Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Steins Collect

By Charles Kessler

E. 81st Street looking toward the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The weather was glorious — the type of weather that reminds New Yorkers of 9/11. Rather then spend the day outside like a normal person, art-nut that I am I decided to go to the Met and check out The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde (until June 3rd). When I went before, it was so crowded I couldn't see it, let alone enjoy it. And there were so many other art activities going on in New York at the time I really wasn’t able to give it the attention it deserved. This time I slowed down, and I’m glad I did. Not only are there some great paintings, but it was enlightening to see some modest work by famous artists, and some personal work too (gifts, casual drawings, studies, small paintings).
The Steins in the courtyard of 27 rue de Fleurus, ca. 1905. From left: Leo Stein, Allan Stein, Gertrude Stein, Theresa Ehrman, Sarah Stein, Michael Stein (The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley).
This is more than a show about an art collection, significant as the art is; it’s also about the art collectors, the Steins: Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife Sarah. They were well off, but not so rich they could buy whatever they wanted, so they mainly collected inexpensive work by artists that were relatively unknown at the time (the turn of the twentieth century).

The siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein shared a studio at 27 Rue de Fleurus where they hung their collection and he painted and she wrote. They were great networkers (famously introducing Picasso to Matisse in late 1905), opening their studio every Saturday to anyone with a reference. As a result hundreds of people were exposed to the avant-garde art of the time.

The Met exhibition includes films, photographs and letters of the Steins. Soon after the entrance to the show is a mock-up of Gertrude and Leo's studio with a series of wall-sized projected slides of the studio from contemporary photographs. This gives a pretty good idea of what it was like: it was small (460 square feet), the work was hung floor to ceiling, and there was very little furniture. It must have been an intense and mind-boggling experience for their guests.

Leo became progressively deaf and eventually he could not participate in the Saturday salons, so, in 1912, he decided to get his own space. He and Gertrude divided the collection (amicably except for a fight over a Cezanne) with Leo taking the Renoirs, Gertrude taking the Picassos, and the two of them sharing the rest. Soon the visitors to the salon, now hosted by Gertrude alone, were mostly literary people rather than visual-art people.

I like seeing familiar paintings in a different setting because I discover new things about them. 
Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905, oil on canvas, 31 ¾ x 23 ½ inches
(San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).
For example, this time I was able to identify more of the imagery in Matisse’s Woman with a Hat, a painting that's still shocking even though it's been around for more than 100 years. When I saw it before, I'd spend so much time gawking at that outrageous hat and colorful 19th-century French outfit that I never took the time to figure out all that was going on. It always looked like an unidentifiable mishmash of clashing colors to me. I think I've figured it out now, at least some of it. The sitter (Mme. Matisse) is wearing a long blue glove, and her arm is extended and bent inward. She's holding a light blue fan that is painted with flowers, and it's opened out almost to her neck. I'm not sure what the green vertical stripe below her hand is -- maybe a walking stick; and I still don’t get what the pointed area on the right side of her dress could be. It's either part of the fan, or Mme. Matisse is incredibly buxom.
Henri Matisse, Tea, 1919, oil on canvas, 55 x 83 inches, (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
Another painting I learned something about, one that I used to look at a lot when I lived in Los Angeles, is Matisse’s Tea, 1919. It was said to be Diebenkorn’s favorite painting in the County Museum, and it certainly is charming. You have to love the painting just for that adorable dog. What I noticed for the first time is the dog’s right eye is dark brown (not black) while his left is black with just a speck of brown. This, I think, makes the dog’s eyes seem softer and even more lovable. Matisse is a subtle one!
Matisse, Tea, 1919, detail of the dog
By late 1905, early 1906, Matisse was generally acknowledged to be the leader of a new school of painting, Fauvism. The Steins (mischievously?) made sure Picasso saw Matisse’s Woman with a Hat when he came by to dine with them. Picasso, who was working in a neoclassic manner at that time, must have felt his work was pallid in comparison. This painting and another painting Picasso would have seen at the Steins, Matisse’s Blue Nude (below), spurred him on to begin his Demoiselles D’Avignon. In fact, Picasso’s Head of a Sleeping Woman can be thought of as a vertical version of Matisse’s Blue Nude.
Henri Matisse, Blue Nude, 1907, oil on canvas, about 36 x 55 inches (Cone collection, Baltimore Museum of Art).
Pablo Picasso, Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery),  summer 1907. Oil on canvas, 24 1/4 x 18 3/8 inches (Estate of John Hay Whitney).
An interesting thing about Picasso's Head of a Sleeping Woman is there’s an unpainted border around the edge of the entire painting. As a result, the paint seems to lay on top of the surface and the image appears to start at the surface (the canvas) and come forward into the viewer’s space. I discussed this phenomenon before in regard to Demoiselles D’Avignon and Monet's Water Lilies.
Picasso, Head of Sleeping Woman, detail.
Finally, there are two trends here having to do with exhibitions in general and this show in particular. There's a tendency lately, with blockbuster exhibitions, to hang work high, presumably to make it easier to see in a crowd. It doesn't bother me because I'm relatively tall, but it might be a problem for short people when they finally make their way to an individual painting. The other trend, an entirely positive one, is the increased use of the non-reflective, almost invisible "Museum Glass." Regular glass, even glass that claims to be non-glare, reflects light and can be very distracting, especially if the painting is dark. (I remember an exhibition of Rothko's late brown paintings where some of the paintings were covered with glass, and they looked like mirrors.) I noticed that The Steins Collect exhibition made extensive use of this glass. Wondering if the Met went to the trouble and expense of changing most of the glass in this show, I called them and asked about it. They said they wouldn't change the glass of borrowed work but "Museum Glass" is the trend now. That’s great news!


