NEW YORK — There is much to be said in favor of art shows without a theme.
If the Metropolitan Museum of Art had not decided to display together the 34 paintings, 58 works on paper, two sculptures and sundry items including prints that make up its Picasso collection, some truths and questions that many would prefer to remain unspoken about the most important figure of 20th century Western art might not have been aired.
“Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, ” running through Aug. 27, is both the title of the exhibition and the highly important catalog, which provides a detailed history of each work in the show. In the introduction to that volume, the eminent museum curator Gary Tinterow writes that “the Metropolitan’s collection developed by happenstance rather than by design. The result is that it is strongly skewed toward Pablo Picasso’s early work.”
Happenstance? From the institution’s perspective, perhaps, but hardly on the part of the great collectors who donated or bequeathed to the Met the Picassos they treasured.
Take the famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, painted in 1905-06, which she left to the museum in her will in 1947. It was the Metropolitan’s first Picasso.
Mr. Tinterow observes that while Gertrude Stein only gave this one painting to the Met, “She can be held responsible for many more.” With her brother Leo, the American writer played an important role in the financial backing that Picasso received in Paris. Nudged by them, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard bought 27 paintings from the artist in 1906 and went on to buy batches of pictures twice a year until 1911.
So great was Leo and Gertrude Stein’s admiration for the painter that they amassed the largest group of Picassos anywhere until they split up their joint collection in the winter of 1913-14. But Gertrude Stein, a connoisseur of Picasso’s art if ever there was one, never owned any of the one-day cartoon-style pictures in which the artist later indulged.
Neither did another of the most perceptive collectors of Picasso’s work, Florene Schoenborn, whose donations and 1995 bequest brought to the Met several of the most powerful masterpieces by the Paris school painter. Yet, the diversity of the pictures that she acquired with her first husband, Samuel Marx, rules out any suggestion of conformism.
In 1953, Florene Marx, as she was then known, settled for one of Picasso’s most uncharacteristic works. The 1906 portrait of an innkeeper called Josep Fondevila stands apart from all others. According to Picasso’s companion Fernande Olivier, it was “lifelike.” However, it conjures memories of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Breugel the Elder’s admirable panels in the Prado, where the Spanish-born artist was a frequent visitor.
On Jan. 24, the couple bought an even more unusual Picasso. “Bust of a Man” of 1908 had belonged to Gertrude and Leo Stein. The powerful likeness conveys a feeling of intense distress. The big nose, the mouth open as if to scream and the almond-shaped eyes that are empty holes send back a rare echo to the art of pre-Columbian Mexico — Aztec sculpture to be precise, particularly the earthenware figures.
The Chicago couple was equally attracted to Picasso’s Cubist period, in which figuration is stylized beyond recognition. Their very earliest recorded choice was “Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantelpiece,” dated 1915, which they bought on Jan. 17, 1944, for what was at the time a very high price — $8,500.
In 1952, the couple acquired an example of Picasso’s version of Surrealism. “Nude Standing by the Sea” is indebted to Giorgio de Chirico for the clear-cut form and the light, and to Yves Tanguy for the idea of a nondescript shape making a human gesture.
The closest the Marx couple came to buying the art of distortion cultivated by Picasso from the 1930s on is “Reading at a Table,” done in March 1934. Memories of the painter’s early Analytic Cubism period may be recognized in the juxtaposition of the woman’s profile and the other side of her face seen three-quarters.
But Florene and Samuel Marx do not appear to have bothered about the strange compositions in big black curving lines that characterized the year 1932, such as “The Dreamer.” Bought in 1973 by Klaus Perls, this nightmarish vision never sold. In 1997, the famous New York dealer donated it to the Met.
Neither did the Marxes buy any of the artist’s cartoonlike pictures in pseudo-childlike style that he executed in one day, in apparent fits of rage and derision, such as “Dora Maar in an Armchair,” dated Oct. 26, 1939. Had she wanted to, Florene Marx, who lost her first husband, Samuel, in 1964, could have acquired it any time from 1965, the year Mr. Perls bought it, until her death in 1995. But “Dora Maar in an Armchair,” which entered the stock of the Perls Galleries as No.6581, never found a taker. In 1998, the dealer and his wife donated it to the Met.
Some of the other great collectors among the museum’s donors likewise shunned Picasso’s outrageous cartoons. Walter Annenberg had none, but it was he who part-donated in 1992 “At the Lapin Agile” (1905), the Met’s second most famous Picasso, and bequeathed in 2002 the financial stake that he had retained in it.
Long before Mr. Annenberg acquired “At the Lapin Agile” at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 15, 1989, for $40.7 million, the picture belonged to another eminent American connoisseur of modern painting. Joan Whitney Payson reportedly bought it in 1952 for the then staggering price of $60,000. She kept it until her death in 1975 and it only tumbled into the market at her daughter’s 1989 sale. In a telling thumbs-down vote, both Mrs. Whitney Payson and Mr. Annenberg ignored the one-day cartoon pictures. Those in the Met collection were given later by other donors.
A generational taste shift? Or a judgement made by great connoisseurs likely to stand in history? The latter, I suspect.
Their disregard may partly be explained by the genesis of the cartoon style. The show unintentionally provides striking visual evidence that Picasso’s creative process was triggered by his response to the art of others, past and present. His aptitude at absorbing every possible influence and at metamorphosing it through his own vision was phenomenal.
While he reacted to the Old Masters he saw in the Prado, young Picasso also closely studied the avant-garde painters of his time.
In the 1901 pastel “Woman in Green,” Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec have their share in equal measure. In “Woman in Profile,” one of his earliest masterpieces, the brushwork betrays awareness of Cézanne’s technique while the colors are those of nascent Fauvism. And without Georges Braque, with whom he shared a studio at the time of Analytic Cubism’s inception, Picasso’s version of the style might have looked very different.
The ease with which Picasso switched from one aesthetic vision to another reflects this versatility, unparalleled in art history. Only Picasso could have executed within weeks the strictly figural portrait of Antoine Vollard sketched in pencil in impeccably classical manner that calls to mind Jean-August-Dominique Ingres and the virtually abstract “Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantelpiece.”
Was this artist with unrivalled mastery bereft of deep-rooted aesthetic convictions? One may well ask. A cynic at heart, who saw no contradiction in courting throughout his life the wealthy establishment while denouncing oppressive capitalists during his stint with the French Communist Party, Picasso was capable of picking up with equal zest (and equal lack of constancy) whatever crossed his path in art as in his relationships with women. Once artistic novelties no longer kindled the flame of his creative genius, the painter reacted in sheer fury. It was aimed as much at art that had nothing left for him as at the bourgeoisie who made the money-conscious painter a millionaire, but whom he despised.
Picasso’s cartoons, when successfully sold by him, were like so many slaps in the face of the establishment. Ironically, like everything in his oeuvre, even these take their source in someone else’s ideas. They go straight back to Marcel Duchamp’s “Dada,” the art of the absurd that left an indelible impression on the young Spanish artist newly arrived in Paris.