Picasso, The Steins, and Modern Art in San Francisco

Pablo Picasso, Paul as Harlequin, 1924. Musée National Picasso, Paris

One of the highlights of my Spring reading included Amanda Vaill’s Everybody was So Young, a fantastic biography of Sara & Gerald Murphy. Their presence is at the very core of the Occidental art world after World War I. They supported the artists that created the “Lost Generation” culture not only financially, but also with their loyal friendship. The Hemingways, Dos Passoses, Picassos, Porters, MacLeishes, and Fitzgeralds all met together around the Murphy family. As it usually happens, this book was just the beginning of this year’s fascination with this time period in art, writing, and culture. It seems Woody Allen is also obsessed with this time period, and luckily a few San Francisco art museums are too.

The only glaring flaw I found in Woody Allen’s charming new Midnight in Paris, was that of the omission of the Murphys. How could all of these other wonderful artists and writers come to life without a mention of them? (It is thought that Picasso even may have had an affair with Sara Murphy, having drawn her a number of times on the beach in the south of France. Hemingway was also known to have a crush.) Personal criticism aside, the film provides a lovely glimpse into the Parisian art world of the 1920s and gives lively form to the relationship between Pablo Picasso & Gertrude Stein. If you’re even awake in San Francisco this month, you’ll surely be aware of two major art exhibitions involving these two. Picasso – Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris is now open at the de Young Museum, while The Steins Collect graces the walls at the SFMOMA.

Just as Balenciaga & Spain was heightened by its neighboring “fashion” exhibit, Pulp Fashion – The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, we now have an entirely new dialogue between masterpieces, collections, museums, and even between one singular artist. The fact that the two museums showing these exhibits are only a few miles apart makes it all the more wonderful for the city of San Francisco.

Both shows provide a unique perspective on Picasso, but it is when the shows are taken together that the artist becomes even more complete.

The Picasso exhibit at the de Young draws from the Musée National Picasso in Paris. In 1968, France passed a law that allows inheritance tax to be paid in works of art – as long as the art is important to the French national heritage. This law, called dation, was perfectly timed for the death of Picasso in 1973. The bulk of the collection was amassed in 1986, upon the death of Jacqueline Picasso. It was then that Picasso’s heirs – Paolo, Maya, Claude, and Paloma (the jewelry designer) – made a new dation to the French state from their father’s own collection.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937. Musée National Picasso, Paris.

Because the collection from the Musée National Picasso is comprised of the artist’s own personal collection, it is vast but also a little overwhelming. As anyone who’s studied Picasso knows, his great works are so momentous that it’s difficult to see anything else in the room. However, when his works are mere attempts or not pushed far enough, they show their battle wounds right at the surface. While some of the great Picassos are among the collection of the Musée National Picasso, the collection shows the artist’s preferences for smaller, quieter, more personal work. Some of the works are even unfinished sketches, or mere gestures made by the artist’s hand. Is this why he kept them? Was there something in a line, a form, a figure, or a sketch that though only hinted at, it was enough for Picasso to want to hold onto it his entire life?

In this regard, I think the exhibit is the perfect classroom for art students and lovers of the creative process. It shows how Picasso worked, how he developed ideas, and how he experimented. It also provides an overall timeline of his career, showing how his work changed while it still remained inherently Picasso.

Two of the best paintings shown are presented in a genius pairing right next to each other. The famous Portrait of Dora Maar is hung with Seated Woman in Front of a Window. The two women appear to be talking to each other, from their respective chairs but each shows an incredible difference in style - remarkable given that both were painted in the same year, 1937. Here are two paintings in which Picasso is fully realized.

Apart from these, I also loved the examples of Picasso’s Analytic Cubism with Sacré-Coeur from 1909-1910, as well as Man with a Guitar and Man with a Mandolin, both from 1911.

Although I understand the exhibition’s curators wanting to focus exclusively on Picasso, the Musée National Picasso’s collection also includes works that the artist collected from colleagues such as Cézanne, Degas, de Chirico, and Matisse, among others. It would have been nice to see some of these pieces included in order to give the collection greater context.

Of course, The Steins Collect at the SFMOMA is the perfect opportunity to gain such a perspective. Showcasing the collections of Gertrude, Leo, Michael & Sarah Stein, and tracing their roots directly to the SFMOMA, The Steins Collect is not only grand, but also moving in its intimacy.

