The Steins Collect

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They are some of the best-known names in the world of modern art. Picasso, Matisse, Renoir are just a few of the easily recognizable names whose work is associated with an exhibition that recently premiered in the United States and is surprising and delighting visual art aficionados around the world.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde
opened in May at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where it will remain on display through Sept. 6, before departing for shows in Paris and New York.

The Steins Collect
is an interesting exhibition primarily because of the positioning of the importance of the actual artists in the overall retrospective. The exhibit is not about the artists or their works, per se. Instead, the exhibit explores the amazing prescience, artistic insight and eager collecting of the Stein family – famed poet Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael and Michael’s wife, Sarah. In so doing, the exhibit offers a detailed encounter with the artworks and the extraordinary artists, collectors and supporters who gave birth to modern art.

American expatriates in bohemian Paris when the 20th century was young, the Steins were among the first to recognize the talents of avant-garde painters like Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. They acted on this recognition by aggressively collecting the works of the European avant-garde artists, providing them with the support – financial and social – well before they became internationally recognized and appreciated.

What also set apart the Steins as collectors was that they were not very wealthy. Rather, the California natives had simply been acculturated to the idea of supporting fledgling artists.

However, the Steins – most notably Gertrude Stein – offered the emerging avant-garde artists more than just a fan base. Through their personal relations with the European intellectual class and through weekly salons – precursors to social media – the Steins helped foster the intellectual and artistic environment necessary for the avant-garde to flourish. It has been asserted that the Steins’ contribution to the eventual success of these famed artists has less to do with their collecting than it did with their helping found a language and approach to interpreting and appreciating the artists’ works. After all, to much of the world in the first decades of the 20th century, avant-garde art was considered vulgar, offensive and inappropriate.

Ironically, the Steins’ appreciation for these emerging artists might have priced them out of the ability to continue collecting. As their support helped make the European avant-garde more popular, the prices of the art increased dramatically, limiting the participation of collectors such as the Steins.

Still, the Steins’ collections were individually impressive and collectively they are much more – a veritable survey of the culture that nourished and helped launch modern art in the world.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde
brings together more than 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and illustrated books from around the world, including many from private collections that are rarely seen. Some of the better-known paintings included in the exhibit are Matisse’s “Blue Nude” and “Self Portrait” and Picasso’s “Boy Leading a Horse,” to name just a few.
In total the exhibition includes 75 works by Matisse, 45 by Picasso and dozens more from Cezanne, Renoir, Juan Gris, Francis Picabia and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde
remains on view at the SFMOMA through Sept. 6. For more information visit www.sfmoma.org.
 

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