Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America
Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America
The title of this book—Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America—is a misnomer, because it implies that the struggle to bring modern art to America was Picasso’s. But as this book demonstrates more poignantly than perhaps any other, the artist did virtually nothing himself to promote or in other ways encourage the advancement of his work in the United States. In fact, he was at best indifferent. Instead of cooperating with the overtures made by various well-intentioned Americans to acquire or display his work, he systematically thwarted them, repeatedly refusing many requests to lend to exhibitions in the United States and rejecting any and all invitations to visit the country itself (where, in the end, he never set foot). What accounts for this attitude is never fully addressed in Eakin’s book since it terminates its survey in 1939 with Picasso’s first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Picasso was then fifty-eight-years old, but he would live another thirty-four years, enough time for the museum to amass one of the largest collections of his work held by any institution anywhere in the world (save for the Picasso Museum in Paris). In the years before his death in 1973 at the age of ninety-one, he came to embrace any effort Americans made to acknowledge his status as the internationally acclaimed modern master he had by then become.
Picasso’s War was not his war, but as Eakin tells it, that of two Americans who are central figures in this account: John Quinn, a collector and lawyer in New York who, during and just after the years of World War I, built one of the most formidable collections of modern art anywhere in the world, and Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They rather than Picasso are the protagonists in this narrative, characters whose roles play out in a melodrama that reads more like an exciting novel than a staid lesson in art history. The central thrust of the story is to tell us how Picasso’s art gained recognition and acceptance in America, from its first showing at the 291 Gallery of Alfred Stieglitz in New York in 1911 and its display at the Armory Show in 1913, to the Picasso retrospective that Barr finally managed to organize. It is an account that Eakin tells so well that, like any good novel, once you get into the story, it is hard to put the book down. He is a highly skilled writer who fully develops his characters and integrates their actions within the setting of a complex and intriguing plot, in this case, a quest to acquire and show the works of Picasso in the United States. In some instances, Eakin paints such a vivid picture of a given event that you feel as though you are in the room witnessing it.
Such a tightly focused narrative, however, has its drawbacks. Because Eakin concentrates almost exclusively on the activities of Quinn and Barr, he fails to take into account the role played by countless other artists, critics, and collectors in bringing a knowledge of Picasso’s work to an initially resistant American public. “In the end,” he says in the closing line of his book, “it was a curiously tiny number of people who fought Picasso’s War for the United States.” But in actual fact, many contributed to this effort. We hear nothing about the activities of the American painter Max Weber, for example, who visited Picasso in his studio in 1908 and bought a painting directly from the artist. When he returned to New York in January of 1909, he carried it with him, the very first painting by Picasso to enter into the United States. Weber was introduced to Picasso by Leo and Gertrude Stein, the American brother and sister team who lived in Paris and had been collecting Picasso’s work for several years. The Steins also introduced the work of Picasso to the sisters Etta and Claribel Cone, old friends of theirs who visited Paris regularly and purchased drawings and prints by the artist that they brought back to their home in Baltimore. All of these activities predate the first Picasso exhibition in New York at the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, a show that Quinn viewed, but which—like many others at the time—he found incomprehensible. Nevertheless, the Stieglitz show would eventually lead Quinn not only to take a keen interest in Picasso’s work, but also to gradually develop an obsession to acquire the most advanced manifestations of modern art in Europe, most of which, as he saw it, came out of Paris.
Stieglitz first learned of the work of Picasso from his friend and colleague, Edward Steichen, who was living in Paris at the time and served as his most reliable European liaison and advisor on contemporary art. The works for the first show at 291 were chosen in Picasso’s studio, with the artist bringing them out one by one as they were selected by Frank Burty Haviland (brother of Paul Haviland, one of the backers in Stieglitz’s gallery), Steichen, and Marius de Zayas, a caricaturist who had shown at 291 and written for Stieglitz’s magazine, Camera Work. In Eakin’s book, de Zayas’s role in selecting work for this show is not mentioned; his involvement in the exhibition is brought up only when he is forced to act as an intermediary for Stieglitz after the show is over. He was then placed in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to Picasso why only one of his drawings sold (to Stieglitz), and why none had yet been returned to him. Although de Zayas lived in New York, he grew up in Mexico City and, therefore, spoke Picasso’s language (literally). He wrote one of the first articles on Picasso, which was based on his conversations with the artist in his studio and, when he returned to New York and started a gallery of his own, he showed Picasso’s work in exhibitions there, including a one-person show in 1915–16. Even after de Zayas moved to Europe in the early 1920s, he continued to include examples of Picasso’s work in various exhibitions of modern art that he organized. In the mid-1940s, he composed the text for a book called How, When and Why Modern Art Came to New York, a book that was published only posthumously, but which carried a title that—perhaps not coincidentally—is echoed in the subtitle of Eakin’s book: How Modern Art Came to America.
