How Picasso Became Big Business
A new history of modern art flips the script by focusing on dealers, collectors, and curators.
In Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War, the artist featured in the title is—somewhat unexpectedly—a relatively minor character. This is clear from the book's prologue. The dramatic and moody opening takes us to a 1924 dinner party in the New York home of John Quinn, a Wall Street lawyer and pioneering patron of modern art and literature. After the coffee is served, Quinn leads his friends and fellow modern art enthusiasts to see his latest acquisition. They were, Eakin writes, “seized by the giant rectangle. Confronting them was a nocturnal encounter as alluring as it was strange.” Given the book’s title, a reader may expect the giant rectangle to be a canvas by Pablo Picasso—it is not.
In Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War, the artist featured in the title is—somewhat unexpectedly—a relatively minor character. This is clear from the book’s prologue. The dramatic and moody opening takes us to a 1924 dinner party in the New York home of John Quinn, a Wall Street lawyer and pioneering patron of modern art and literature. After the coffee is served, Quinn leads his friends and fellow modern art enthusiasts to see his latest acquisition. They were, Eakin writes, “seized by the giant rectangle. Confronting them was a nocturnal encounter as alluring as it was strange.” Given the book’s title, a reader may expect the giant rectangle to be a canvas by Pablo Picasso—it is not.
The painting is Henri Rousseau’s famed The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Rousseau was a self-taught artist who worked as a provincial French customs official. Picasso was fascinated by Rousseau’s work, introduced him to his modernist circles, and even hosted a famed banquet in his honor. As we learn later in the book, Picasso helped convince Quinn to buy this exceptional canvas. In this instance, Rousseau is the star; Picasso is in the background.
Throughout Eakin’s rollicking and fascinating history, subtitled How Modern Art Came to America, Picasso continues to appear somewhat haphazardly. This is not necessarily a problem, but it is worth knowing before reading the extensively researched and footnoted 480-page volume. (One wonders if a publishing house marketing department felt the need to put Picasso in the title, despite his supporting role.) There are a couple of other minor quibbles. For example, when a canvas’ price is noted, we are rarely given relative values to understand the cost in today’s terms. Also, the illustrations are painfully limited. One often has to Google or rely on Eakin’s textual descriptions of paintings to visualize the artistic works at the heart of the story. These are the book’s shortcomings, but they ultimately don’t hold up the engaging story that Eakin tells.
The heroes of that story are two American men, rather than the Spanish painter: first Quinn, and then Alfred H. Barr Jr., the founding director of MoMA. Eakin deploys these two characters to lead us through a decades long history of Americans’ embrace of 20th-century European modernism, which was halting, haphazard, and not a foregone conclusion. Quinn has faded into obscurity, while Barr is still widely feted as a groundbreaking art historian and museum director. His famous flowchart from the cover of the 1936 exhibition catalog Cubism and Abstract Art remains both a touchstone and point of contention in scholarly studies of modern art.
Both men have a sort of Forrest Gump-like quality where they are present for all kinds of important historical moments. In some cases, they are key players in these moments—like Quinn’s instrumental role in organizing the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913. However, in other instances, they are just in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong) time. Barr, for example, was visiting collections of modern art in the Soviet Union just as Joseph Stalin was consolidating power in 1927 and happened to be convalescing in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1933 when the Reichstag burned and the Nazis began their takeover of the German government. He witnessed their swift subsequent attack on modern art firsthand.
Eakin documents the effort it took his two protagonists to have American artists, then connoisseurs and collectors, and finally the general public accept Picasso and his circle of radicals. In this way, the most crucial contribution of Picasso’s War is less in charting the lives of these two men or the artists they loved but instead detailing—in an entertaining way—the early days of the trans-Atlantic modern art world. Often, both in scholarly publications and in more general sources, this history is told primarily from the point of view of famous artists. The artists’ dealers, the collectors of their work, and the curators in charge of museums featuring that work are relegated to the margins. Eakin flips the script. Instead, the dealers, collectors, and curators—the business of art—are the center of this tale.
