Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sunday at the Met

On Sunday I went to the Metropolitan Museum to see the new exhibit "Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant Garde". It was an exceptional exhibition. Ambroise Vollard was an art dealer in Paris from the 1890's to the 1930's, and he represented at very early stages many of the innovators in painting there during that period. The extensive show details his life and his association with many artists, using paintings that passed through his hands borrowed from museums and collectors everywhere. He represented many artists and here are a few examples from my non-notebook backed up memory:

---He discovered Cezanne before Cezanne was Cezanne so to speak. They developed a strong relationship and two thirds of all Cezanne paintings passed through Vollard's hands.
---He bought paintings and drawings from a poor 20 year old transplanted Spaniard named Picasso and built a relationship. As Picasso's fame grew he stopped buying from him(no more deep value), but the relationship continued until Vollard's death in 1939 as Picasso became a buyer of paintings from Vollard.
---He only really discovered Van Gogh shortly after the artist's death when most of Van Gogh's production was in the hands of Van Gogh's sister-in-law(his brother had been his business manager to the extent that there was any business and he had died around the same time). At the time there was little interest in Van Gogh's work as it was viewed as the work of a madman or worse, but Vollard risked buying the impoverished sister-in-law's trove. He later regretted the prices that he sold the pieces for as Van Gogh's reputation soared.
---He had purchased a few Gauguin's before the artist returned from Tahiti for the first time. Meeting Gauguin at that time he described him as a huge man walking down the boulevards of Paris wrapped in multiple cloaks and scarves and followed by a small native woman in bright multicolored apparel. "He could have passed himself off as an Asian prince". Gauguin was without funds, so Vollard aranged to put him on a stipend in return for his future works, and the artist was able to return to Tahiti.
---He and Renoir had a long term and close relationship, and there is a remarkable 15 minute silent film of Vollard and Renoir sitting, talking, smoking, and observing paintings in 1915, shortly before Renoir's death. The old Renoir somehow is gripping a piantbrush in a right hand deformed by rheumatoid arthritis and is seen speaking in an animated way with a slight wry Parisian smile coming to his face when finishing a point.

Vollard was a French national raised in Madagascar. At 18 he came to Paris to study law and become interested in printmaking and painting as he was inspired by the artist stalls along the Seine. He dropped the schooling and opened his own small gallery. There is a painting(by whom I can't remember) of Vollard hosting a dinner with a group of artists in the "notoriously humid" basement of his gallery, as he often did, as he was "renowned for his chicken curry".

I was obviously engaged by this exhibit. But I was also caught up in the museum. I usually visit museums, to the limited extent that I do, on weekdays but on Sunday it was different. It seemed, literally, that the whole world was there---the Brits, continental Europeans, Asians, both the downtown and uptown New Yorkers, even a few Texans(did you take my glasses honey). There were so many people, or perhaps I should say women, who were so stylishly individual and casual in their dress that it could have been a Sunday walk on Boulevard St. Germain. And everyone, it seemed to me, was into the museum trance. At one point in the Gauguin room a woman's cell phone rang, and on the second ring a young man with a European accent, Dutch I would guess, turned to her and said "Turn that off. Don't you realize where you are. You're in a museum." His tone was one of speaking of a spiritual place.

I must note that the NYTimes gave the exhibit a tepid review a few weeks ago. The thrust of the review was that while many of the paintings were of interest the overall show was somehow second tier. But the real message for sure was that the snippy and I'm sure highly knowledgeable institutionalized art critic was offended that an exhibit was built around the life of someone who was neither artist nor collector, simply a dealer or trader. In fact the last paragraph of the review was devoted entirely to suggesting that one should not forget to go to the permanent collections rooms of the museum, with a clear implication that this was a superior alternative. Too bad this guy was too smart to enjoy a great exhibit.

Afterward I met up with a wonderful friend who came into town late afternoon from Chapel Hill for business the next day. We walked the city some and then had dinner at Marseille, a French, Mediterranean, North African brasserie at 44th and 9th. Lots of food and lots of talk.

Pretty good day.

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