Ken Garber said...

Thanks for describing the various elements in the "Woman with a Hat". I've looked at that painting many times and mainly focused on how Matisse used color to sculpt the face, and to create the spatial environment for the figure. I never did make out her arm and the fan she's holding.

When I saw the show in San Francisco there was a large landscape by Matisse that I really liked (the title of which now escapes me).

Something else that interested me was the way the Steins displayed their collection. Despite the radical modernity of the work, it was displayed in a typically 19th Century fashion. Understandable in a small space, but still difficult to take in.

See you soon!!

Charles Kessler said...

What a good comment!

I agree, salon-style installations are hard to take in. The Met had a room hung sort of like that, I guess to give us the flavor, and the Whitney did a show about a year ago on the origins of the Whitney collection that was hung very much salon-style. I don't like it, even when it's for historical purposes.

Until May!

cesera said...

Dear ,

It is a wonderfull exhibition .

And what a pleasure to see the portrait of Gertrude Stein by Riba-Rovira .Beside Tchelitchew and Balthus .

And also the Preface Gertrude Stein wrote for his first exhibition in the Galerie Roquepine in Paris on 1945 .
Where we can read Gertrude Stein writing Riba-Rovira "will go farther than Cezanne...will succeed in where Picasso failed...I am fascinated " by Riba-Rovira Gertrude Stein tells us .

And you are you also fascinated indeed as Gertrude Stein ?

But Gertrude Stein spoke also in this same document about Matisse and Juan Gris .And we learn Riba-Rovira went each week in Gertrude Stein's saloon rue Christine .
With Edward Burns and Carl Van Vechten we can know Riba-Rovira did others portraits of Gertrude Stein .

But we do not know where they are ;and you do you know perhaps ?

With this wonderful portrait we do not forget it is the last time Gertrude Stein sat for an artist who is Riba-Rovira .

This exhibition presents us a world success with this last painting portrait before she died .

Both ,it is one of the last text where she gives her last art vision .As a light over that exhibition now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York .

Coming from San Francisco "Seeing five stories" to Washington and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York for our pleasure .

And the must is to see for the first time in the same place portraits by Picasso, Picabia, Riba-Rovira, Tall-Coat, Valloton .

You have the translate of Gertrude Stein's Riba-Rovira Preface on english Gertrude Stein's page on Wikipedia and in the catalog of this exhibition you can see in first place the mention of this portrait .And also other pictures Gertrude Stein bought him .

And you have another place where you can see now Riba-Rovira's works it is an exhibition in Valencia in Spain "Homenage a Gertrude Stein" by Riba-Rovira in Galleria Muro ,if you like art ...