This exhibition not only shows the works the Steins gathered during their years among the Parisian avant-garde, but also their own paintings, drawings, letters, and family snapshots. It is truly mind-boggling how many major works passed through the Stein family over the years. As collectors, they purchased the best of what they could afford, creating a collection of remarkable and daring pieces for their time. This makes the exhibition less of a jumble and more of a tightly focused journey through early modern art. Works include Renoir's Study, Torso Effect of Sunlight from 1876, a minor, but charming Manet entitled Ball Scene from 1873, Matisse's Joy of Life from 1905-06 now at The Barnes Foundation, as well as his remarkable Blue Nude: Memory of Biskra from 1907. Other artists in the collection include Gauguin, Cézanne, Manguin, Weber, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Vallotton, and of course, Picasso.

Henri Matisse, Woman with a Hat, 1905. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The Steins' early support of Henri Matisse and his Woman with a Hat from 1905 (now the darling of the SFMOMA’s permanent collection,) made the Steins the center of modern artistic circles at the time. So many people came to see the scandalous Matisse that they had to hold open houses on Saturday evenings for years to accommodate requests. The Steins' support of Matisse was loyal and steadfast, carrying on for decades. I was particularly charmed by a series of lithographed Matisse nudes from the mid-1920s, shown in a series.

Here too is Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein from 1905-1906 (which features prominently in Midnight in Paris,) as well as some truly remarkable works from his blue and rose periods.  Indeed, Strolling Player and Child from 1905 from Sarah & Michael Stein’s collection is considered to be the transitional work between Picasso’s blue and rose periods. Young Acrobat on a Ball and Boy Leading a Horse, both from 1905 also show this exceptionally beautiful time in Picasso’s oeuvre, and echo back to sketches seen at the de Young exhibition. It is also in The Steins Collect that one sees a series of heads Picasso created after seeing an African mask Matisse brought to the Steins one afternoon. These heads then found their way into the masterpiece Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907, Three Women from 1908 (at the SFMOMA), and Three Figures Beneath a Tree from 1907-1908 on display at the de Young. The Stein collection also includes work from Georges Braque - Picasso's significant counterpart in the development of Cubism.

Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, 1905-06. The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

The beauty of The Steins Collect is also in the way its curators re-created the Steins' spaces. Lfe-sized images of their apartments show exactly how the family hung their collection, while the associated exhibition room has those very works on the walls. It’s a simple presentation, but it makes perfect, cohesive sense.

Between these two exhibitions San Franciscans currently have a rare treat to experience some exceptional artwork. Indeed, I think that the shows are made even better by their juxtaposition to each other. Taken together, there is an even more intense dialogue created about art, society, family, and the creative process, and from some of the most important figures in the 20th Century’s cultural history.

In other words, do not miss these!

Picasso, Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris is at the de Young museum until October 9, 2011. Tickets are $25 for adults; advanced reservations required.

The Steins Collect is at the SFMOMA until September 6, 2011. Tickets are $25 for adults.

A New Millenium Werkstatte

Pendant, Josef Hoffmann c. 1905, silver, gilt & semi-precious stonesTo quote the great Shirley Bassey: "It's all just a little bit of history repeating..."

One of the reasons I left the luxury goods industry a few years ago had to do with the way it made me feel overall. After years of excitement in the fashion fast lane, I found myself overwhelmed by its shallowness that left me increasingly empty. Even the "luxury" brands were losing their core of craftsmanship and selling out to the mass-market, driven by the need to satisfy stockholders. In the storm of marketing, messaging, editorials, and bling, I started to feel sick. When you witness someone splitting an "it" bag across three credit cards for the hundreth time, it starts to get to you. I asked myself: "How long can a brand remain "aspirational" and "white hot" before it burns iself out?"

The question still hangs over me when I take a look at the luxury fashion world these days - from a lot further out, happily, which usually gives some great perspective. Perspective, or common sense?

Consider the current unpleasantness of the economic world; there are a lot of people in big, expensive homes all over the country, homes full of clothes, electronics, cars, shoes, and it bags, who are wondering if they're going to have jobs next week. This, is a big portion of the "new" luxury market, and the rose-colored glasses have been lifted recently. Now comes the dawn of perspective: is any of that stuff really lasting and fulfilling, or is it just stuff?

