July 2013

Scene4 Magazine | A Taste for Modernism | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | July 2013 !

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

CBS mogul William S. Paley was sometimes dubbed "the father of modern broadcasting," but until the recent blockbuster exhibit of his personal collection of late 19th and 20th century art, his influence as a patron and advocate for modernism may not have been fully appreciated. The exhibition, William S. Paley: A Taste for Modernism, which is on view at The Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, from May 2-September 8, 2013, was mounted in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which owns the treasures from twenty-four masters including Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Mir├▓, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Degas, Rouault, and Hopper.

Through the assistance of PMA trustee George Gillespie, one of Paley's lawyers and also a Board member of the Paley Foundation, the show, now on a 2012-2014 national tour which began in San Francisco, makes its only stop in New England in Maine and then continues to the Mus├ęe National des Beaux Arts du Quebec (October 10, 2013-Januray 5, 2014) and the Crystal Bridges Music of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas (February –April 2014). The Portland Museum's Margaret Burgess, the Susan Donnell & Harry W. Konkel Assistant Curator of European Art, worked closely with MoMA's Lilian Tone, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture, to mount the show.

William S. Paley (1901-1990), who built the CBS broadcasting empire, began collecting European art in the 1930s, amassing an extraordinary, 1.paley-creclectic body of works, each of which had a personal significance for him and all of which hung in his homes and offices until they were bequeathed to MoMA upon Paley's death. Paley's association with MoMA was also a close one. He was a catalytic force in the museum's founding in 1929, and from 1937 until his death, he served variously as trustee, Board President, and Board Chairman, and was a key player in purchasing for the museum countless masterpieces, among them six Picassos from Gertrude Stein.

The exhibition is aptly titled since "taste" is the operative word in the selection of chefs-d'oeuvres. Each of the paintings, to works on paper and sculptures, represents Paley's individual choice. That far-reaching taste combined with a keen eye, a questing passion for the avant garde, and considerable financial resources enabled him to assemble one of the most influential collections, representative of the key movements and figures in modern art.

Touring the PMA's installation, one cannot help but wonder what motivated Paley's selection and purchases. His biographer David Harris reported in Paley's New York Times obituary that "he knew what he liked" (NYT 10/27/90) and that Paley, himself, had once said, "It has to be something that hits me," adding the advice, "Don't buy it unless you cannot live without it." Fortunately, for MoMA and posterity, the works which Paley felt he could not live without read like a lexicon of who's who in late 19th and 20th century modern art.

Clearly, Paley's aesthetic sense was visionary, but his success in both art and communciations relied on other talents as well. One cannot help but intuit a connection between Paley's appetite for innovation in his businesses and his attraction to the vanguard of fine art.

A complicated and sometimes controversial CEO, Paley's genius in broadcasting lay in his ability to grasp future trends and to embrace a broad spectrum of media programming. Not only did he change the broadcasting business model to the current system of networks and affiliates, but he also built the CBS television news division into a dominant force led by luminaries like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Though his relationship with Murrow was rocky – (he stopped the weekly broadcasts of Murrow's hard-hitting See It Now after losing Alcoa sponsorship) - he ultimately had the courage to let Murrow's anti-McCarthyism segments air before doing so, and he later had the foresight to feel the temperature of the 60s reinstating Murrow as the anchor of the socially conscious CBS Reports.

Paley was entranced with new technologies; during his sixty-two-year tenure at CBS, he oversaw the patenting of television's RCA Color System and introduced the 33-┬Ż vinyl LP to his subsidiary Columbia Records. Paley also had an unfailing instinct for serving up a menu of high culture mixed with mass entertainment, seeing no problem in programming defining news shows like Murrow's and Cronkite's on one hand and The Beverly Hillbillies, I Love Lucy, Gilligan's Island, and Gunsmoke on the other.

This endorsement of both the serious and the popular, this attunement to the full spectrum of audience choice, this willingness to take risks and to pioneer – these are the very characteristics that animate Paley's art collection, the very traits that enabled him as a collector to strike out into uncharted waters.

The Portland Museum's installation of the Paley collection is unique to the museum.  (Each venue was permitted to hang the works in its own way), and Burgess has made admirable use of the galleries. The exhibition flows seamlessly beginning with some of Paley's earliest acquisitions of Cezanne and Matisse, moving on to some stunning Picassos which trace his evolution from Rose Period to Cubism, then on to bold Expressionist artists like Francis Bacon, Surrealists like Joan Mir├▓, Fauves like Andr├ę Derain, and realists like Edward Hopper. The paintings are interspersed with small sculptures by Rodin and Maillol and some striking, little known works on paper by masters like Degas. Each was selected with individual care, and while they chart a course through the history of modern art, they also allow for stand-alone moments of reflection.


Paley purchased his first canvasses in 1933 on a trip to France in the company of Averell Harriman, and it is with these two magnificent Cezannes that the exhibit begins.  Self Portrait in a Straw Hat (1875-76) dates from the artist's Impressionist period, but already the work has a brooding intensity and an economy of composition which points to Cezanne's later work. The graceful S curve of the sitter's hat mirrors the pattern of the wallpaper while the subject's piercing eyes, dark beard, and thick shoulders ground him with an imposing authority.


Painted more than four years later, L'Estaque ((1879-83) was acquired by Paley from Claude Monet's son, who had inherited it from his father. In this view of the hillside and bay, Cezanne combines active, angular brushstrokes with the solid geometry of a composition based on triangles, creating what critic Lawrence Gowing called "the logic of organized sensations." (in Rubin/MoMA Cezanne: The Late Work)


Another of Paley's favorite artists was Henri Matisse, and the holdings in this exhibit trace the painter's work from his portraits in the style of Manet to his Cubist period.  The Muskateer (1903) is a stunning example of the earlier Matisse – a portrait of the celebrated actor Lucien Guitry in the role of Cyrano de Bergerac. It clearly demonstrates the influence of Cezanne, particularly in the sculptural brushwork of the sitter's face and in the dark fin de si├Ęcle background. Nodding to the popular genre painting of the period, the young Matisse, nonetheless, displays an innovative sense of color in the hint of non-realistic purple and green in the face and the turbulent overlays of blue tones in the background.


