Time after Christmas? The de Young’s Paley Collection show closes on Sunday, December 30, 2012—it’s gorgeous, includes many of Modernism’s masterworks, and is doable in 90 minutes
William S. Paley’s story is legendary: the determined son of a Ukrainian Jewish immigrant who was in the cigar business, Paley built Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) from a small radio network into one of the foremost radio and television network operations in the United States. He married two legendary American beauties—Dorothy Hart Hearst and style icon Barbara ”Babe” Cushing Mortimer and he enthusiastically built one of the 20th century’s greatest private art collections. It was his first wife Dorothy and her friends, like Averell Harriman, who in the early 1930’s, first introduced him to European Impressionist and post-Impressionist artworks and he was smitten. Soon, he was avidly courting Matisse and buying the best artworks of pioneering modern masters Cézanne, Gaugin and Picasso. Upon his death in 1990, Paley’s legendary collection of paintings, drawings and sculptures went to the William S. Paley Foundation which transferred it to MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), where it went on display in 1992. Highlights of that collection are on display through Sunday, December 30, 2012, at the de Young Museum, the exclusive West Coast venue for The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism which opened September 15, 2012.
The exhibition of over 60 artworks from Paley’s remarkable collection is the perfect post-Christmas excursion. If you saw the phenomenal “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at SFMOMA (2011) and liked it, you’ll appreciate this collection too, which also reads like the tops hits of Modernism. Unlike the Steins who were expats living in bohemian Paris and collecting works directly from avant-garde painters like Matisse and Picasso, Paley’s early collecting was a function of his European travels and he often paid top dollar for works that caught his fancy. But the tastes of these powerful collectors more than overlapped—Paley actually purchased several paintings that were originally owned by the Steins. If you think you’re experiencing déjà vu while walking thorugh this show, you may well be. A few of the Picasso’s were at SFMOMA in 2011 for “The Steins Collect.”
The exhibition hosted by the de Young includes major works of Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse, with significant works by Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Roualt, and Andre Derain. Not to be missed masterpieces include Gauguin’s “The Seed of the Areoi” (1892) from the artist’s first visit to Tahiti (first gallery); Degas’ large-scale pastel and charcoal “Two Dancers” (1905) (second gallery); Picasso’s celebrated monumental painting, “Boy Leading a Horse” (1905-1906) (next to last gallery), Derain’s vibrant Fauve painting “Bridge over the Riou” (1906) (final gallery), and Matisse’s “Odalisque with a Tambourine” (1925-26) (next to last gallery).
As you enter the Herbst Exhibition galleries, you are hit by the color in these artworks and the tremendous power of color to convey emotional energy. Gauguin’s large and vibrant “The Seed of the Areoi,” painted during the artist’s first trip to Tahiti in the 1890’s opens the exhibition. The immensely popular painting retells a Polynesian version of a universal story of creation and Gauguin’s mistress is the model for the queen of the Areoi clan. Masterful is the only word for its color, from the complementary purple against yellow in its background to the neighboring shades of brown, yellow and red in its foreground. While Gauguin claimed he found this palette in the natural Tahitian landscape and in villages, scholars point out that no such colors co-existed naturally there at the time. While pleasing to our modern eyes, his palette would have also been quite shocking to his turn-of-the-century European audience.
Equally enchanting is a smaller Gauguin gem, “Washerwomen,” which he painted during his two-month stay with Vincent van Gogh at Arles in 1888. Four women are shown bent over on their knees on a riverbank, lost in the timeless rhythm of scrubbing. With postures evoking those adopted by figures kneeling in prayer, Gauguin superimposed a symbolic meaning on the tranquil scene that links these women to religious ritual practice and to the larger cycle of life.
The six Matisses in the exhibition attest to his stature as the legendary colorist and master of red. From his 1903 “The Musketeer,” which is an early expression of his understanding of how color can be used to block spatial relationships to his bold “Odalisque with a Tambourine” (1924-5), “Woman with a Veil (1927) and “Seated Woman with a vase of Amaryllis (1941), we see his imaginative pairings of natural forms of flowers, fruit, women juxtaposed against the simple geometry of inanimate objects such tables, walls, floor tiles to create motifs bursting with energy and sensuality and color. The placement of these spectacular Matisses alongside eight of Picasso’s paintings and drawings acknowledges the great rivalry between the two artists who engaged in a kind of mental chess game all of their adult lives. Picasso, the younger of the two, was always trying to get Matisse to notice him while Matisse was no doubt jealous of Picasso’s flamboyance and success. Paley appreciated the genius of both.
Pablo Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse” (1905-6) has been given its own wall in one of the later exhibition galleries. The painting was originally owned by Gertrude Stein and was at SFMOMA for “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde” (2011). Paley bought it in the 1930’s while he was on a ski trip in Saint-Martiz, Switzerland, after it was carried into the lobby of the Palace Hotel by the famous Swiss art book publisher Albert Skira, who also served as his dealer of sorts. The painting has been smuggled out of Nazi Germany by the dealer Justin Thannhauser and given to Skira to sell and he went right to the Paley, who immediately fell for it. This important work from Picasso’s Rose Period (1904-6) marks a point in Picasso’s career when his work was on the brink of ingenuity and, at the same time, steeped in history. As William Rubin, MoMA’s former Director Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, explains in the catalogue, the work was pivotal in the context of the artist’s oeuvre and within the spectrum of art history as a whole. Picasso both draws inspiration from his contemporaries and demonstrates his extensive art historical knowledge, even referencing as far back as Ancient Greek sculpture. Ruben also suggests that boy in the painting, P’tit Louis, acts as the artist’s surrogate and that the work can be read as Picasso himself leading his loyal steed into the future, into the age of Cubism.
