The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art May 21-September 6
Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories
Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco May 12-September 6
Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris
De Young Museum, San Francisco June 11 – October 9
What is an art exhibition for? Two opposing answers to this question are presented concurrently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the De Young Museum. At both exhibitions viewers will find many impressive and historically important works by canonical artists. At SFMoMA, viewers will find these works organized into a narrative structure that adds layers of meaning to the works and help viewers see them as more than isolated objects.
Having attended the curator panel discussion accompanying the opening of The Steins Collect, I was well prepared to appreciate the exhibition’s curatorial mission. Works purchased by primarily Gertrude and Leo Stein are organized according to the addresses where the collectors lived at the time. Not only does this form an essentially chronological view of the development of Picasso and Matisse’s paintings between the first decade of the 20th century and World War II, it also helps the viewer see the pictures in roughly the same groupings in which they were displayed at the Stein residences. Large reproductions of period photographs are impressive not only for the amount of information that they contain, but also for the additional context that they provide. Some of the actual furniture pieces displayed in the photographs have been lent for the exhibition, helping to bridge the contemporary world of the modern art museum and the past represented in the photographs. If any part of the exhibition seems out of place, it is the room dedicated to the home built by Le Corbusier for Michael and Sarah Stein in 1926, Villa Stein-De Monzie. Films, photographs, and original drawings for the project are on display. The drawings by Le Corbusier display a delicate balance of meticulous draftsmanship and artful design, making them worthy of viewing for their own sake. That the viewer is presented with representations of the commissioned work strikes a contrast with the many canvases on display, notwithstanding the awkward notion of the commissioned house as part of the art collection. Nonetheless, by the end of The Steins Collect, viewers will not only have seen dozens of major works by icons of Modern Art, but will also have gained substantial insights into the lives and motivations of this highly influential family of collectors.
More of these insights are available one block away at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories is on display. Less about her art collection and more about her relationships, the photographs are the stars of this show. The title of the exhibition is apt, as much of the viewer’s experience involves looking at images of Gertrude and her companions. These images are informative and entertaining, and create a strong sense of the attitudes, beliefs, and interactions of Stein and her circle. As is typically the case at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the exhibition layout, wall texts, and overall exhibition design each help to achieve the goals of the exhibition. Though Seeing Gertrude Stein may lack the artistic firepower of The Steins Collect, the exhibition is nonetheless a rewarding experience for viewers with an interest in Stein herself or the period in general.
While the exhibitions at SFMoMA and the Contemporary Jewish Museum are decidedly educational experiences, Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris at the De Young Museum feels like a gallery show by comparison. Over one hundred chronologically arranged works by Picasso are on loan from the Musée National Picasso, Paris, which favors the second half of the artist’s long career. After an initial wall panel introducing the artist and describing the genesis of the museum from which the works come, the only supporting texts are short quotes from the artist placed high on the walls that do little to explain the artist’s motivations, inspirations, goals, or methods. Though I did not utilize the audio guide for this exhibition, other viewers have described the commentary as adding little to their understanding of the artworks. Despite the exhibition’s lack of educational or curatorial mission, it provides Bay Area viewers with the opportunity to see works by Picasso that normally require a trip to Paris. Furthermore, though it may seem hastily constructed compared to the show at SFMoMA, any viewer with an interest in Picasso will find reasons to appreciate the De Young show. Some viewers may even appreciate the lack of a strong curatorial mission, which they may see as heavy-handed or intrusive. This viewer, however, believes that art exhibitions are at their best when they present and support a compelling thesis that serves not only to entertain the viewing audience, but to educate us as well.