Eakin opens his book with the description of a gathering at Quinn’s apartment on Central Park West to unveil his recent acquisition of Henri Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy (1897). This was one of the rare occasions when Quinn invited anyone to see an example of the many works of modern art he had acquired, the majority of which were not hung for viewing, but placed on the floor and stacked against the wall. That was in direct contrast to the collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg, who lived just up the street from Quinn and who, during the years of World War I, opened their home to nearly nightly gatherings of their close personal friends, mostly vanguard artists and writers. On the walls of their home hung many works of art that they had recently acquired, including several paintings by Picasso, such as Female Nude, 1910–11, an Analytic Cubist picture from 1910–11, and Violin and Guitar, a Synthetic Cubist painting from 1913 (both likely acquired from the gallery of Marius de Zayas). They would go on to acquire other even more important paintings by Picasso after they moved to California in 1921. In Eakin’s book, these pioneering collectors are mentioned only in passing, and then just to record Quinn’s lament in having learned that they suffered financial reversals and were leaving New York.
The Arensbergs were guided in their collecting by an artist and critic who is also only given scant mention in Eakin’s book, Walter Pach. Pach was an American artist and writer who lived in Paris in 1912 and was approached by the organizers of the Armory Show to select work for the exhibition from the studios of various modern artists whom he knew personally. Walt Kuhn, who was one of the founding members of Association of American Painters & Sculptors (AAPS) that organized the Armory Show, visited Picasso in his studio on the Boulevard de Clichy, likely in the company of Arthur B. Davies, president of the AAPS, and Pach. They asked Picasso about other artists who should be included in the show, and he wrote out their names on a scrap of paper: Juan Gris, [Jean] Metzinger, [Albert] Gleizes, [Fernand] Léger, [Marcel] Duchamp, Robert [Delaunay], [Henri] Le Fauconnier, Marie Laurencin, [Roger] de la Fresnaye. In the end, most of these artists were included in the show, but the work by Picasso—as well as that of all other cubists—was overshadowed by the attention paid to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), which bewildered an American public that could not find the nude promised in the painting’s title.
Pach came to America to attend the Armory Show in New York, as well as in Chicago and Boston, serving in an unofficial capacity as the exhibition’s main sales agent; he dutifully recorded all works that sold—for how much and to whom—in a notebook. Sales were not quite as “dispiriting” as Eakin claims, for a surprising number of works in the exhibition sold (all four of the paintings submitted by Marcel Duchamp, for example, found buyers), enough for some to believe that modern art might have a future in the United States. In the aftermath of the Armory Show, many new galleries opened in New York to show the new art, and those that already existed began showing it to take advantage of what they saw as an emerging new market. One of these galleries, the Carroll Galleries, was financed by Quinn, who ended up being its main client, having secretly purchased, as Eakin reveals, five works by Picasso from an exhibition there in 1915. Pach worked tirelessly to promote the new art and served as an advisor to Quinn on many of his purchases (indeed, from the time of the Armory Show to the early 1920s, Quinn was Pach’s main source of income). When Quinn gave thought to giving his collection a permanent exhibition space in New York, he wanted Pach to serve as its director (a project that sadly never materialized). For a comparatively brief period, from the Armory Show to around 1920, Pach even temporarily changed his own style as a painter to embrace the newest tendencies in the arts.
In the end, Quinn ended up purchasing quite an impressive number of works by Picasso, some twenty-two paintings and a half-dozen works on paper before his untimely death by liver cancer in 1924 and the age of fifty-four. Two years later, a memorial display of his collection was held at The Art Center in New York, where an impressionable young student of art history, Alfred Barr (then studying to complete his PhD at Harvard), saw it and was overwhelmed by the staggering quantity and quality of the modernist work Quinn had amassed in a comparatively brief period of time. Barr and Quinn never met, but the exhibition of his collection was, according to Eakin, an aesthetic handoff; when Barr became the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929, he went on to show and write catalogues about the work of the very artists Quinn collected. And when the museum itself began collecting, he purchased many works by the same artists, beginning with Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror in 1938 and his monumental Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1939. The road to getting to that point for Barr was an arduous uphill climb, not only because at first the museum had no permanent collection or endowment to buy works of art, but also because whenever Barr proposed an exhibition, Picasso either rejected the offer or, on several occasions when Barr came to Paris and wanted to see him, ghosted him.
Barr and Picasso met in June of 1930. Barr did not speak French (or spoke it poorly), but his new wife Daisy (whom he called Marga) was fluent, so she acted as the main spokesman and interpreter. At their first meeting, Barr proposed an exhibition of Picasso’s work at the museum and although the artist initially promised his support, when Barr returned to Paris the following summer, Picasso was nowhere to be found. Instead, he threw his allegiance to a commercial gallery in Paris that promised him a major show. Picasso was always well aware on which side his bread was buttered. Barr, for his part, was reluctant to cooperate with dealers, thinking that any mix between art and money was a conflict of interest. Eventually, he learned that he could not function without their help, particularly in the case of Picasso, as the dealer Paul Rosenberg controlled his market. Throughout the 1930s, other obstacles would intervene causing Barr’s dream of a Picasso exhibition to be repeatedly postponed. Most of these things were beyond his control, from property settlement disputes between Picasso and his wife, from whom he was seeking a separation, to the growing world economic crisis and increased tension with Fascist forces in Spain, Italy and Germany. Eventually Barr was able to secure the cooperation of Rosenberg and Picasso and, with loans from a myriad of sources throughout Europe and the United States, the first great Picasso retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art on November 15, 1939 (just six weeks after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, which began World War II). Picasso was formally invited to the opening, but he never responded.
