Feature

Exhibit of the week: The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art gives the four San Francisco expats who transformed our appreciation of modern art their due.

San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtThrough Sept. 6

At the turn of the 20th century, Paris was ground zero for avant-garde art-making, said Leslie Camhi in Vogue.com. Problem was, most people of the time would never have known it. Museums remained stuck in the past, making opportunities to see modern works scarce. It would take four San Francisco expats with impeccable taste—Leo Stein, his sister Gertrude, their brother Michael, and his wife, Sarah—to turn Paris into a hotbed of modern-art appreciation. That transformation is the subject of this landmark exhibition at SFMOMA. The Stein foursome—by “supporting artists such as Matisse and Picasso with their patronage and friendship,” by adorning their homes with “wildly controversial paintings,” and by hosting Saturday evening salons at which Leo held forth on the artworks’ merits—transformed themselves into veritable “incubators of modernity.”

The Steins certainly had eclectic tastes, said Kristian Richards in SFStation.com. While Matisse and Picasso are the undisputed stars of this “sprawling” variety show, the range of the 200 disparate works is testament to the breadth of the modernist spirit. Henri Maguin pieces, “with their impossibly soft strokes and pastels, mingle with Max Weber’s Apollo in Matisse’s Studio and other elegant nudes. Francis Rose’s epically psychedelic Homage to Gertrude Stein rubs shoulders with surrealist beauties by Pavel Tchelitchew.” And with some of Tchelitchew’s non-beauties, too: The Russian-born painter’s Final Sketch for Phenomena, reportedly undertaken after a falling-out with Gertrude and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, depicts Stein and Toklas lolling like pashas among “visions of misery and torture.”

Some of the most compelling objects aren’t even artworks, said Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle. Various other artifacts—diary entries, postcards from artists, and “mural-scale enlargements” of historical photos—offer a fascinating glimpse into this charmed period. “The example most striking to me: a shot of Gertrude’s atelier at 27 rue de Fleurus showing a row of small proto-Cubist female heads” by Picasso. Several of them appear here, “foreshadowing, as grimaces do a sneeze, the epochal novelty” of the artist’s game-changing 1907 canvas Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In a lesser curator’s hands, such nuanced connections might get lost in an unwieldy mess. But here, “meticulous labeling and a clean, well-paced installation weave the exhibition’s many threads without tangling them.”

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