By 1927 Matisse perfected a bold new style indebted to Cubism, African primitive art, and the decorative impulse. Woman with a Veil (1927), which Paley purchased directly from the artist, is a portrait of Matisse's wife, Henriette Darricarr├Ęre. The intensity of the painting lies not only in the impassive, pyramidal solidity of the sitter's form and her mask-like sphere of a head, but also in her unsparing gaze.  The model's eyes, shaded by a small veil, are directed at the viewer – subject the scrutinizing onlooker with an unrelenting inscrutability. The vivid color, diamond patterns, black linear outlines, and the canvas's abraded surface all contribute to a jarring sense of dissonance.


Painted contemporaneously with the earlier Matisse are the two huge canvasses which act as the focal point of the Paley exhibit: Picasso's Boy Leading a Horse (1905-6) and Nude with Joined Hands (1906), both masterpieces of the artist's Rose Period. The first is a monumental painting of a nude youth, Paris gamin P'tit Louis, whom Picasso had frequently used as a model in his prior Blue Period, leading a white horse. The figures are drawn with classical mastery; the plasticity of the boy and steed recall the influence of Cezanne's The Bathers. But the painting is also indebted to the Parthenon friezes and the Greek art in the Louvre which had fascinated Picasso. The muted terra cotta and gray tones accentuate the sculptural effect, and the subtle scumbling of the paint adds texture, while the figures' undulating black outlines juxtapose the boy's stasis with the horse's fluidity.


The other large Picasso canvas from his Rose Period, Nude with Joined Hands, was completed shortly afterward in the Pyrenees village of G├│sol, where Picasso had sojourned with his mistress, Fernande Olivier, the model for the work. Fernande is depicted with her hands clasped modestly in front, her shoulders and head turned ever so slightly to the right, standing against a background of exquisite terra cotta and rose hues. The nude's almost orientalized visage with its faraway gaze and her left foot lifted gracefully to the rear (recalling a similar gesture by the white horse) give a sense of suspended movement reminiscent again of the Parthenon friezes.


Another arresting pair of portraits in the Paley collection is Toulouse-Lautrec's M. de Lauradour (1897) and Gauguin's The Seed of Areoi (1892). Unlike the classicized Picasso canvasses, the Toulouse-Lautrec painting of the cabaret performer focuses on the sitter's flamboyant personality – a study of this gentleman rogue with flowing red beard and surprisingly graceful, expressive hands. The rapid brushwork and sketchy cross-hatching emphasize the sitter's decorative context. Where Picasso's subjects are frozen in an eternal timelessness, M. de Lauradour is very much an icon of fin de si├Ęcle Paris.


Gauguin's Seed of Areoi is a mythic masterpiece from the artist's Tahitian Period. The model, Tehura, Gauguin's young native mistress, is depicted as Va├»ra├╝mati, the Polynesian earth goddess of the Areoi clan; the dark-skinned nude with a mask-like visage has a hieratic quality as she sits holding a flowering seed which symbolizes her fertility connection. The fantastic landscape setting makes use of bold purples, reds, oranges, yellows, and pinks – a palette which Gauguin claimed he had discovered in the Tahitian landscape. "It was so simple to paint things as I saw them," (Reward/Post Impressionism) he wrote, a little too modestly.


Paley's affinity for Gauguin and an expressionist palette also translated to some remarkable acquisitions by the Fauves, among them Andr├ę Derain whose 1905-07 works were influenced by Gauguin. Derain's Bridge Over the Riou (1906) is a vibrant, explosive landscape employing arbitrary color choices which leave the viewer with a sense of ├ęclat. One can imagine the jolting impact of the work that must have called to the collector.

But the Paley collection also showcases less dramatic works. Interspersed among the grand canvasses are a handful of exquisite works on paper, among them Degas's deft pencil and charcoal sketches, The Jockey (1866-68) and Two Dancers (1905) in which the artist's graceful economy of line and flawless draughtsmanship take the breath away.


Paley's interest in works on paper continued throughout his collecting career.  A later acquisition, the audacious Ben Shahn ink drawing, Edward R. Murrow Slaying the Dragon of McCarthy (1954), surely had special significance, given the CBS chief's connection to the material.

In many ways the Shahn drawing brings the viewer full circle in his journey through the exhibition, because like all of Paley's acquisitions it was chosen for entirely personal reasons.  As William Rubin eloquently states in his introduction to the MoMA catalogue, "He (Paley) thought of his paintings as the most important elements of a seamless private world, choosing works which afforded him "sensuous aesthetic delight." The art Paley chose reflected, Rubin states, "a zest for living and a willingness to take risks."

As the Portland Museum's Chief Curator Karen Sherry writes, A Taste for Modernism reveals William S. Paley to be a collector who "relied on instinct and serendipity rather than a systematic plan," a man who "acquired works that caught his eye and stirred his soul."

Photos Courtesy and Copyright © The Museum of Modern Art, William S. Paley Collection

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©2013 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold |
Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold is a freelance journalist whose reviews, interviews, and features on theatre, opera, classical music, and the visual arts have appeared in numerous international publications.  She is also the author of two novels, The Whaler's Bride and Raising Rufus: A Maine Love Story, as well as an award-winning screenplay based on the latter.
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