Review: “Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America”, by Hugh Eakin

Here we meet two other intriguing protagonists: legendary art dealers Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg. Kahnweiler and Rosenberg were both married Jewish gallery owners in Paris, vying for Picasso’s favors and trying to escape the rising tide of anti-Semitism in French society. At first they did most of their business in Munich and Moscow, by far the two most favorable places for the avant-garde; but in a sudden reversal, Germany and the Soviet Union became totalitarian states hostile to modern art, and so Parisian dealers reluctantly turned to the American market. Barr was quick to trumpet a connection between artistic freedom and democracy, as he worked to persuade his MoMA board to acquire many of the same paintings that were in Quinn’s collection. And now, in 1939, he was finally able to tell the story of modern art as he saw it: “With his usual taxonomic zeal, Barr had arranged art in an incredibly lucid progression of styles and idioms, gradually introducing viewers to the new and the difficult.

Along the way, we learn a lot about the art market and the transformation of galleries from salon-style hangings on top of each other, to paintings in simple steel frames in “white cube” suites. Eakin, though not a professional art historian (he is an editor at Foreign Affairs), has mastered this material, read a mountain of sources and skilfully synthesized them, and he manages to weave the aesthetic with the story with personal details about the main individuals. love lives, adulteries and divorces.

Some of his prose mannerisms are boring, such as providing miniature portraits of each character (“A tall, light-skinned man with a pointed jaw, piercing blue eyes, and a pronounced forehead before a bald crown”, etc.), which all begin to sound the same; his romantic and presumptuous habitation of the interiority of historical characters in scenes (“Looking at each other around the table, they knew they had not been chosen by chance”); and his habit of withholding each new person’s name or painting title until he had given a long description of it (“A short, nervous, dark-haired man who was not much older than Kahnweiler” and so on for another 10 lines, before he finally lets us know it’s Paul Rosenberg).

But once Eakin introduces all the key characters and sets them in motion, the book flies away. His directing keeps the intricate plot moving, while delivering sharp insights and shrewd judgments. It ends the book in dramatic fashion, recounting Rosenberg’s desperate attempt to escape the grip of the Third Reich and relocate to the United States via Portugal – thankfully succeeding, with the help of a warm letter of support from ‘Alfred Barrer. By then, modern art had taken over America, Picasso’s designs were adapted to women’s wear, and he had, “seemingly overnight, become a mainstay of department store chic”.

About Hector Hedgepeth

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