One of the highlights of my past summer was attending a block-buster exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Steins Collect. One is simply amazed at the vast array of Cesanne's, Renoir's, Gauguin's, Matisse's and Picasso's in the exhibition. The Steins held, at one time or another, in their collection, over 180 Matisse's and a similar number of Picasso's. Without any doubt the Steins ( Gertrude and her brother, Leo, who shared a dwelling at 27 Rue de Fleuras in Paris and Gertrude's brother, Michael and his wife, Sarah, who lived at 58 Rue Madame) were crucially influential to the careers of Matisse and Picasso ( the two artists met for the first time at 27 Rue de Fleuras) and in influencing other collectors and facilitating their purchase of art ( such as the Cone sisters from Baltimore and Albert Barnes of the famous Barnes' collection near Philadelphia).
One came away simply overwhelmed that so many famous paintings ( such as Cezanne's The Bathers), Picasso's Young Acrobat With a Ball, Man With a Guitar; Matisse's Joy of Life; Woman With a Hat;Blue Nude; the sculpture, The Serf; Girl With Green Eyes; The Young Sailor; Boy with Butterfly Net--based on Michael Stein's son, Allen; Juan Gris's and a smattering of Renoirs-- all passed through the Steins' hands. The exhibition has now closed in San Francisco and moved on to Paris. It will eventually arrive at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in February of 2012.
In the mid first decade of the twentieth century, until the 1920's, Rue de Fleuras and Rue Madame became veritable salons through which many famous artists came to see these remarkable collections of art. The very first Matisse's ever seen in the United States came in 1906 when Michael and Sarah Stein returned to San Francisco to inspect any damage to their properties there after the famous earthquake and fire. The Steins generously lent to the 1912 Armory Show in New York which placed Matisse and Picasso, for the first time, squarely on the American map.
Two of the Steins were, themselves, artists. Leo and Sarah both did paintings. Sarah actually helped start an art academy, Academie Matisse, where she studied under Matisse. Leo was also a deft art critic. In his view, the key figure in twentieth century art was Cezanne. Initially, he was drawn to Matisse and the early Picasso because he saw a convergence of their work with Cezanne's. In his pantheon of key artists, besides Cezanne, Leo included Eduard Manet, Renoir ( who became his major preoccupation after his break with Gertrude and his moving to Italy), Van Gogh and, finally, Matisse and Picasso. Once Picasso moved to his cubist period, Leo soured on him.
Gertrude had a long friendship with Picasso. He was said to have remarked about his famous portrait of her ( now in New York's Museum of Modern Art), when someone said it did not look like her: " It will in time. She will grow to this." They had some tiffs. In the 1920's Picasso seemed jealous of Gertrude's patronage of Juan Gris. They differed strongly in their politics. Gertrude gave her support to Franco and Marshall Petain. Yet, the friendship somehow endured.
Michael and Sarah were very close friends of Matisse. They vacationed together and Matisse's children were friends of Allan Stein. Matisse did a famous double portrait ( his only double portrait) of Michael and Sarah. Surely, for devotees of modern art, the show allows close comparisons of Picasso ( who so experimented with form in art) and Matisse ( who so experimented with color). I, for one, find it hard to choose between the two as to which was the greater artist, although, in a pinch, I would favor Matisse.
Remarkably, there are no religious paintings in this collection. The Steins, although conspicuously and consciously ethnically Jewish, were not religious Jews. Sarah was a devotee of Christian Science and Alice B. Toklas, a decade after Gertrude died, became a Catholic. I also saw this summer a production of Gertrude's 1934 opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thompson. It is a bit of a nonsense libretto which has Saint Ignatius enarmored of Teresa of Avila, then, engaging in euthanasia of her and being put on trial and executed for the crime. Gertrude famously claimed that her writings were cognate to Picasso's cubism. The program notes for the opera cited Gertrude as saying she saw saints as a species of artist and artists as the new form of saints. Art, for her, became the new form of religion.
To be sure, the relation of art and religion is weighty enough to deserve its own exposition. On the one hand, theologians ( with the exception of Hans Urs Von Balthasar) have not probed enough the transcendental, the beautiful, or aesthetics as they have pondered, deeply, the other transcendentals: the one, the true and the good. On the other hand, there is a danger, in Gertrude's formulation, of a kind of airy aestheticism which bypasses the true and the good. One can end with a kind of empty, purely agnostic, subjective aestheticism, with no reference to the true, as in the work of Walter Pater and the early Oscar Wilde.
I was, however, intrigued that so few of Leo Stein's pantheon of modern artists ever did any religious paintings or showed much affinity to religious themes. Manet, to be sure, did a few religious paintings: " Dead Christ with Angels" and " Christ Mocked With Soldiers". When his religious paintings were shown at the Salon, they were ridiculed for their lack of piety and too vigorous realism. Manet generally eschewed such religious themes because he thought: " Artists should paint what they saw in their own time." Renoir did some adolescent painting of church hangings for overseas missionaries, more as an apprenticeship than out of any feeling for religious topics. Paul Cezanne did not try his hand very much at religious painting but, a devout Catholic, he did have some sense of the nexus between art and religion: " When I judge art", he said, " I take my painting and put it next to a God-made object, like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art."
Van Gogh was, of course, deeply religious. He once said that all great art must lead to God. Van Gogh's masterpiece, The Starry Night, with its eleven stars, seems to have been inspired by Genesis 37:9 where Joseph, in his dream, saw the sun and moon and eleven stars bowing to him. Van Gogh, the would-be evangelist, did many variants, also, following Millet, on the sower in the field, with its clear allusion to the parable of the sower and the seed.
It was only at the end of his life, painting from a wheelchair, that Matisse turned to an explicitly religious work for the Chapelle de Rosaire, for a Dominican convent in St.Paul in Vence. His night nurse, while he was recuperating from abdominal cancer, Monique Bourgeois--who had also done some modelling for Matisse--became a Dominican nun. Matisse created for the chapel three black and white murals; three semi-abstract stained glass windows ( including the remarkable window of The Tree of Life); a stone altar; a bronze cross; doors and colorful vestments. He did black drawings for the stations of the cross. Matisse said that he "wanted those entering the chapel to feel themselves purified and lightened of their burden". He said of his chapel: " This chapel, for me, is the culmination of an entire life's work and the flowering of an enormous, sincere and difficult, labor. It is not a labor I chose but destiny chose me, at the end of my road. I consider it, despite all its imperfections, my masterpiece, an effort resulting from an entire life dedicated to the search for truth."
Picasso, of course, was not religious. But, for long, a sort of rival and opponent to Matisse, he did not want to be outdone by his nemesis. So, he, too, followed Matisse in decorating a kind of chapel, albeit a de-consecrated twelfth century chapel in Vallairis, a city ruled by his beloved communists: Picasso's Chapel of War and Peace, decorated with a dove. No one would ever expect to hear from Picasso that, like Matisse, he thought his life as an artist was entirely dedicated to the search for truth.
All in all, there was actually much more religion in these modern artists than ever showed forth in their explicit art. Artists, to be sure, are hardly our new saints. But they have a role to play to help us find and revel in the true and the beautiful.