Picasso by the Bay

San Francisco is so awash in Picasso this summer that I feel like I never left New York.  First the Steins’ Picassos, then the de Young, last night Woody Alan (pleasant fluff, but what a one-dimensional Picasso; though I suppose Woody may not have needed any more dimensions in the service of his film), and we haven’t yet even gotten to the ceramics show at the Legion of Honor.  The Steins Collect show at the SFMOMA is quite wonderful (ending Sept. 6; see above), but since it trails off near the beginning of Synthetic Cubism (when Picassos grew too dear for the Steins’ budget), it is good preparation for the de Young Museum exhibit: Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris (till October 9).  The Picasso Museum is closed for renovation till next year (among other things, they’re increasing their exhibition space by 50%–yay!), so they sent packing some 150 artworks on an international junket, first to the Seattle Art Museum, then the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and now to our fair city.

Picasso liked to say that he was his own greatest collector, and that he certainly was, having kept over half of his output until the end of his life.  His heirs thankfully paid his inheritance taxes with art, thereby endowing France with the single largest collection of Picassos in the world.  (I have read that it initially numbered 3500 works and has grown through purchases and bequests to 5000, though even the latter seems like too small a number, given the Picasso Museum’s vast print collection.  I’ve had the impression that the museum has a nearly complete print collection, which alone would comprise around 2500 works, not to mention the many rare states of many of those prints.  The absence of solid numbers runs deeper.  Weirdly, even estimates of the total number of his creations varies widely, from 35,000 to 50,000.  Alan Wofsy, the San Francisco art publisher who updated Zervos, Picasso’s catalogue raisonné of all his works except his prints, told me that his volumes include 35% more works than Zervos.  Perhaps that accounts for much of the wide gulf between 35,000 and 50,000.  Clearly I’m in desperate need of a fact checker–like everyone else, I guess I’m too busy gawking at the art to obsess over the statistics.)

I have often read that the French Government and the art historians in its service did not know what they were doing when choosing the artworks from Picasso’s estate.  Any visit to the Musée Picasso Paris would seem to prove the contrary, since in my opinion (I would say this!), it is the most magical and marvelous interior of any building in the world.  The Picasso Museum’s traveling exhibit should alone be convincing enough.  There are loans and there are loans.  Loans are of course telling about the generosity of the lender, and, in this case, the Picasso Museum emerges as spectacularly generous.  Unlike the Stein collection, which includes many wonderful Picassos but few great masterpieces (at least in comparison to the remainder of his oeuvre–the Steins’ means were limited, after all), the de Young exhibit is an onslaught of masterpieces.  One walks through the galleries in utter disbelief amidst the frontal assault of one incredibly, impossibly great work of art after another.  Go there, but plan ahead–tickets will likely sell out (even for members)!


Among the ways the Stein collection (currently on view at the SFMOMA) can be viewed is as one family’s referendum on the time-honored debate among art lovers: Picasso versus Matisse.  Those two artists contributed most of the significant pieces to the collection. Yet in addition to her brother Leo’s objection to  Gertrude’s sapphic relationship, the disagreement that developed between these siblings as to who was the better artist, Matisse or Picasso, tore them apart, drove Leo out of their shared apartment, and caused each of them to divest most of his or her holdings of the artist who had lost favor.  They’re presumably not the first couple to have suffered such a fate (though they may have been the first).  The poet André Salmon bore witness to this century-old conflict in 1910: “There are lovers of art capable of admiring both Picasso and Matisse. These are happy folks whom we must pity.”  If you just happen to be one of  these happy folks, bear in mind that for a number of years brother and sister still admired and collected both artists.  It took a while for their tastes to narrow, just as it may for you.  Or not.  But, beware, the battle lines are drawn!

Another way to mine the lessons of the exhibit is in regard to the Steins’ uncanny collecting skills, which were instrumental in shaping the appreciation and acquisition of modern art for a century to come. In this vein, now that I’ve been to the exhibit twice now (and more to come–San Francisco is rarely graced by so many Picassos all at once; not to mention the large traveling loan from the Musée Picasso Paris that is about to go on display at the de Young) and having perused the exhibition catalogue between visits, it dawned on me that some of the greatest Picassos they had owned are absent from the exhibit. The curators went a very long way and were remarkably successful in assembling as many great Picassos as they did, as well as works by Cezanne, Matisse, and others. Among the “Stein Picassos” that are notably absent from the exhibit are, at least in terms of sheer value, three of the four greatest pieces they owned (two of these omissions are illustrated in the catalogue). Strictly in terms of market value, the “best in show” that is on the walls is of course the MOMA’s monumental Rose Period oil, “Boy Leading a Horse” (1905-6), for sure a $100M plus blockbuster if it were to come on the market today: 

Almost, if not quite, as important is the following painting that fell through Gertrude’s hands: 

Young Acrobat on a Ball (1905)

This one she owned for a short while but later traded Kahnweiler, Picasso’s almost lifelong dealer, along with 20,000 Francs to sweeten the deal, for three cubist and proto-cubist paintings. The group she acquired doesn’t add up in beauty, importance, or value to the single piece she lost, let alone with the 20,000 Francs thrown in, proving Kahnweiler’s superior eye. Then, there were the following two amazing, oversized goauches:  

Family of Acrobats with Monkey
(1905; gouache, watercolor, pastel &
India ink on cardboard canvas)

Mother and Child (1905; gouache)

The Family of Acrobats with Monkey is one of the first two Picassos that either sibling acquired (Leo), almost as soon as it was dry. Wouldn’t you say that these two works compare favorably to the following gouache: 

Acrobat and Young Harlequin
(1905; gouache on cardboard)

I’ve drawn the comparison because the three gouaches are of similar greatness, subject matter, style, year, and size, and this last one set the world’s record for a work on paper at auction (or at least a Picasso work on paper) at over $38M, a record that still holds a quarter of a century later. Kahnweiler or no, the Stein kids had a great eye. And they surely benefited from having sought out the right place at the right time. It didn’t hurt that they also had a pocketful of change….