The catalogue that accompanied this exhibition was put together by Barr in a few short months. It contained captions for 360 separate works of art, the majority of which were reproduced in black and white. Barr provided some explanatory texts for the various categories into which the artist’s work was divided, but the whole was preceded by two separate introductory texts based on interviews with Picasso, the first with Marius de Zayas (1923), the other by Christian Zervos (1935), founder of the French magazine Cahiers d’art, who would later go on to gather information for Picasso’s catalogue raisonné. Even before the Picasso show finished its extended tour to other cities, Barr was dismissed from his position as director of the Museum of Modern Art, for, as Eakin points out, the museum’s chairman, Stephen Clark, claimed he was “not writing enough.” Of course, Barr was writing plenty, but the board felt that his temperament was ill-suited to the new corporate identity they sought for the museum. From a small cubicle off the library, Barr revised and expanded the focus of his catalogue on Picasso and, in 1945, published Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, a book that remains an indispensable monograph on the artist to this day.
Exactly why Barr had such a hard time with Picasso is never fully explained by Eakin, except that he repeatedly reminds us of the dismal results of the artist’s first show at Stieglitz’s gallery in 1911. In actual fact, Picasso was difficult with everyone and, from a very early age, realized that his innate talents as an artist surpassed those of his colleagues. As a result, he refused to show his work in the annual salons—where his friends and fellow artists exhibited regularly—because he knew that he would be grouped with them, and there was an advantage to being separated from the rest of the pack. After all, he was already showing regularly in one-person shows at various galleries in Paris, so he did not need this added exposure. When his work was represented by Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, he signed a contract that prohibited him from showing his work in these annual salons, ostensibly, as the dealer later explained, because he wanted to spare his artists from the ridicule they would experience. That may be true, but of course it also gave the dealer complete control, something Picasso seems to have accepted, for it allowed him to work without considering the complications that inevitably result when an artist tries to sell their own work. As the art historian Leo Steinberg astutely once pointed out, “If you want the truth about a work of art, be sure always to get your data from the horse’s mouth, bearing in mind that the artist is the one selling the horse.”
Barr’s difficulties with Picasso might also have been a matter of temperament. In de Zayas’s interview with Picasso (the one Barr used as an introduction to his Picasso: Forty Years of his Art), the artist points out that cubism has not been understood, but, as he says, “that means nothing.” To explain that reaction, he creates a metaphor with language. “I do not read English, an English book is a blank book to me. This does not mean that the English language does not exist, and why should I blame anybody else but myself if I cannot understand what I know nothing about.” These very same words could have been turned around and directed at John Quinn and Alfred Barr, both of whom spoke little Spanish or French. As a result, Picasso might have been implying that anyone who does not speak either of these two languages cannot ultimately understand his work, or at best, cannot understand what he has to say about it. Barr was, after all, a very formal and staid character, one possessed of profound intellect and an abundance of academic credentials, but that meant little to Picasso. By contrast, we know that William S. Rubin, who was brought to the museum by Alfred Barr in the late 1960s, got along famously with Picasso. Not only did he speak French fluently, but he was a larger-than-life personality, which Picasso found appealing. Although he was not known for his generosity, in 1971 Picasso gave Rubin his sheet-metal and wire Guitar of 1914 for the museum, followed two years later by the paper maquette he made for its construction in 1912.
“Happily, Picasso and I hit it off instantly,” Rubin later explained. “I knew immediately that the model for my relationship with Picasso should not be that of the inquiring art historian. It would not have lasted long. I just had to be a relaxed friend, playing ping-pong with his thinking and gleaning whatever I could art-historically when the mood pleased him. He had treated me with something close to affection during my first visit, and I built on that.” Rubin would go on to mount four shows of Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art, beginning with Picasso in the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1972 (a year before the artist’s death), and followed eight years later by Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective, the largest exhibition of the artist’s work mounted in the United States, which, like Barr’s 1939 exhibition, filled the entire museum. During his tenure, either through acquisition or gifts, Rubin added to the collection some of the most important works by Picasso that the museum owns: Woman Plaiting Her Hair (1906), several studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), The Reservoir, Horta de Ebro (1909), Woman with Flowered Hat (1921), Project for a Monument to Guillaume Apollinaire (1928/62), Painter and Model (1928), Bather and Beach Ball (1932), The Charnel House (1944-45), The Kitchen (1948), and many more.
Of course, Rubin’s friendship with Picasso and the exhibitions he organized for the Museum of Modern Art are beyond the purview of Eakin’s book, but they form a sharp contrast with the efforts made by Quinn and Barr to bring a knowledge of Picasso’s work before an American public, which by now has come to accept him as one of the great—to some the very greatest—modern artist of all time.