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Thursday, 06 October 2011 04:22

Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso... How the American Stein family saved modern art. Grand Palais, Paris, review

Pierre Bonnard, La Sieste, 1900 Pierre Bonnard, La Sieste, 1900 Photo: © Adagp, Paris, 2011

When Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in 1933, all hell broke loose. Her hugely entertaining memoir tells the story of her early years in Paris, when her apartment in the rue de Fleurus became the most celebrated literary and artistic salon of the 20th century.

Readers were gripped by accounts of Gertrude’s Saturdays when visitors mingled with avant-garde artists, writers and collectors in rooms hung from floor to ceiling with the paintings by the artists she collected and promoted – including Renoir, Gauguin, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec Matisse, Picasso and Juan Gris.

Her account of those years became an instant bestseller, but within the Stein family circle its publication caused consternation. For in it, Gertrude implied that she alone discovered Matisse and Picasso, downplaying the contribution of her two brothers Leo and Michael, and of Michael’s wife Sara. In truth, the four siblings acquired no fewer than 180 works by Matisse and Picasso alone, and all four were equally generous in providing financial and moral support to unknown artists. Leo was particularly scathing about the way his self-promoting sister wrote him out of the story. “Practically everything that she says of our activities before 1911 is false both in fact and implication… God what a liar she is!”

The massive exhibition devoted to the Stein Family that opens tomorrow at the Grand Palais sets the record straight. As the show documents in works of art, written and spoken words and scores of photographs, the Steins may not have been midwives at the birth of modern art, but they were certainly in the delivery room. What’s more, by admitting into their Saturday soirées anyone, whether they were interested in progressive painting or not, the Steins did as much as anyone to promote the culture of modernism. In the years when Picasso did not exhibit publically, the only way to see his work was to show up at an evening either with Gertrude and Leo in the rue de Fleurus or with Michael and Sara around the corner in the rue Madame. Matisse’s colour-saturated portraits and landscapes looked much less alarming when seen in a domestic setting, hanging alongside Renoirs or Gauguin, than they did in the scrum of the Salon d’Automne.

An educated, upper middle-class family originally from Pennsylvania, the Steins had money, but not a great deal of it, and were Jewish, but not religious. It was Leo who set the ball rolling when in 1902 he settled in Paris after two years studying art history in Florence. Shy and introspective, he was the driving force behind the collection and was able to recognise the ways in which young artists built on the achievements of the giants of French art in the 1870s such as Degas, Renoir, Cézanne and Manet.

This is could see that Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse looked back to Cézanne’s Bathers, and Matisse’s Blue Nude, Memory of Biskra (1907) to the reclining nudes of Giorgione and Titian by way of Manet’s Olympia. It was Leo who (with Gertrude) bought Cézanne’s Woman with a Fan and he who acquired masterpieces from Picasso’s blue and rose periods. Leo defied conventional taste to purchase Matisse’s Lady in a Hat from the Salon d’Autumne of 1906 – not to mention owning the same artist’s Joy of Life, now in the Barnes Collection. Little wonder that Alfred Baar, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art, said of Leo that “for the two brief years between 1905 and 1907 he was possibly the most discerning art collector in the world”.

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