Modern art and the esteem machine
The elimination of the modern art tariff made it much easier for American galleries to exhibit and sell contemporary European painting. Most of the works in Stieglitz’s Picasso exhibit at 291, for example, were drawings, as they were valued at a lower value than the paintings. It was too expensive to bring paintings from Europe.
Quinn wasn’t collecting just for himself. He was on a mission. As Eakin puts it, he wanted to “bring American civilization to the forefront of the modern world.” So it functioned as, in effect, a one-man art world. He subsidized New York art galleries, often purchasing many of the works they exhibited. He was one of the figureheads of the 1913 Armory Show, where the public could see more than thirteen hundred works of modern art, and where Marcel Duchamp’s “Nu Descending a Staircase” became a scandalous success.
When modern art came under attack for undermining American values - the Time called the Armory Show “part of the general movement, perceptible throughout the world, aimed at disrupting and degrading, if not destroying, not only art, but also literature and society” – Quinn worked in the press, giving interviews to New York newspapers in which he called unsigned attacks like this “criticism of Ku Klux.” Over time, he built up a huge collection of modern European paintings and sculptures, which he kept in his ninth-floor apartment in Central Park West.
The apartment was a rental. Quinn was rich, but he wasn’t JP Morgan rich. Morgan spent something like sixty million dollars on art, which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he was president. Quinn didn’t have that kind of money. On the other hand, Morgan was buying old masters (he was behind the 1909 tax law exempting “historical art” which Quinn had rewritten), while Quinn was buying works that hardly anyone else did not want. From the perspective of the American art world, the incredible collection he amassed, containing works by, among others, Brâncuși, Braque, Duchamp, Gris, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Seurat, van Gogh and Villon , was almost worthless. when he died. No American dealer could sell it and no American museum wanted to hang it.
Knowing this, Quinn ordered, in her will, that her collection be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to her sister and niece, who were her sole heirs. (Quinn never married, but he had affairs with a number of notable women; at the time of his death his companion was Jeanne Robert Foster, a lumberjack’s daughter, a surprisingly beautiful and gifted woman who was closely involved in his search for new art.) As the Americans did not want it, so much of Quinn’s European art collection ended up returning to Europe.
Conveniently for Eakin’s story arc, Alfred Barr, then a young art history professor at Wellesley, got to see some of Quinn’s collection before it was dispersed, allowing Eakin to suggest that one of Barr’s aspirations when he accepted the leadership of MoMA three years later was to collect the Quinn collection and bring it back to America. It was impossible, of course. The parts were now in too many hands. But MoMA became, in effect, Quinn’s museum, and Quinn’s canon (plus photography and a few artists, like Klee and Kandinsky, of which Quinn did not collect) became Barr’s canon.
And it’s still MoMAit’s the cannon. If you cross the fifth floor of MoMA Today, where works of art belonging to the museum and produced between 1880 and 1940 are displayed, you will observe the very works whose adventures in the world of art are the subject of Eakin’s book.
Probably hundreds of people pass by these works every day, and none of them seem outraged, even by Picasso’s eight-foot-tall “Demoiselles d’Avignon” painted in 1907: five naked women in a brothel, rendered cubically, two with faces like African masks, aggressively confronting the viewer. (You have to stand very close to the canvas to get the right effect, although hardly anyone does.) The shock of the news has worn off. It probably wasn’t the kind of public acceptance Quinn and Barr had in mind. But, as Gertrude Stein once said, “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you can’t be both.”
There is also a Parisian side to Eakin’s story. Here again, the focus is mainly on two figures: the gallery owners Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg. (A third operator, a sort of freelance merchant and ladies’ man named Henri-Pierre Roché, who called his penis “my God” and sought out deals for Quinn, has a colorful role in the story. )
Among the circumstances to which cultural industries are forced to adapt, none played a more powerful role in the first half of the 20th century than geopolitics. Kahnweiler did not sell his artists’ work in France, even though his gallery was in Paris. His collectors were in Germany and Russia, countries where modern art was created and understood. But the First World War and the Russian Revolution closed these markets. As a German national, Kahnweiler even suffered the seizure of his collection by the French government.
A decade later, the rise to power of Stalin and then Hitler made conditions worse. The governments of both leaders made modern art a political target. (The Nazis called modern art KunstbolschewismusNazi Germany and the Soviet Union did more than just censor modern artists and writers. They imprisoned them and they killed them. After 1933, the year Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, the United States suddenly became attractive as a place where modern art could be safely shown. Hitler and Stalin provided tailwinds to Quinn and Barr’s mission to modernize American taste.
Kahnweiler and Rosenberg are key to Eakin’s story because both men represented Picasso, and Eakin believes Quinn and Barr were determined to make Picasso the face of modern art in America. He says that Barr saw “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, in particular, as a painting that could define MoMAthe whole collection.
But Barr struggled to persuade his board to buy art, instead of borrowing it for exhibitions. The museum held highly successful retrospectives of Matisse in 1931 (thirty-six thousand visitors) and van Gogh in 1935 (a blockbuster, and truly the exhibition that established an audience for modern art in the United States), but the trustees refused to buy a single work by Matisse, and they passed on van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” an image that would one day adorn countless coffee cups.
MoMAThe efforts of to acquire “Les Demoiselles” is a good example of the twists and turns of the path from the artist to the public. When Picasso finished the painting, he let some people see it in his studio in Paris, where he gained what Eakin calls “cult status.” But the work was rarely exhibited publicly. Picasso liked to keep his finest pieces, and he kept “Les Demoiselles” rolled up for years. In 1924, he resold it to Jacques Doucet, a fashion designer. (Doucet’s wife refused to allow him to hang it in their living room. The news shocked her further.) Doucet paid twenty-four thousand francs, or about twelve hundred dollars at the time.