picasso and rosenberg -- 4/14/23

Today's selection -- from Picasso's War by Hugh Eakin. At 35 years old, amid the ruins of World War I, Pablo Picasso was still relatively unknown:
"[At the end of World War I], a journalist named Georges Martin set out for an appointment in a chic Right Bank neighborhood. He was on assignment for L'lntransigeant, France's leading conservative paper; it was raining, and a characteristic gray cloud cover hung over the city. Nevertheless, he couldn't help pausing to admire the tres bourgeois feel of the district. Nearby, amid small bou­tiques and prim apartment houses, was the Latinville patisserie, the place where Proust's faithful housekeeper, Celeste Albaret, would go late at night to acquire 'something with chocolate' for her employer. Farther up the street was the Salle Gaveau, the coveted modern recital hall that had managed to render Louis XVI-style neoclassicism in reinforced concrete. The Lycée Condorcet, the prestigious training ground for the country's professional elite, was a few minutes away.

"Reaching the doorway of a classic six-story Haussmann building, Martin walked into the foyer, where a modern elevator whisked him to an apartment that took up the entire fourth floor. A maid promptly answered the door, informing him that the man he had come to see would appear momentarily. Then she ushered him into a dining room with parquet floors, a round Louis Philippe table, and gauze-curtained windows. A parakeet chirped in a cage on a side table, and the walls were carefully hung with bright colored pictures in ornate gilded frames. The whole menage struck Martin as almost painfully fashionable: like a Georges Lepape illustration from the pages of Paris Vogue.

"But the pictures in those golden rectangles were not decorative scenes of the beautiful life; they were startling Cubist abstractions. After a few minutes, a small, spry man emerged, freshly shaven, a dark forelock sweeping across his forehead. He was wearing silk pajamas. Picasso was about to give his first solo exhibition in Paris since well before the war and Martin had come to talk to him about it.

"The artist was thirty-eight, but Martin thought he might pass for a decade younger: a jeune maître. Immediately, he led Martin through a pair of doors into a pair of large adjoining rooms. Here, there were also ample windows and elegant moldings, and each room was endowed with a marble fireplace surmounted by a tall mirror. In absolute contrast to the fastidious order of the dining room, however, a state of utter chaos reigned: They had entered Picasso's studio. Casually propped on a heap of canvases was a gnarled, desiccated wooden Christ, perhaps from some medieval Spanish church; a group of ancient carved figures, possibly from Senegal or Polynesia, seemed to be communing with a series of strange Cubist sculptures. Dominating the whole mess was a large, curi­ously formal portrait of a young, very pale woman seated and holding a fan, her hair carefully parted in the middle.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

"As Martin surveyed the room, he began to ask Picasso about his métier. Picasso offered a brisk and curiously anodyne life story. 'Success came little by little,' he said, blandly. 'I sold my works to dealers, and now you can find my pictures hanging next to Matisses and Cézannes as far away as Moscow.' Unmentioned were his precarious early years in the filthy bateau-lavoir; when he had eaten meals on credit and rum­maged in trash cans to feed his dog. He didn't talk about his checkered history with exhibitions, his struggles during the war, or the fact that, for much of the past five years, he hadn't had a dealer at all. Nor did he tell Martin that most of his Cubist paintings had been sequestered by the French government in 1914 and had been seen by no one for years, or that the brief appearance of his Demoiselles d'Avignon, which remained in his personal possession, at a group show during the war had left the public cold. ('He has painted, or rather daubed, five women who are, truth be told, all hacked up,' Le Cri de Paris had written.) To hear Pi­casso tell it, he'd had a steady upward trajectory among the arbiters of bon goût almost from the moment he arrived in Paris. And now, he con­tinued pleasantly, 'an exhibition of my drawings is about to open at a dealer here on rue La Boétie, a neighbor of mine.'

"Picasso must have been enjoying his own performance. Gone were the old brown raincoat, loose green sweater, and ill-fitting blue trousers he'd worn during the dark days of the war. Gone was his old circle of radical poets, louche Spaniards, and avant-garde hangers-on; he hadn't spoken to Gertrude Stein in two years. Even his old Cubist friends had lost touch with him. Do I know this man? Braque wondered aloud after seeing a photograph of Picasso in his new getup. In Picasso's domestic arrangements, Frika, his beloved German shepherd half-breed, had long since been succeeded by Lotti, a Pyrenean sheepdog. And in place of his quiet, unassuming Eva, he now had an imposing wife, the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova -- the sitter in the large portrait that Martin couldn't take his eyes off

"In almost every respect, Picasso's existence had shifted 180 degrees from before the war. It was a metamorphosis as dramatic for his social identity as the Demoiselles had been for his art. And in no small way, the transformation owed to yet another part of his new life: his new dealer, Paul Rosenberg. It was Rosenberg who had planted Picasso and Olga in the heart of Right Bank society, finding them the apartment on rue La Boétie and then, with studied choreography, reintroducing him to the public. If before the war, Picasso's world had been sustained by the aus­tere, antibourgeois, publicity-shy Kahnweiler, now it was shaped by the taste-making showman Rosenberg, who lived next door to him.

"With remarkable speed, Picasso had become the focal point of Rosen­berg's strategy. Though the opening of his huge gallery, back in the spring of 1914, had been exceedingly ill timed, the dealer had been care­fully positioning himself for the reemergence of the Paris art world after the war. Almost as soon as he had completed his own military service, he had begun to prepare for the postwar boom that he was confident would be coming. In 1917, with museums still shuttered but the public starved for culture, he had mounted an improbably resplendent show of classic late-nineteenth-century paintings to raise money for disabled war veter­ans. Featuring a distinguished group of works by Cézanne, Corot, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and others, the show was attended by some of his own military superiors and did much to raise Rosenberg's profile. As he reestablished himself, he also began to move more decisively into twentieth-century art. It was amid this activity that he had joined forces with Picasso.

"By the end of the war, Picasso enjoyed substantial name recognition in Paris, but much of his most important work remained obscure. He was, as his friend and biographer Pierre Daix later put it, a 'celebrated unknown.' During the war, Picasso had gained some help from Rosen­berg's brother, Léonce, who had briefly tried to corner the market in Cubism following Kahnweiler's exile. But Léonce's efforts had largely come to nothing, and aside from Picasso's old circle, which had largely disintegrated, and the handful of connoisseurs who collected him, few in France knew much about the artist's development since his early Blue and Rose period paintings. He was ripe for reinvention, and Paul Rosen­berg, who was a far shrewder judge of the market than his older sibling, seized the opportunity. 'We're going to see a lot more of each other,' he told Picasso.

"Picasso was a ready accomplice. The dispersal of his old group, the break with Kahnweiler, his own helplessness in the face of his friends' sacrifices, and especially the death of Eva had exacted a heavy toll, and he had spent much of the war trying to get his life in order. At first, re­sponding in the only way he knew how, he had plunged into a series of impetuous liaisons that invariably ended badly. Within the course of a year, he had proposed to two different women, both of whom bluntly rejected him for more stable partners. ('Picasso had decided to marry me,' one of them later wrote. 'I was not altogether sold on the idea.') Yet a third, a Martinique native, had abandoned him in a matter of weeks, unable to cope with his gloom. At thirty-five, the man who had once gathered around him all the poets and painters of Montmartre, and a seemingly unending stream of women, was beginning to wonder if he was doomed to solitude."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Hugh Eakin


Picasso's War: How Modern Art Came to America


Random House


Copyright 2022 by Hugh Eakin


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