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Art review: 'The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde' at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

May 29, 2011 |  4:00 pm

STein Matisse SAN FRANCISCO -- After this city was devastated in 1906 by a magnitude 7.9 earthquake and the blazing inferno the temblor started, a pair of Bay Area expatriates came home from France to check on the family's local properties.

Michael Stein, who had been superintendent of San Francisco's Market Street trolley company, and his wife Sarah Samuels, daughter of a comfortable merchant, had followed his younger siblings Leo and Gertrude to Paris two years before. There, all the Steins became absorbed in the small but scrappy world of avant-garde painting and sculpture. When they arrived back in California, Michael and Sarah brought a piece of that world with them.

Three paintings by Henri Matisse were packed in their luggage. The artist -- age 36 (like Sarah) and being touted in the Paris press as the leader of a bravura new school of painting that cared little for the objective use of local color to describe a subject -- was virtually unknown on this side of the Atlantic. The Steins' paintings were the first by Matisse to be seen in the United States.

Still, one has to wonder: Who, under the catastrophic circumstances of a city in smoldering ruins, would think to bring avant-garde paintings on a 5,600-mile journey to do real estate reconnaissance? Michael and Sarah's West Coast friends thought they were a bit nuts.

However, as a large and engrossing new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art demonstrates only too well, the couple would have thought it crazy to leave their passion behind -- earthquake or not. "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde" makes that plain.

Met Picasso Interspersed throughout the show are large photographic blow-ups of the Stein siblings' various residences, mostly in and around Paris but in Palo Alto as well. In these conventional interiors, aggressively Modern paintings were often displayed in the old Victorian style, cheek by jowl, as virtual wallpaper enveloping the space.

The earthquake anecdote is telling because, even though Michael was more conventional in many of his tastes than Sarah, Leo or Gertrude -- herself then a budding literary artist -- all the Steins were so deeply immersed in new art that sharing their enthusiasms was simply integral to their understanding of the pleasure and purpose of the activity. Sarah went so far as to help Matisse open a Paris art school. Proselytizing give and take -- intellectually and emotionally -- was part of what it was all about.

The Modern art battle, of course, is long since won. However, Matisse is also of special importance to SFMOMA.

The permanent collection is generally weak in art made prior to World War II, but easily its greatest early 20th-century masterpiece is Matisse's half-length portrait of his wife, Amélie, looking over her shoulder. She clutches a fan and wears a great pile of a hat, as if sporting a bourgeois crown (Erykah Badu, eat your heart out). Leo Stein famously described it as "the nastiest smear of paint I had ever seen." The Steins, pooling resources, bought it from the 1905 Salon d'Automne at the Grand Palais, where the painting's delirious chromatic splendor was a sensation. Its brilliant, unorthodox palette was key to coining the negative critical term Fauves -- "wild beasts" -- for Matisse and his cohorts.

Michael and Sarah ("Sally" to her friends) brought it to the Bay Area in 1935-- coincidentally, the same year the San Francisco museum was founded; as fascism and anti-Semitism darkened the European landscape, they returned to stay for good. Eventually, SFMOMA benefactors Walter and Elise Haas bought "Woman with a Hat" and 20 years ago bequeathed it to the museum. Indeed, "The Steins  Collect," with this picture and the circuitous tale of its arrival in town as a hinge, almost seems pitched as exemplary historical encouragement for the substantial base of contemporary art collectors now in San Francisco.

Bluenude Leo was the first Stein sibling to go to Paris, in 1903, after a few years living in Florence, Italy. There he had visited another American ex-pat -- Charles Loeser, who was one of Cézanne's first and most prolific collectors. The visit was fateful.

The show's first room lays out Leo's initial collecting interests, including five Cézanne paintings and lithographs. Among them is his beloved little still life of five apples, plus a primitive scene of six bathers in a pastoral landscape -- which belonged not to Leo but to Loeser.

The Cézanne painting of naked bathers is a subtle bud, which soon blossoms. Amid modest works by Manet, Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec is a voluptuous 1875 Renoir nude, sunlight sparkling through foliage to dapple her fleshy torso. Nearby hangs Felix Vallotton's sleek, 1904 pastiche of Manet's shocking prostitute-on-display, "Olympia," which upset the French Academy 40 years before. The Vallotton simplifies her reclining nude body into flattened areas of hard-edge color, while her dark-haired head is haloed by a bright, brushy yellow pillow.

Nudes, male and female, continue to dominate the first half of the show, which is installed chronologically -- roughly according to when the Steins acquired specific works. A nude set in a landscape (or sometimes an interior) turns up again and again -- from Picasso's rose-period "Boy Leading a Horse" through a barren landscape, where the artist is tentatively assimilating Cézanne, to Matisse's ferocious and frankly radical "Blue Nude: Souvenir of Biskra," her twisting muscular body writhing in a primordial jungle.

MOMA Picasso A traditional voluptuary image, the nude in a landscape is, for a convulsively modernizing urban world, also a metaphor of Eden lost. I counted nearly 50 examples in the first nine rooms. These galleries radiate the intense desire to navigate a rambunctious new society in extremist flux -- not only by the European artists, but by the inquisitive American collectors -- and to build something marvelous from scratch.

The show does include some mostly forgotten figures, such as the German Fauvist Hans Purrmann and the Polish-born Cubist Louis Marcoussis. But it's heavy on Matisse (around 60 works) and Picasso (around 40). Friendly but determined competitors, the two artists were championed by various Steins.

Generally, Michael and Sarah favored Henri, while Leo and Gertrude settled on Pablo.

Eventually Leo and Gertrude had a falling out and divvied up their collection-- he taking the Renoirs, she the Picassos. In fact, of the four Steins, the two women seem the ones most committed to exploration through adventurous art collecting -- perhaps because society relegated women to second-class citizenship as painters and sculptors themselves. Collecting was one way for them to participate and influence.

It's worth noting, too, that the Stein family did it without huge wealth. Yes, they were comfortable; if they watched their expenses they could live off Bay Area investments and buy art if they pooled their resources. But we're not talking the wealth of an H.O. Havemeyer, who controlled the entire U.S. sugar market, or a Loeser and his Brooklyn department-store fortune.

Or, for that matter, the Haas family and Levi Strauss.

Art dealers also liked the Steins, which helped. As James R. Mellow noted in his indispensable 2003 book, "Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company," the wily dealer Ambroise Vollard said they were his only clients who bought pictures "not because they were rich, but despite the fact that they weren't."

The Steins instead were on a mission -- to promote and encourage new art and boost the artists they admired. Generally it worked out, if not always in the particulars, as this show makes clear. But certainly it looks like they had a whole lot of fun.

"The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant Garde," San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco, (415) 357-4000, through Sept. 6. Closed Weds. www.sfmoma.org

ALSO:

Bullseye Art review: "Michael McMillen" at the Oakland Museum

Critic's Notebook: The Getty's Stubborn Politics

Art review: "Paris: Life & Luxury in the 18th Century" at the Getty Museum

 

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos, from top: Henri Matisse, "Woman with a Hat," 1905, oil on canvas; Pablo Picasso, "Gertrude Stein," 1906, oil on canvas; Henri Matisse, "Blue Nude: Souvenir of Biskra," 1907, oil on canvas; Pablo Picasso, "The Architect's Table," 1912, oil on canvas.

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