October 16, 2011

"L'Aventures des Stein" at the Grand Palais

Bonjour from Paris where the sun is shining, the air is crisp and the chestnut trees are just starting to turn color and shed their leaves.

One of the big shows of the season here is the American import "Matisse. Cézanne, Picasso...The Stein Family" which originated in San Francisco, is now in Paris and will travel to the Metropolitan Museum in New York early next year. It is a big show befitting a big subject and knowing the Parisians penchant for queuing up for admission, I planned ahead and booked timed-entry tickets well in advance!

Many of us are familiar with Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas living the bohemian life in 1920s Paris. But far fewer realize that Gertrude Stein was only one quarter of the clan that comprised the Stein Family's presence in Paris and the profound impact they had on Modern Art as we know it today. By diligently reassembling a good portion of their collection and including a fascinating selection of documentary photos and ephemera, the curators have presented us with an excellent survey of Modern Art and the movements before and after.

Let's begin at the beginning of the 20th Century when the American avant garde writer Gertrude Stein moved to Paris and set up housekeeping on the Rue de Fleurus with her brother Leo Stein, himself an art critic. The following year their elder brother Michael and his wife Sarah moved into an apartment on the nearby Rue Madame. By 1904, Leo and Gertrude were acquiring works by the "pillars of Modern Art" - Manet, Cézanne, Renoir and Dégas among others - based on principals of classical modernity. Michael and Sarah were also involved in the art world and soon developed a particular passion for the works of Henri Matisse who had emerged as a leader of the "Fauves" in 1905. Between the four of them it did not take long for a major collection to develop.

What had also flourished was "Saturdays at the Steins" a weekly salon that began at 6 o'clock at the home of Michael and Sarah with a gathering of expatriates, bohemian artists and passing strangers. Later in the evening the party relocated to the Rue de Fleurus where guests were awed by the magnificent collection, particularly of Cézannes, hanging on the walls in Gertrude and Leo's apartment. In the early years, before 1920, these soirees were informal gatherings where very often the main entertainment was Leo Stein performing interpretive dance. After World War I, with the influx of Americans coming to partake in the artistic stew that was Gaie Paris, Gertrude's salon became a meeting place for such literary lions as Hemingway, Pound and Fitzgerald as well as the established guest list of artists such as Picasso and Matisse.

But I am getting ahead of the story. By 1913, Leo Stein was becoming disenchanted with the direction of Modern Art, particularly with the movement toward Cubism. He was a Classicist, a disciple of art historian Bernard Berenson, and not in favor of the new tendency to "deconstruct" in paintings. He and Gertrude agreed to divide their collection, with him keeping most of his beloved Cézannes, which he took with him to Italy in 1914.

By this time Michael and Sarah had established themselves as major patrons of Henri Matisse and were great defenders of his work. Shortly before World War I they lent nineteen of their finest canvas' to an exhibition at the Fritz Gurlitt Gallery in Berlin. Sadly, with the outbreak of the war, the return of the paintings was blocked and they were lost forever. Their fortunes dwindled, Sarah became a Christian Scientist, and they eventually moved with a fellow follower into a villa designed for them by Le Courbusier in the suburb of Garches. However with the rising threat of Fascism in Europe Michael and Sarah decided to return permanently to the United States in 1935.

Gertrude Stein remained in Paris until the end of her life in 1946. During World War I, she famously drove a Red Cross ambulance along with her long time companion Alice B. Toklas. In the 1920's, as Picasso's fame (and prices) rose, she turned her collecting attention to the work of other emerging artists and amassed a splendid collection of pieces by Francis Picabia, Pavel Tchelitchew, Juan Gris and the Berman brothers. Her Buddha-like portrait was captured by Man Ray, Marcoussis, Lipchitz, Vallotton and many others making her one of the most recognizable characters of the period. But while her art collecting was prodigious she eventually became most famous for her literary accomplishments and her unique repetitive and playful writing style.

When I said the show was big, I wasn't kidding. The curators have successfully tracked down many of the great artworks that were dispersed after the deaths of the three siblings and have presented them here in eight sections. Many of these pieces normally hang in major museums but some were in private hands and generously lent to the exhibition. There are also fabulous vintage photographs of the apartments with the pictures installed on the walls, first edition examples of many of Gertrude's books and audio recordings of her reciting her poetry in that distinctive cadence.

I went to the show having a good general knowledge of Gertrude Stein and her role in 1920s expatriate Paris, but I left with a true appreciation for this singular family and their impact on 20th Century art as we now know it. I can't wait until it comes to New York and I can see it all over again!

A perfect October day looking North West from the Pont Neuf

1 comment:

Rodney said...

Hi Georgina,

Happy to see this post popping up in my dashboard view. My eye fell on the last paragraph which sounds really promising. As I'm going to see the show in a few weeks, I decided to not yet read the rest, just to keep the surprise. But I'll certainly return to it after seeing the show myself.

Greetings from across the ocean.