Any San Francisco gathering too big to fit inside a bathtub inevitably becomes a fancy dress ball. We love Events and we love to think of ourselves more as participants than as spectators. This held true for the opening night party at SFMOMA for "The Steins Collect."
The great number of people (and the fact that many of them were wearing fancy hats) made getting a good look at most of the art from the formidable, and painstakingly amassed, collection impossible; I enjoyed it the most when I gave up on the art and abandoned myself to bald-faced people-gawking. In addition to the hat contest, many dressed in their best attempts at era-appropriate Paris bohemian, but other themes included steampunk, goth, Mad Men, late nineteenth century hoop-skirt and bonnet, and North African. Some danced to the live music (“curated” by Tyson Vogel); some posed for old-timey sepia-toned photographs before a screen depicting the Steins’ famous salon; many imbibed eye-bulgingly expensive cocktails, but nobody ate, because there was no food.
Unyielding MOMA ushers shepherded us away from the elevators and packed us into a line peristaltically zig-zagging up the Escher staircase. There we stalled and made wan attempts to laugh off the fact that we were standing face-to-bottom with strangers. The stalling was just as well, as many of the patrons, including this blogger’s mother, were in no condition to ascend four flights of steps without pausing to curse breathlessly at the floor plan.
As mentioned earlier, once in the pullulating exhibition hall one couldn’t see beyond the hats or stand still amidst the throngs long enough to really take in what one was looking at; one would have to return, several times, even—such is the breadth of the collection and the significance of the work for anyone interested in the first spasms that would shake the art world and alter its landscape forever.
However, while there are some pieces whose fame has survived the last century, such as Matisse’s Blue Nude, Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein herself, and Cezanne’s Bathers, the most interesting for me were some of the unknown works of the artists that show the experiments that ultimately resulted in their chefs d’oeuvres. A series of rough sketches Picasso made of an African mask Henri Matisse picked up in a junk shop would provide the faces for his Demoiselles d’Avignon. Two small nudes by Matisse reveal the inventiveness with color that would so shock and repel the establishment. One room is devoted to the classwork done in Matisse’s art school (funded by the Steins as well), including Sarah Stein’s life paintings and notes. The work is rough and sure-handed, the notes appropriately both poetic and cryptic.
These are the Laughter in the Dark to Nabokov’s Lolita, The Beautiful and the Damned to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: works that are endlessly fascinating in themselves, but that also depict the artists’ early forays into the unprecedented in style and substance that they would further refine to achieve paradigmatic status in their major works. If nothing else, this display of their demiurgic labors should prove the old adage about genius being 98% perspiration to 2% inspiration.
In this way the true stars of the exhibition are not the painters or the paintings themselves, but the Steins, who were not hugely wealthy, or of high standing, or French (one can only shudder at how severe a handicap that must have been in turn-of-the-century Parisian society), but who had the prescience, independence of thought, and tant-pis rejection of establishment mores to recognize the inspiration in what was called ugly, and the truth in what was deemed a distortion. Their taste would effect the greatest break from tradition of any artistic movements in history, and shape the world of “modern art” as we know it.
--Larissa Archer, a writer living in San Francisco.
(All photos courtesy Larissa Archer.)
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