Thursday, June 30, 2011

That Story, Well Told - The Steins, PIcasso, Matisse, and Modern Art

We all know the story: Gertrude Stein goes to Paris, buys art from local artists Picasso and Matisse, and MODERN ART is launched. Or something like that. There's more to the story, of course, and it's now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. The setting is particularly fitting because the important players in the story - Leo, Gertrude, Michael, and Sarah Stein - were from the Bay Area, and the money for the now iconic paintings including Picasso's famous portrait of Gertrude, Matisse's shattering Femme au Chapeau, and many more, came from family businesses in cable cars and SF real estate. Leo was the first to head for Paris - he was something of a dilettante, a rich boy educated at Harvard with ambitions to be an artist - his connections in the Paris art scene started everything off. Gertrude, the youngest of the 5 Stein children, follows and brother and sister set up together on the Left Bank, buying art and opening the famous salon where they welcome artists and adventurous amateurs of art. Michael Stein, the eldest brother, and his charming, intelligent wife, Sarah, joined them soon after, also buying art and holding salons to introduce the new revolutionary art to a perplexed public. The paintings that were such a shock then have become so comfortable and familiar - whoever thinks of Matisse as startling and unpalatable now - but the show helps the viewer travel back to a time when the new forms and colors stuck in the craw like a hard piece of apple, unable to be processed. An interesting aspect of the exhibition is the inclusion of furniture from the apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus, Gertrude's base - heavy wood with muted finishes - apparently she felt it necessary for viewers to rest their eyes on something solid and dependable when the art became overwhelming. There are wonderful paintings and drawings here, some well known from American museums, a few from lesser known institutions, and a surprising number from private collections including the extraordinary Matisse portrait of a young sailor, but this is a documentary exhibition of great value for the story of Modern Art. Family photographs, intimate notes and letters, an amazing film taken from a cable car on Market Street San Francisco days before the 1906 earthquake - the stage set of the artistic revolution is set clearly and with great attention to detail. Sarah Stein emerges out of the shadow of her celebrated sister-in-law as a true hero; her active encouragement and support of Matisse no doubt allowed him to survive physically and mentally during some hard early times. She and Michael provided the impetus for Matisse to start his school - one room in the exhibit is devoted to his academy, including her careful notes on his teaching and two highly competent figure studies done by her in his classes. The part of the story that doesn't ordinarily surface is included as well: after Alice B. Toklas arrives (also from San Francisco) relations between Gertrude and brother Leo become strained and their partnership comes to a fractious end. He leaves with the Renoirs and she keeps the Picassos. Sarah and Michael eventually return to the Bay Area, and their collection is gradually dispersed as she has to contend with a grandson's gambling debts. (SF MOMA is one of the beneficiaries - Femme au Chapeau is the centerpiece of their permanent collection.) Once Picasso and Matisse prices start rising the Steins turn to younger artists but, although some names are familiar and the show provides plenty of examples, it certainly isn't the same. It appears that this show won't travel, so if you are heading to San Francisco between now and September 6, plan to see it. (Reserve tickets online http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/details/stein_tickets)

1 comment:

profile said...

being an artist nowadays is very hard. not like in the past that many people appreciate you with your painting but now, nevermind.

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