Belt Buckle, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, opal & rubyLast week, The Cut by New York Magazine published a post entitled " 'It' Bags ARe About to Be So Embarrassing". In it, there is a quote from Claire Kent, a former luxury analyst from Morgan Stanley who now works as an industry consultant, from a speech at the recent London Luxury Briefing conference. Kent mentioned a "luxury fatique", that people were afraid of debt and that customers would be steering clear of aspirational brands. She also said "An 'It' handbag will become an embarassment - a clear sign that you don't have your own view of fashion." Well, we all knew that was the case...

Today, Jezebel published a post about "Luxury Shame" - the phoenomenon of rich people feeling bad about throwing money around. They cite certain luxury shoppers telling others that their gown is an "old Phillip Lim" as opposed to a new Balenciaga - because that makes it okay. (I say, if you have the good stuff, wear it proudly! Don't lie to people, just maybe...buy a little less?) Jezebel also cites ecommerce sites like Gilt Groupe whose big appeal is the discretion of anonymous delivery boxes - so no one will know you're dropping your now-diminished 401K on Jimmy Choos. Yes, assuage your shopping guilt and extravagance in a nice brown wrapper...it's shopping porn!

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann c. 1910, silver & semi-precious stones

Brooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1908, silver, partly gilt & semi-precious stonesBrooch, Josef Hoffmann, 1910, silver, gilt & semi-precious stones

All of this guilt about shopping and high-priced products has put me in mind of one of my favorite periods of art and design: the Wiener Werkstätte. Also known as the Vienna Succession, this brief period of design began at the beginning of the 20th Century and continued until just before World War II. Vienna was the epicenter of the arts, being led by a group of artists that wanted to fuse graphic and applied arts - seeking a union of form and function in design. The Werkstätte was formed in response to increased mass production of products and overall industrialization. They sought to return art and design to fine craftsmanship, logic, beauty, and usefulness. The most famous Werkstätte artists are likely to be Gustav Klimt and Josef Hoffmann, but the group included hundreds of artists across all aesthetics.

Left - Emilie Floge in 'reform' dress & necklace by Kolo Moser c. 1910, Right - Necklace, Kolo Moser, 1903, silver, white chalcedony & carnelian (This necklace was given to Emilie Floge by Gustav Klimt.)I have been thinking of the Werkstätte lately because of their jewelry; it perfectly suits our current climate and I'm sure it will be only a matter of time before we return to this kind of aesthetic. Simple, elegant, modern, colorful, and beautifully crafted.

The most significant Werkstätte jewelry was designed by Josef Hoffman and Kolo Moser. While most worked with silver and gold, the focus of the work was on the metal designs and the unique arrangements of semi-precious stones. You see, during the early part of the 20th Century in Europe, times were tough. Economic depression, wars and revolutions... It was all pretty unsettling, and it was considered to be in bad taste to wear real gems. (Remember, this was also the time when CoCo Chanel invented costume jewelry too.)

Does any of this sound familiar?

Luckily for the patrons of the Werkstätte, their pieces were usually custom-made by hand as individual art pieces, which made them beautiful, tasteful, and lasting. Luckily for us, they are still as modern and wearable today as they were then! Perhaps with all of this luxury guilt going on, designers will take some cues from the Wiener Werkstätte and make things that move away from mass-market bling and into hand-crafted, wearable art... After all, history is repeating these days.

All images scanned from "Wiener Werkstätte - Design in Vienna 1903-1932" by Christian Brandstätter

Influences: La Casati

I finished Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino's book Infinite Variety - The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casatilast evening and, true to form, I've spent this morning furiously questing for additional imagery and information on the fascinating Marchesa and all of her far-reaching influences. Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, Marchesa di Roma is truly a non-pareil that could hardly be summed up here, but I did want to celebrate her miasmic life in art and fashion.