Other Picasso pieces included in the show are “Nude with Joined Hands” (1906) inspired by Picasso’s trip to the Pyrenees village of Gósol with his muse Fernande and “The Architect’s Table” (1912), his highly abstract Analytical Cubist masterpiece.
As an avid grower of old European roses and gardener, I was struck by the paintings of flowers in the exhibition. Édouard Manet’s “Two Roses on a Tablecloth,” is less than 8 inches high but captures what we gardeners live for. With its creamy impasto of peachy yellow and off white and the softest pink, Manet alludes to the ephemeral beauty and pure delight of the rose in the peak of its bloom. The placement of the roses on the table away from water which would sustain them mirrors Manet’s own fragility at the time. His painting was inspired by the numerous bouquets that visitors brought to him in the winter of 1882-83, when he was mortally ill.
Henri Rousseau’s delightful naïve still-life “Flowers in a Vase” (1901-02) alludes to the vibrancy that flowers can bring to any setting. While the painting seems freely executed,Rousseau took great care in the arrangement and coloration of the flowers as well as in creating the green that runs through the bouquet’s foliage, the complimentary green wall behind the arrangement and the ornamental spray of green ivy at the bottom of the composition.
Renoir’s “Strawberries” (circa 1905), featuring freshly-picked bright red strawberries loosely laid out on a creamy linen tablecloth beside a delicately patterned tea cup is poetical. The appeal of the freshest possible food with no fuss is timeless.
As for the exhibition’s many sculptures, the small and simply-posed terra cotta nudes of the French Catalan artist Aristide Maillol are exquisite. Their faces are quite crude, showing no emotion but the compositions in totality convey a myriad of complex feelings. Maillol took his inspiration from early classical sculptors but imposed his own modern and expressive take on form, creating fluid and rhythmic female portraits. In contrast to Maillol stands the detailed perfection of Auguste Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais,” a half-dozen small commemorative portraits meant to depict the varied and complex emotions the six burghers of Calais actually underwent as they offered their lives to save their fellow citizens from King Edward III during the Hundred Year’s War.
Mid-way through the exhibition is a fascinating series of large-scale color photographs that show many of the paintings showcased in Paley’s 20-plus-room apartment at 825 Fifth Avenue in New York City, where he lived with his second wife, socialite “Babe” Paley. Their brightly colored and patterned apartment occupied a full floor in one of the most prestigious buildings in Manhattan and was decorated by the renowned Sister Parish and Albert Hadley (or Parish-Hadley), the French firm of Jansen (which assisted with the Kennedy White House), and Billy Baldwin. Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse” was the first thing people saw as they entered the front door and stepped onto the 18th- century parquet floors which perfectly accentuated the natural hues in painting’s lower register. The foyer was the only room where people remained standing. In the other rooms, intimacy and comfort were the rule and smaller artworks were gracefully intermingled with furnishings and personal objects. As William Ruben writes in the catalogue “Paley’s collecting was entirely personal. He thought of his paintings as the most important elements of a seamless private world…” (p. ix)
Catalogue: The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism (revised 2012, 176 pages, $39.95, on sale for $29.88) lets you get acquainted with the artworks that Paley lived with. The catalogue was originally published in 1992 to accompany an exhibition celebrating MoMA’s acquisition of his extraordinary personal art collection. This newly-redesigned edition of the book has been released to accompany the collection’s second tour throughout the United States and Canada, which commences at the de Young. Authored by William Rubin, MoMA’s former Director Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, and Matthew Armstrong, the catalogue is organized in alphabetical order by artists. It devotes at least two full pages to each artwork in the collection—a full page photo and at one full page of analysis by Rubin, who worked with Paley as he made his purchases.
The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism was organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, (MOMA) with which Paley began a long affiliation in 1937. Serving as trustee, chairman of the Painting and Sculpture Committee, president of the Museum and chairman of the Board, Paley was chairman emeritus from 1985 until his death in October 1990.
For other ARThound coverage of the Paley and Nureyev exhibitions, click here.
Details: The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism closes Sunday, December 30, 2012. The de Young Museum is located at 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Parking: By entering Golden Gate Park from 8th Avenue (at Fulton Street), you can park for free for 4 hours on the street on John F. Kennedy Drive and have easy access to the museum. Otherwise, enter on 10th Avenue (at Fulton) and park at the Music Concourse Garage (M-F $4.50/hour and $5/hour on weekends). Tickets: $20 Adults; $16 seniors, students with I.D.; $10 youth 6-17; members and children free. Fee includes access to all museum collections and exhibitions including Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance (October 6, 2012 – February 17, 2013). More information: (415) 750-3600 or deyoung.famsf.org.
Exhibition Venues: September 15-December 30, 2012—de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; May 2- September 8, 2013—Portland Museum of Art in Maine; October 10, 2013-January 5, 2014—the Fine Arts Museum of Quebec; and 2014—the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Related Lecture: “The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism,” Docent Lecture by Rita Dunlay, Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 2:15 p.m., Koret Auditorium, Free to public. Museum admission is not required.