Searching for the Great Man

Behind the important collector Paul Guillaume stood a very ordinary woman

As an area of academic study, art history is a ridiculously young enterprise. To be sure, formal art education has long existed, and the European aristocracy could always just look at the walls. But the formal, ivory-tower study of art history qua history is a recent development. Begun at Harvard in the late 19th century, carried on by Harvard- and Yale-educated museum scholars, it spread slowly to other, mostly American universities. It is still not wholly accepted as a legitimate area of academic study in jolly old England; to this day, Oxford has only one chair in the discipline.

Not surprisingly, art history has never really wrestled with some basic questions, questions like what makes the whole enterprise go, and go where. What are the forces that shape it, other than the critic Clement Greenberg? Is it all princes and popes and dictators and French republics? Are the Marxists right: Are economic relationships the basic force of history? Or is it as the British historian Thomas Carlyle imagined, "at bottom, the History of the Great Men who have worked on the planet"?

Absent consensus, pop history--which is to say the "great man" theory--rules in American museums. Thus your average museumgoer knows the names of the art stars, Picasso and Cézanne and Renoir and Matisse. And thanks to most museums' never-ending need to toady up to donors, the great-man treatment is even extended to collectors; so it is that museums politely ignore the raping, robbing, and pillaging that made many a collection possible.

This one survived survived the widow with bad taste: Amedeo Modigliani's "Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota," part of the Kimbell's new exhibit.
This one survived survived the widow with bad taste: Amedeo Modigliani's "Paul Guillaume, Novo Pilota," part of the Kimbell's new exhibit.

Details

Through February 25, 2001 (817) 332-8451
Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth

Alas, museum visitors rarely hear a peep about the real wizards behind the curtain of art, the dealers, men like Paul Durand-Ruel or Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler or Paul Rosenberg. This oversight extends well into academe; the history of the art dealers is one of the most important and ignored areas of ivory-tower inquiry. The good news is that the Kimbell Art Museum's current exhibition tries, to some degree, to remedy this state of affairs. Titled From Renoir to Picasso: Masterpieces From the Muse de l'Orangerie, the Kimbell's show presents the collection--or what's left of it--amassed by Paul Guillaume, one of the most important art dealers in Paris during the period between the world wars.

The bad news, implied in the exhibition's somewhat misleading title, is that the organizers of this show don't entirely trust the audience to be interested in Guillaume. This disappointing exhibition tries to have it both ways, to adopt the art-star approach, and then segue into a semi-serious exploration of Guillaume's activities and taste. The result, predictably, is a half-assed job on both ends.

It's a shame, for the organizers had an interesting story line to work with; Paul Guillaume was Horatio Alger in spats. Born in 1891, he was, as the show catalog puts it, the "product of a relatively humble background, with no money and practically no education." Yet by the time he died--in 1934, at age 43--he had managed to cut a wide swath in the Parisian art world, a sphere with lofty intellectual pretensions. The story of his rise is an object lesson in what that milieu really values. Educated or not, Guillaume was equipped with everything the art market required (for that matter, still requires) for success: luck, chutzpah, a nose for opportunity, a talent for sucking up to big egos, and an indifference to conflicts of interest.

The real story begins around 1911, when the 20-year-old Guillaume was working in a Parisian garage, selling tires. In the corner, visitors noticed a pile of African masks and sculpture brought back from Gabon and the Congo by rubber suppliers. The Parisian avant-garde was, by then, mad for "l'art negre," which was a source of inspiration for artists from Picasso to Derain. Before long, two important art-world figures made their way to the garage. The first was Joseph Brummer, one of the first Parisian dealers in African art, who encouraged Guillaume to have his contacts send more of the stuff, alerting the young man to the possibilities.

The second, and most important, was Guillaume Apollinaire, poet, art critic, and master of ceremonies at the avant-garde artists' endless party in the cafés of Montmartre and Montparnasse. Guillaume attached himself to Apollinaire, whom the catalog fittingly describes as "the Pygmalion of Guillaume's early years." At the time, of course, Apollinaire had appointed himself the avant-garde's chief propagandist. (The catalog raises interesting questions about Apollinaire's disinterestedness as a critic; unfortunately, it cites few sources and gives little in the way of specifics.) According to the catalog, Apollinaire was also "dabbling as a dealer"--presumably, of African sculpture and avant-garde art--"but preferred to act through a middleman." Guillaume, we are left to presume, was only too happy to play mustache.

One wishes the show's organizers had spent more time on the workings of this critical relationship, for they have missed an opportunity to provide real insight into the workings of the Parisian art world. In any event, by 1914 Guillaume had his own gallery, where he peddled not only African sculpture, but also the canvases of a few artists. For the most part, they were secondary figures like Larionov, Gontcharova, and Picabia, but there were a few important moderns like André Derain and Giorgio de Chirico. Most of them seem to have been met directly or indirectly through Apollinaire.

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