I mentioned this book a few posts ago in the Lit Tag, but now that I've read the entire book I have to say that I'm really haunted. I cannot tell if I even like the Marchesa as a person, but I am completely enthralled by her ceaseless devotion to art and creativity - both in herself and others. So, the whole snakes and monkeys thing sort of creeped me out, but how shockingly fabulous would it be to wear a little coiled snake as a dramatic necklace at a dinner party? Or to walk a pet cheetah or alligator like they were the family Jack Russell? As the authors did state, the Marchesa's quest to always out-do herself got a bit stale over the years; her profligate lifestyle becoming almost insulting during political and economic crises, while her overbearing eccentricity hid an ever-growing personal insecurity. As a quote from Maurice Druon said in the book: "Eccentricity is tolerable only in its first freshness. Cherished until it has gone stale, it becomes unbearably pathetic and at the same time alarming."

Eccentricities aside, the Marchesa did accomplish exactly what she set out to do: become a living work of art. Her personal style of medusa-like curls dyed bright red, large black-rimmed eyes, sleek gowns, and hats swathed in veils have influenced many fashion designers, writers, and film directors. Even toward the end of the Marchesa's life when she was forced to live in poverty, her tattered elegance recalls everyone from Dickens' Miss Havisham through to Big and Little Edie from Grey Gardens. While one cannot help but feel sorry for one of Europe's former glitterati in her late-life squalor, looking at the reach of her influence you can see this is not how she is remembered.

In 1998, John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture created a masterpiece of runway theatre when he presented an entire collection honoring the Marchesa Casati. Shown at the Paris Opera Garnier, the show was said to be surreal, haunting, and overwhelmingly elaborate. After trolling through the internet, I was able to find this news clip covering the show from so long ago...

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The Marchesa Casati by Augustus John

La Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Grehound by Giovanni BoldiniFollowing-up on some of Luisa Casati's portraits, I learnt more about Augustus John and Giovanni Boldini, both of whom painted significant images of the enigmatic woman. In 2003, London's Royal Academy of Arts held an exhibition Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, which included Boldini's 1908 portrait of the Marchesa with her Greyhound. Art historian Christopher Wood stated: "The staggering Boldini portrait of the legendary Marchesa Casati is surely the greatest portrait of the Belle Epoque." Augustus John's 1919 portrait is considered a twentieth-century masterpiece, and was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1934, while the tripe-eye photograph of the Marchesa taken by Man Ray in her hotel suite at the Paris Ritz is considered the first and most important of Surrealist photographs. Even the Marchesa's famous ruin of a home in Venice, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, was purchased in 1949 by Peggy Guggenheim and now houses the prestigious Guggenheim Museum.

Thought to be lost, another major portrait by Romaine Brooks has recently been recovered and is in a private collection. Hopefully an image will become available sometime soon! Having never seen any of Brooks' work, (now impossible to believe) I have enjoyed looking at her paintings, finding them incredibly odd, yet beautiful, and certainly very modern for their time. Likewise, the work of Giovanni Boldini is now among my favorites for its romantic yet impressionistic style. I've learnt that a handful of Boldini's pieces even reside in San Francisco!

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Her influence is not limited to art and fashion, however. Vosges Haut Chocolat created a special collection of Marchesa Truffles which are available only in December. "Black sea salt caramel ensconced in 85% bittersweet dark chocolate and real freshwater pearl dust." A very fitting tribute.

My friend Michael Mattis wrote a piece about this book and La Casati on Dandyism.net a few years ago, wondering if the Marchesa could be considered "a dandy"; if she were a man then no doubt the term would apply, but as a woman? According to Mr. Mattis, even if the Marchesa were a dandy, being androgynous, masculine, and beautifully dressed as she was, she wasn't elegant enough for the term to apply. True, the Marchesa was heavy-handed with everything from eyeliner to pearls to gold lamé, but I would hold off on the dandy label anyway. To me, the Marchesa's androgyny and aggressive extravagances set off her distinct womanhood, I don't find her masculine at all. This, like Marlene Dietrich or an Yves Saint Laurent Smoking, make the true woman. The Marchesa's style was all about NOT being manly, but being every bit the independent, entitled woman that she was born to be in this world.

As another fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, stated about La Casati: "Tall and gaunt with heavily made-up eyes, she represented a past age of splendor when a few beautiful and wealthy women adopted an almost brutally individualistic way of living and presenting themselves to the public."

The rest of us should be so brave... 

Portriat of Marchesa Casati, Man Ray 1922

The Marchesa Casati, Augustus John 1919, Art Gallery of Ontario

The Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound, Giovanni Boldini 1908, collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber