Hugh Eakin’s new book, “Picasso’s War,” features plenty of cultural heroes and heroines
By Phillip Lopate
PICASSO’S WAR: How Modern Art Came to America, by Hugh Eakin
It is almost unthinkable that the now universally acknowledged masterpieces of modern art, such as Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” or Henri Matisse’s “The Red Studio,” were scorned by American museums and that wealthy patrons refused to buy even a single canvas by either painter. Though it is a truism that innovative art often finds difficulty at first in being accepted, you would think that at a time when the masters of modern painting were already lionized in Europe, Americans would not be so slow in recognizing their significance. Yet such was the case. Even after the 1913 Armory Show, which is usually credited with introducing modern art to this country, it took another several decades before it was possible to mount a full-scale Picasso exhibit, and years to get the Museum of Modern Art off the ground, much less turn it into the formidable institution it is today. “For nearly 30 years, the effort to bring modern art to the United States was continually impeded by war, economic crisis and a deeply skeptical public,” Hugh Eakin writes. “It was a project that might well have foundered, and almost did, but for the fanatical determination of a tiny group of people,” whose story he sets out to tell in this fascinating, immensely readable narrative.
The first half of “Picasso’s War” is given over largely to John Quinn, an amazingly energetic, cultivated New York attorney who, when not defending writers like Joyce and Synge from obscenity charges, had the prescience to buy up and support the work of all the key members of the Paris School. He was a one-man art boom, investing behind the scenes in risk-taking galleries, rounding up attendees from his extensive social set (including Teddy Roosevelt), and purchasing the best pieces when no one else would. Gotham’s stodgy, moneyed class was more inclined to spend huge sums on old masters, but Quinn preferred the work of living artists. A progressive, he was appalled by the know-nothing prejudice of conservatives who linked modern art to Bolshevism and degeneracy — a practice he dubbed “Ku Klux art criticism.” His dream was to have his prize collection form the basis of a new kind of museum, one dedicated to modern art. Unfortunately, he died of liver cancer in 1924 at age 54 before being able to accomplish that task, and most of his collection was scattered to the winds. What a catastrophe and a missed opportunity.
Enter Alfred H. Barr, the hero of the book’s second half. Seeking to become the first American scholar of modern art, he was offered, at 27, the directorship of the newly formed Museum of Modern Art. This was not the sprawling, prestigious monolith we think of now as MoMA, but a set of bare rooms on the 12th floor of an office building, operating on a minuscule budget. It was November 1929, just after the stock market crash. “It was difficult to imagine a less promising moment to start a new museum of any kind, let alone one devoted to a kind of art whose long-term value was highly uncertain,” Eakin writes.