No historical exhibition can recreate the original shock of the new.
“The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” comes close.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has mounted an intimate yet meaty exhibition highlighting the art, the relationships and the singular moment when Picasso and Matisse were becoming the titans of modern painting.
Art collectors today are generally over-hyped and overvalued. But in the case of the American Stein family, siblings Leo, Michael, his wife, Sarah, and especially Gertrude -- the influential lesbian intellectual, poet and chaotic writer -- their importance rivals that of the artists they supported.
Giving equal billing to the art, the people and the place, the Met’s show begins with large photos of the Eiffel Tower and the Steins.
The next gallery is animated on three walls by slide projections, which convey the ever-changing, salon-style installation of the small, crowded Paris apartment occupied by Leo, Gertrude and, later, Gertrude’s companion Alice Toklas.
Eventually, Leo set up his own household, and Michael and his wife got themselves a scarily stark house by Le Corbusier.
In its variety and dense chronological hang, the exhibit captures the last swoons of fin de siecle Paris and the difficult birth and disturbing beauty of Modern art.
It also generates a sense of the energy and cross-pollination of the period, demonstrating that no artist here was an isolated genius working in a vacuum.
To see Matisse’s “View of Collioure” (1907) paired with Picasso’s close interpretation, “La Rue-des-Bois” (1908), is to understand that Cubism was an evolving language developed in part, and perhaps unsuspectingly, by Matisse.
Artist and aesthete, Leo was the original driving force behind the family’s passion for painting. He settled in Paris in 1903. Gertrude soon joined him, followed, in 1904, by Michael and his family, who intended to stay in Europe for one year and spent three decades.
Leo had hoped to acquire work by the Impressionists, including Manet and Degas, but could not afford them, so he started buying unsung work by the next generation.
Abandoning their upper-middle class American values, the Steins became French bohemians -- the original hippies.
They grew their beards and wore sandals. And they held famous Saturday evening soirees attended by Picasso and Matisse, whom they introduced to each other, and writers such as Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway (Gertrude’s protege).
Emptying their bank accounts and pooling their money -- buying art instead of bonds -- the siblings acquired Cezanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Juan Gris, Andre Masson, Elie Nadelman and Odilon Redon. Most were unknown outside their small circle, the center of the art world before 1914.
Among the show’s 200 works are breakthrough masterpieces: Matisse’s Fauvist “Woman with a Hat” (1905) and two studies for “Le Bonheur de Vivre.”
There are also Picasso’s mysterious, early Rose Period “Lady with a Fan” (1905) and significant studies that led up to his first Cubist masterpiece “Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon.”
Included also are masterly Cezannes, including the small “Bathers” (1892), in which one of the male nudes enters from the right, as if he were flying, and Renoir’s “Study: Torso, Effect of Sunlight.” A pearly nude enlivened by dappled flora light, she emerges, like Venus, out of surf and flame.
And there is “Siesta,” among the most erotic nudes Bonnard ever painted, in which a woman, floating on her stomach as if on a cloud, stretches like a sigh as she pours herself into bed.
I Am Great
As family, of course, the Steins did not always agree. The biggest influences on Gertrude’s writing were the fractured elisions of Cezanne and the multiple viewpoints of Picasso’s Cubism.
Leo loathed Picasso’s Cubist phase and called Gertrude’s stream-of-consciousness-writing “abominable.”
Gertrude herself believed that she was equal to Joyce and Proust, and that she and Picasso were the only two “geniuses” of the day. Otherwise, she was not so amusing.
Look at Picasso’s monumental portrait of her which required 80 or 90 sittings.
Gertrude was thick and squat. Yet Picasso portrays her as cornerstone, mountain and seer. We look up at her and see her large, intelligent, almond eyes focus seemingly on the future. It is quintessential Gertrude.
When a viewer pointed out that Stein did not look like her portrait, Picasso said, “She will.”
“The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde” runs through June 3 at the Met Museum, 1000 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-535-7710; http://www.metmuseum.org.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)