Eakin’s focus is on 20th-century art. Yet, throughout the story, 19th-century artists appear—Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, and others are sprinkled throughout the story. The French Impressionists and their career paths marked a transition point in how contemporary art reaches the public and is marketed to collectors. It is helpful to briefly recount the market experiences of these earlier artists to understand the importance of Eakin’s contribution.
From the mid-18th to the late 19th century, artists working in France presented their new work via a juried state-sponsored exhibition called the Salon. Under various demographic and stylistic pressures, this system broke down in the second part of the 19th century. Artists excluded from the Salon, like the Impressionists, sought out other ways to show and sell their art. In the landmark 1965 book Canvases and Careers, the sociologist Harrison White and the art historian Cynthia White discussed the emergence of what they termed the “dealer-critic system,” in which the Impressionists and other contemporary artists became increasingly dependent on dealers to bring their works to market. As the channels for bringing art to the public moved outside of a juried exhibition that awarded prizes, both artists and dealers needed other methods to demonstrate the quality of new works of art. Art critics were able to fill this gap with their assessment of exhibitions at museums and commercial galleries. A rave review in the press took the place of a médaille d’honneur at the Salon.
While the Whites focused on the Impressionists, other scholars have since argued that the actual transition to the dealer-critic system happened later, in the early 20th century. This is the moment Eakin takes as his starting point. In an accessible way, he charts the growing dominance of the dealer-critic system. (Writing about Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes in 1964, aesthetic philosopher Arthur Danto would call this ecosystem the “art world”—a term now in general parlance.) In short, Eakin teaches us about the current system for how art comes to market, is accepted as artistically and financially valuable, and is ultimately canonized.
In some art historical accounts—and perhaps in a layperson’s perception—art dealers are cast as parasitic capitalists profiting on artistic innovation. This is not the case in Picasso’s War; the dealers are given their due. For example, Picasso and his friends and colleagues—such as Georges Braque and André Derain—were free to work and collaborate around 1910 because their Paris-based German art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was purchasing whatever they produced. They could take trips to the south of France together to innovate alongside one another. Kahnweiler’s financial support facilitated their ability to innovate.
We learn from Eakin’s book that this process of artistic innovation, commercial success, and canonization—which in theory sounds high-minded—is often quite sordid. Along the way to the veneration of modern art in the United States, there were tax laws that needed to be changed and ugly divorces that had to be navigated. In addition, there were two major wars where artists were injured and killed, Jewish art dealers had to flee for their lives, and collections were seized as enemy assets or looted by Nazis. The protagonists of Eakin’s story were also flawed people with shambolic opinions. After hundreds of pages in which Quinn appears as a tireless heroic champion of modern art, we learn that he was—despite having Jewish friends—virulently antisemitic. His correspondence is peppered with awful statements about Picasso’s longtime dealer Paul Rosenberg and terrible commentaries about Eastern European Jews who fled ethnic violence to emigrate to New York.
If anything, as Eakin demonstrates, World War II helped cement the status of Picasso and modern art in the United States in several ways. First, as fascists and dictators censured modern art as deviant, an association emerged between liberal democracy and radical artistic innovation. Second, art, artists, and art dealers needed a safe haven during the war. The United States was that haven.
While war raged in Europe, Barr and MoMA—with the help of Barr’s industrious wife, art historian Margaret Scolari Barr—organized a blockbuster Picasso exhibition. The show was filled with works that had barely made it out of Paris before the fall of France, and it cemented MoMA’s status as the primary institutional tastemaker in America. The exhibition traveled to dozens of North American cities over the next few years. Hundreds of thousands of visitors saw a retrospective dedicated to an artist who had been mocked in the American press just a few years earlier. The horrors of war and the Holocaust eased Picasso’s ascent to the pinnacle of 20th-century art. Again: The path to recognizing and canonizing great art is messy. Eakin documents this fact in fantastic fashion.
Diana Seave Greenwald is the assistant curator of the collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston and the author of Painting by Numbers: Data-Driven Histories of Nineteenth-Century Art.
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