Posts Tagged ‘Bernheim Gallery’

Goldfish and Palette,oil on canvas, 57-3/4 x 44-1/4. Some sources give the date as 1914, others 1912-17.

Today is Henri Matiisse’s birthday. He was born December 31, 1868 in northern France, near the Belgian border and grew up in Bohain, where the main commerce was beets and weaving. His father owned a seed shop. When he was about fifteen, his mother gave him a paint set and he knew that he wanted to be a painter. Becoming a professional painter was out of the question since that was a disreputable occupation. He was sent to Paris to study law and worked as a law clerk for a while. He studied at the École des Beaux Arts, with Gustav Moreau, copied paintings at the Louvre to make money and lived in abject poverty with two roommates, also painters, who had one decent pair of pants between them.
He married in 1898, saying to his bride, “I love you mademoiselle, but I will always love painting more.”
Until his late thirties, his work met nothing but ridicule. When he visited his family in Bohain, the town folk called him “le sot Matisse” (the Matisse idiot). In Paris, when he exhibited his paintings at the Salon des Independents (non-juried shows) people congregated around his work in uproarious laughter. Matisse played the violin and had a reputation among friends as a ham actor, who did  satirical impressions. But about his work he was so serious that young artists called him “the Doctor.” His concentration on his work caused insomnia throughout his life. In 1903 he wrote to a friend “describing the state of misery and emotional numbness to which insomnia had reduced him, and which he feared might end in total disintegration.” (I, 250) He “approached the act of painting (with) a tension so extreme that those closest to him risked being sucked in with him to the verge of breakdown or vertigo.” (I,324)
In 1910 he had a one-man show at the Bernheim Gallery. “The critics responded with a dismissive brutality that even Matisse had scarcely encountered in this scale before. They accused him of vulgar excess, willful confusion and gratuitous barbarity. Even the more serious reviewers found him incapable of following any consistent line or evolving a style of his own. “(II, 41) The same year, the Bernheims tried to swindle him and Matisse fell ill. A doctor explained that “there was nothing clinically wrong with him, that black despair would inevitably follow bouts of such intense nervous pressure and emotional exhilaration, and that all he could do was learn to manage his condition by sticking to a regular work schedule and by being less exacting towards himself. “All artists have this particular make-up, that’s what makes them artists, but with me it’s a bit excessive,’ Matisse told his wife, adding optimistically, ‘perhaps that’s what gives their quality to my pictures.’” (II, 59)
matisse-f9d8dTowards the end of his life, Matisse was in a wheel chair and incapable of painting. He worked with scissors to make “cut-outs.” He did not buy the paper, he painted the paper he used for cutting. He worked with an assistant in placing the pieces. There was nothing restful about this work process. The current exhibit at the MoMA has people sitting in quiet contemplation of these often huge cut-outs. People generally perceive them as tranquil. The largest one is hundred and four feet long.

About Goldfish and Palette, André Breton wrote: “I’ve examined this picture twenty times. In truth it possesses at once innovation, profound penetration of every object by the artist’s own life, magical colors, it has everything…I’m convinced Matisse has never put so much of himself into any other painting.” (II, 168)
(The quotes are from Hilary Sperling’s two-volume study of Matisse.)
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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PicassoFamilySaltimbanquesThis large painting (84”x90”) was first exhibited publicly on March 2, 1914.

Picasso, at age twenty-four, painted it in 1905. André Level , a young shipping magnate, bought it from the artist in 1908. That doesn’t sound extraordinary until you look at Level’s motivation.

Level was so successful in his business that he could take the afternoon off to study art and the happenings in the Parisian galleries of Weil, Vollard and Bernheim, who showed this strange new art that didn’t look pleasant and was called “avant-guard.”  To us now, Picasso’s “The Family of Saltimbanques” looks mild, even pretty.  We can tell what’s what and that’s not what later art gave us.  But to the starched-collared folk of the early 1900’s this painting looked crude, impolite and threatening to civilization as they knew it.  Why did Level buy the Picasso?

Level started buying the new art on speculation in 1904.  With twelve other investors, he formed a consortium that put him in charge of making the aesthetic decision.  They gave him the money, he went around buying up art from galleries and directly from artists like Picasso and Matisse. Speculating that this art was the next big thing, he stored it in a warehouse for ten years.  Then on March 2, 1914, Level held an auction at a Paris hotel in which he presented 145 lots. Level’s investment paid off handsomely.  The auction sales brought in four times the money originally invested.  Among the paintings were ten Matisses and a dozen Picassos.  The Saltimbanques, the highest priced work on the block that day, fetched twelve times what Level had paid Picasso for it in 1908.

We’re now observing the 100th anniversary of the auction that focused attention on the relationship of commercial and aesthetic judgments. The auction was called “Le Peau de L’Ours,” the skin of the bear.  The name comes from La Fontaine’s fable, “The Bear and the Two Companions,”  in which two friends in need of money sell the skin of a  bear to a furrier before they have gone to the trouble of trapping the animal.  The “future contract” goes unfulfilled because the bear not only proves indomitable but even subdues one of the hunters so that he can whisper in his ear, “don’t sell the bear’s skin before you’ve sacked him.”    By analogy, the paintings bought on speculation are like the skin of the bear.

After the spectacular profit made at the Le Peau de L’Ours sale, avant- guard art appeared to be as good as gold.

To learn more about the creation of the market for twentieth-century art, see “Making Modernism” by Michael C. FitzGerald.  1995, 268 p.  The author holds a PhD in Art History and a MBA and he writes well.

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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