picasso, matisse, dealers, and museums -- 5/19/23

Today's selection -- from Picasso's War by Hugh Eakin. At the beginning of the Depression, Alfred and Margaret Barr were trying to mount a major show of Picasso’s works:
"In New York, [the Dales] lived on the top two floors of the Carlyle, the city's most luxu­rious Art Deco tower; they were known for riding around town in a chauffeured convertible that had been custom-built in Antwerp to Maud's design. (It had a speedometer in the back so she could watch the driver's speed.) For Barr, however, the couple were important for an­other reason: Chester Dale was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art.

"As Barr developed his plans for a pioneering Picasso show, the Dales should have been indispensable. Though they had been buying art for only a few years, they had already amassed one of the most important collections of late-nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century French mod­ern art in the country. And while their tastes were not particularly ad­venturous, they had recently taken a strong interest in Picasso's early work. They also had enviable connections in the Paris art market: The previous year, they had dropped some $81,000 at Paul Rosenberg's on a large group of Picassos -- an astonishing amount that was nearly equiva­lent to Barr's entire annual budget. But as the Matisse banquet now made clear, the Dales had other loyalties in play. Alongside his board seat at the Museum of Modern Art, Chester Dale had taken an owner­ship stake in the Georges Petit Corporation, and far from being an ally of Barr's, he would soon prove to be one of his greatest headaches.

Photograph of Pablo Picasso and Jacqueline Roque with Mr. and Mrs. Alfred H. Barr Jr. 1956

"Departing for Europe a few weeks before the Georges Petit dinner, Al­fred and Marga [Barr] had expected to spend much of the summer selecting art for the big Picasso show they were planning for the fall. Amid the grow­ing economic crisis, there was much at stake in the project. During the spring, there had been a new round of U.S. bank failures, and the finan­cial shock was bearing down on the museum. Already the trustees had largely suspended public fundraising efforts, deeming any such cam­paign tone-deaf; meanwhile, Rockefeller money had not been forthcom­ing, causing Barr to complain to Abby Rockefeller about her husband's 'granite indifference' to modern art. While Barr was in Paris to assem­ble the coming season's shows, the trustees were trying to come up with a plan just to keep the museum afloat. Citing the 'present emergency,' Goodyear warned Sachs that they might have to 'discontinue the activi­ties of the museum entirely.' A year and a half after opening, the Mu­seum of Modern Art was on the verge of bankruptcy.

"Under the circumstances, Barr recognized that a landmark presenta­tion of Picasso's work would carry special weight. Goodyear had long warned that they had to keep generating 'very striking exhibitions' to justify their existence. Given the controversy surrounding the artist's work and Barr's ambitious plan for it, the Picasso show was just the sort of undertaking that could assert the museum's unique value. In inter­preting Picasso's work, they would be engaging head-on, for the first time, with several of the centermost currents of contemporary modern art. And the trustees had formally given their assent: The show had al­ready been scheduled and they were now expecting it as the main event of the fall season -- assuming Barr could come up with the art that he had promised.

"When Alfred and Marga checked in to the Hotel Continental, across from the Tuileries, at the beginning of June, everything seemed to be in place. He already had Picasso's verbal agreement from the previous summer, and during a visit to the United States that winter, Reber had reaffirmed his own enthusiasm for the show and reassured Alfred that the dealers would be forthcoming, too. 'We have the support, I believe, of the Wildenstein group, of the Bignou group, and I hope of Paul Rosenberg, so far as the great dealers are concerned,' Alfred had written a few weeks before they left New York. Almost as soon as they settled in, however, Alfred discovered how naive his assumptions had been. First was the problem of Picasso himself. It was not a question of how many works he was willing to lend them; the artist could not be reached. He did not return messages and calls at rue La Boetie; he seemed to have disappeared. In fact, by now, Picasso was spending most of his time holed up at Boisgeloup, and when he did come back to Paris, he kept an extremely low profile.

"Uncertain what to do, and increasingly concerned, Barr cabled Reber in Lausanne. It turned out that Reber had not had further talks with Picasso as he had promised in New York that winter. But with his usual confident manner, he offered to come to Paris immediately to work things out. Soon after he arrived, Reber did make contact with Picasso. But Picasso was apparently distracted and over the next week he failed to make much progress. By now, Barr was getting anxious; the summer was advancing, and they would not be able to make arrangements with other lenders until they had spoken to the artist again. Still, he had the artist's earlier agreement, and there was no reason to doubt that they would eventually pin him down.

"Meanwhile, the Matisse exhibition had opened at the Galeries Georges Petit and was quickly becoming one of the most talked -- about events of the season. Featuring 141 paintings and 100 drawings, the huge survey was virtually unprecedented for a living painter; it also was the first Matisse show in Paris in twenty years. Despite his general with­drawal from public life, Picasso was a conspicuous presence at the show, attending the opening and attentively taking it in. Some critics were dismissive of the dealers' selection, which seemed to emphasize market­friendly works, but in size alone, it was difficult to ignore the command­ing statement the show seemed to be making. 'It not only confirms the reputation of a painter, that is, of a great painter,' Teriade, the promi­nent art critic, wrote in L'Intransigeant, 'but also that of a whole epoch of passionate experimentation.'

"Finally, around June 20, Reber succeeded in having a longer meeting with Picasso. The artist said nothing about the Matisse show, but he was suddenly very definite about the Museum of Modern Art. Under no cir­cumstances, he now told the collector, would he take part in a New York exhibition during the coming year. He was working on an important body of new work, he said, and he needed to complete it before anything else. As Reber recounted the meeting to Barr, he tried to reassure him. Picasso was merely postponing, he said, and would be glad to do the show later. But Reber said he couldn't lend any of his own paintings to an exhibition that Picasso did not support. Then he returned to Lau­sanne."

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Hugh Eakin


Picasso's War: How Modern Art Came to America


Random House


Copyright 2022 by Hugh Eakin


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