Curated art vs. the artist’s garage

This week we saw two shows currently on view in San Francisco, “Picasso Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris” at the de Young, and “The Steins Collect,” at SF MOMA.  The first was a disappointment. A mishmash of Picasso pieces owned by the artist and left to the French government at his death, it seemed to me to be a large selection of whatever people hadn’t bought when Picasso was alive. There were a few wonderful pieces, but mostly I was reminded that once someone is famous, anything they make or do goes on display, including a lot of the necessarily failed sketches and paintings one must make to come up with the few stunning works of art.

In contrast, the collections of Leo and Gertrude Stein and their brother Michael and his wife Sarah compose a thoughtfully curated collection, purchased largely before the artists became famous. It’s a stunning exhibit that features early works by Picasso, Matisse, Manguin, Gris, and others. The collection was arranged in groups by who collected the paintings and when they were collected, and the blurbs provided context for each room.  It is one of the few exhibits in which the text actually added to the paintings. There were also photographs of the Steins and of the paintings as they hung in Paris.  My favorites were this Juan Gris collage (you can hear a brief audio snippet if you click the picture to the left), and most of all, La Coiffure by Henri Manguin.  This is a luminous and moving painting, and I want to go back and look at it again.  As the Steins bought it in 1906 and hung it in their famous studio, both Picasso and Matisse saw it and did their own versions, but I loved this one by Manguin (a painter I’d never heard of before). This image can’t capture the idea:

(Image now flipped correctly, thanks to a perspicacious reader!) It was interesting to read about Leo, Gertrude, Michael and Sarah. The latter couple really introduced Matisse to the US.  If you have a chance between now and September 6, I highly recommend a visit to SF  MOMA so you can see for yourself. They make a delicious cappuccino on the roof garden, too.