Searching for the Great Man
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.
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.
Luck came in the form of the Great War, which removed the 800-pound gorilla of avant-garde art dealers, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. (Kahnweiler, a German Jew with pacifist sympathies, exiled himself to Switzerland for the duration.) Guillaume, who remained in Paris "for obscure health reasons," attempted to fill the void. Though Apollinaire and Kahnweileer had once been friends--in fact, Kahnweiler had published Apollinaire's first book--the poet was only too happy to provide poaching advice. "For Picasso, I think you would have to guarantee him about 50,000 francs a year," advised Apollinaire. "The others less--but see Braque...write to Marie Laurencin...If you succeed, I shall of course be part of your new scheme." Guillaume's scheme, alluded to in a 1915 Modigliani portrait on display at the Kimbell, was nothing less than to replace Kahnweiler as the primary champion of modernism. To memorialize his dealer's ambitions, Modigliani wrote "novo piloto" in the lower left corner--designating Guillaume the "new helmsman" of modernism, a heady ambition for one so new to art and art dealing. The scheme might well have succeeded but for the presence of a better-funded rival, Leonce Rosenberg, whose effect on the market was memorably described by Jean Cocteau: "In short, a man, a Jew who buys paintings at high prices and isn't a fashion designer or a dilettante. It's the kind of folly one likes."
Guillaume looked to conquer America too. In 1914 and 1915 Guillaume shipped masks and paintings to New York, where they were exhibited at a gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue. Following Apollinaire's example, Guillaume had learned the ruse of hiding his pecuniary interest; the show's catalog praised Guillaume's "disinterestedness" in lending the objects, when, in fact, he was shipping these and other items for sale. Back in Paris, Guillaume and Apollinaire launched another promotional ruse with scholarly airs--a magazine, Les Arts á Paris, to which both men contributed pseudonymously.
The Kimbell's exhibition, however, contains little about this critical early period, which ended with Apollinaire's death in November 1918. And it's not much better on the details of Guillaume's relationship with the important mentor of his mature years, Dr. Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia physician, pharmacist, industrialist, and more to the point, a wealthy and insatiable collector.
An essay from the catalog of the Barnes exhibition--which stopped at the Kimbell in 1994--suggests Barnes and Guillaume met "in the early 1920s," when Barnes began to purchase African sculpture. By that time, Dr. Barnes, a committed intellectual and an equally serious eccentric, had been purchasing art for years through a variety of dealers and agents, none of whom lasted very long. The Kimbell's catalog accurately describes their relationship; Guillaume "absorbed Barnes' notions like a chameleon" and Barnes "responded by showering him with dollars."
Many a dealer had set out to bag the famously difficult doctor as a client, and Guillaume's success in doing so immediately raised his cachet. Guillaume managed to ride this horse until sometime around 1927, when he had the inevitable falling-out with Barnes. (Unfortunately, the organizers of this exhibition make no effort to shed new light on many aspects of this relationship, including the split.) Along the way, both Guillaume and Barnes got a great deal out of the collaboration. Although estimates have differed as to how much of Barnes' collection was acquired through Guillaume--in the finest tradition established by its founder, the Barnes Foundation's documents remain largely inaccessible to scholars--it is clear that many of Barnes' masterpieces, and virtually all of the African sculpture, came through Guillaume.
Barnes made Guillaume one of his trusted lieutenants, appointing him to the board of the Barnes Foundation and relying on him as a sounding board, agent, picture hound, and bootlicking pupil. For his part, Guillaume got more than just power and money from the connection; he also got hoity-toity airs. As he had once absorbed tricks of the art trade from Apollinaire, so Guillaume seems to have adopted Barnes' educational and philanthropic philosophies. Barnes had always envisioned his collecting not just as a pursuit of ego and intellect, but as a tool for educating the masses; when he first started collecting, he hung his prizes in his factory, organizing discussion groups for workers complete with required readings in the philosophy of aesthetics.
By the time Barnes dumped Guillaume, the latter seems to have decided to move from art dealer to arts patron. Writing pseudonymously in Les Arts á Paris, in 1927 Guillaume began to leak details of his plans, lavishing praise on himself for his yet-to-be-realized generosity. In fact, Guillaume, who never lacked for moxie, would go Dr. Barnes one better; Guillaume's "house-museum" would have few of the restrictions Barnes imposed on his visitors. The Kimbell's exhibition catalog documents this purported change in the way Guillaume viewed his collection, from sales tool to labor of "pure" art-love, not to be sold as needed but to be given to the state.
Predictably, these noises whipped art bureaucrats and French curators into states of near-frenzy. The honors started rolling in: Thus the former tire dealer and man who helped remove much of France's cultural heritage to America received the Legion d'Honneur and was appointed to prestigious posts, including the Conseil Superieur des Beaux-Arts. But for the French Revolution, he would, like his crooked British contemporary Joseph Duveen, undoubtedly have been knighted by the King.
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.
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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