The Steins Collect at SF MOMA – [Review]

This year’s big summer exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art zooms in on the collections of the writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and her brothers Leo and Michael. Having spent a large chunk of their lives in France, the American-born siblings are counted among the earliest supporters of Parisian avant-garde art. At the SF MOMA’s “The Steins Collect,” the Parisian avant-garde is exactly what you’re going to see.

While the exhibits include some quality works by Renoir, Cézanne, Félix Vallotton and Juan Gris, the true stars are undoubtedly Matisse and Picasso. Most of the “bombs” are in the room devoted to the collection that Leo and Gertrude assembled while they were living together at 27 Rue de Fleurus. There is that famous portrait of Matisse’s wife, with her face done in sickening green, and the background a riot of variously colored splotches. Hanging next to it is a small landscape, seemingly an exercise in mischief – it is as if Matisse thought, “How messy can I make this painting without it being not recognizable as a depiction of nature?” Conservative critics, of course, hated it; they called Matisse and his peers “les fauves” (the wild beasts) and grumbled about them drinking too much absinthe. But, as the show demonstrates (by making Matisse’s teaching one of its themes) the painter himself did not eschew traditional principles and emphasized the importance of taking leads from nature. As he put in his “Notes of a Painter” (1908), “I cannot copy nature in a servile way; I am forced to interpret nature and submit it to the spirit of the picture. …An artist must recognize, when he is reasoning, that his picture is an artifice; but when he is painting, he should feel that he has copied nature. And even when he departs from nature, he must do it with the conviction that it is only to interpret her more fully.”

Contrary to his friend and rival (frenemy?), Picasso in the early 1900s was pretty restrained in his art – not the usual beastly Spaniard dabbling in grotesqueries. His “Rose Period” pieces feature characters that, while being un-deformed (and more than that, just over-the-top beautiful), still look eerie and somehow hollowed-out. I found striking a particular detail in the nude depiction of his then-girlfriend, Fernande Olivier: one of her feet and an ear were either left unpainted or whited-out, as if the subject was in the process of disappearing. This is not a depiction of a real person, but more like a portrait of a ghost, standing at a crossroads between tangible reality and the life of the mind. For Picasso, the birth pangs of cultural globalization served as a catalyst to delve further into the depths of his own imagination. He discovered African tribal art and molded his own methods of expression to accommodate that groundbreaking influence. The SF MOMA show includes a dozen examples of Picasso’s uncanny, angular “African” works, which predate the famous “Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

While the formal means of the artists featured in the exhibition are no doubt revolutionary, the subject matter seemingly preferred by the Stein family was traditional: nudes, portraits, landscapes, still lifes. There is no trace in the show of the forces that shaped some of the very important later strains of avant-garde French art, such as technophilia (exemplified by the work of Fernand Léger) and the struggles of the revolutionary Left (first-wave Surrealism). Although, those issues are touched tangentially in the exhibition space where you can learn about Michael and Sarah Stein’s villa in Garches. The villa, designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, is an exemplary modernist building with futuristic interiors (which were eventually made cozy with the Steins’ Renaissance furniture) and a facade which reminds of nothing so much as a Soviet-era polyclinic in Eastern Europe.

“The Steins Collect” will be going for another two weeks (until September 6) – be sure to purchase your tickets in advance through the museum website, since Matisse and Picasso attract big crowds. To please all their admirers, the SF MOMA has temporarily prolonged its Saturday hours until 8:45 pm. Entry to the exhibition is timed; a new group of visitors is let in every 30 minutes (last entry on Saturday is 7:30 pm). See those great Modern paintings while you still can.


The Steins Collect at the SF MOMA

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Official Website

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About Julia Glosemeyer
I like art. I also like dancing, very heavy music, watching MMA, and having long interesting conversations.

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