des Stein has to weave together the works of four major artists (63 Matisses, 43 Picassos etc) and many others and the histories of their collectors, a complex task skilfully done.  Cézanne et Paris continues to 26 February 2012. Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… L’aventure des Stein has been extended to 22 January (check!) and then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (1 February to 3 June 2012). It started at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (May to September 2011).

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