Searching for the Great Man

Behind the important collector Paul Guillaume stood a very ordinary woman

This entertaining spectacle came to an abrupt halt in 1934, when Guillaume died after a sudden illness.


You'll be hard-pressed to glean all this from a walk-through of the current exhibition. For that matter, you'll be hard-pressed to understand much about Guillaume's life, activities, or taste from the entire first half of the show, which contains the work of only one artist (Picasso) whom Guillaume ever met, much less represented.

Instead, the visitor is made to wander through roomfuls of Cézanne still-lifes, simpering Renoirs, and so-so Picassos before the focus turns to Guillaume, whose alleged abilities as a tastemaker are highly touted. Yet with the exception of one or two magnificent Rousseaus, a handful of important Matisses, and a few "classical" Picasso nudes, the good stuff is little in evidence. Some pieces, notably canvases from the deservedly forgotten Chaim Soutine and Marie Laurencin, are truly wretched.

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

To understand this disconnect, you must wade through the impenetrable prose of the exhibition catalog, noting particularly the missing masterpieces labeled "formerly owned by Paul Guillaume." The conclusion is inescapable: The paintings on display at the Kimbell are what remains of a once-great collection gutted by Mme. Guillaume, a widow afflicted with ordinary taste and the intermittent need for cash.

Fortunately, the catalog is much more forthcoming about how this came to pass than on the formative Apollinaire and Barnes relationships. In 1920, Guillaume married Domenica, a young woman as much on the make as was he. Although she clearly enjoyed the social-climbing aspect of her husband's profession, there do seem to have been tensions in the relationship. At the time of her husband's demise, Mme. Guillaume was conducting an affair with the man she would soon marry, and there was widespread speculation about the existence of a codicil disinheriting the widow. Yet the amendment, which supposedly left all to a state-run museum, never surfaced. Instead, 10 days after Guillaume's death, Mme. Guillaume produced a codicil leaving all to her.

The catalog clears up the mystery surrounding the missing codicil, as well as Mme. Guillaume's subsequent negotiations with the state. In a curiously unfootnoted statement, the catalog's authors announce the existence of "an unpublished (as far as can be determined) document that clarifies" the matter of Guillaume's codicil. "This is a letter dated September 20, 1934, from Paul to Domenica..." Supposedly, this letter instructs Domenica "tenderly but firmly" that Guillaume's collection is to be left to the Louvre, though she is entitled to enjoy it for the duration of her life and even to sell paintings as needed for support.

Though the authors pussyfoot around the matter, the catalog shows that Domenica worked a scam on the Louvre. In order to be able to do with the collection exactly as she wished, free from the meddlesome intrusions of Louvre curators, she hid the letter "in her possession until her death." In the decades following Guillaume's death she gutted the collection, dumping masterpieces not to her taste and replacing them with weak Renoirs and run-of-the-mill Cézannes. She acquired a few dubious attributions along the way. To add injury to insult, she ultimately sold the state what was left, paintings they should have owned anyway upon her death.

Amazingly, the French organizers of this exhibition seem willing to glorify Domenica anyway, giving her the full Collector treatment and dismissing her escapades with bemusement as the work of a woman "who was clearly nobody's fool." In France, it seems, the concept of the "arts benefactor" encompasses a broad range of behavior; in America, of course, the proper term would be "fraud."


Though the show does contribute to our understanding in some areas--particularly, Domenica's maneuverings and negotiations with the French state--overall the exhibition is something of a missed opportunity. The authors make no effort to answer many outstanding questions, particularly about the Barnes-Guillaume relationship. And while they do endeavor to reconstruct Guillaume's collection, the catalog is by no means intended to be an exhaustive analysis of the subject. Neither is it a hard-nosed, scholarly appraisal of Paul Guillaume's role in the art market. The exhibition's organizers give far too much credence to Guillaume's philanthropic and intellectual posing, as well as to his supposedly "new" collector-dealer role, a role in fact modeled on merchants who had come long before.

Still, one hesitates to be too critical. To borrow a line from Dr. Johnson, the Kimbell's exhibition is, in the end, a bit "like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to see it done at all."

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