PRINT December 2006

Carol Armstrong

IT MIGHT SEEM THAT “From Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde,” the superb show currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is all about modern art dealing. Indeed, some say this exhibition, which concentrates on the sales, shows, commissions, and purchases of the latenineteenth-, early-twentieth-century Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard, predicts the current art market, the contemporary art scene, and the world of art dealing in present-day New York. Not so.

Though “From Cézanne to Picasso” takes its motive from Vollard’s dealership, and though it contains a lot of important information about his practices as an art dealer, it is finally a show about the art, not the art market. Furthermore, while it is possible to draw comparisons between art dealing then, in Paris, and art dealing now, in New York, those comparisons point to contrasts, suggesting more differences than similarities between the two moments. Overall, what the Vollard show does is give a vivid picture of an intensely vibrant start to the twentieth century, a time when financial investment in art was underwritten by a strong subjective investment—a personal engagement with the work and identification with its producers and projects—rather than the other way around, as tends to be the case now, at the start of another century. “From Cézanne to Picasso” demonstrates that art dealing and artmaking then were intimately bound together, at the ground-floor level. And the magnificence of what’s on view at the Metropolitan is what resulted from that close partnership.

I don’t much care for the title of the exhibition—it’s too marketing department and too suggestive of the standard teleology (which the agglomeration of works in the exhibition does not support)—but it does have the virtue of putting the art first. The catalogue for the show, by contrast, puts the art dealing first, and both its strengths and its weaknesses flow from that decision. The four-hundred-page volume proffers an excellent series of essays about Vollard’s relationships, as “Patron of the Avant-Garde,” with each of the major painters whose works are in the exhibition—Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, the Nabis, Picasso, the Fauves, Matisse, Renoir, Degas, and Rouault—as well as about Vollard the publisher, Vollard and his clients, the Vollard estate, and Vollard’s exhibitions. But it gives us no comprehensive, color-plated catalogue of the works themselves.

While a majority of the works are illustrated in the essays, some of the best moments in the exhibition are absent: the fabulous wall of lithographs by Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard in the Nabi room (a few examples from that wall are illustrated in Jonathan Pascoe Pratt and Douglas W. Druick’s essay, “Vollard’s Print Albums”), and, even more sadly, the hundred etchings that comprise Picasso’s superlative Suite Vollard of 1930–37 (which is not illustrated in Rebecca A. Rabinow’s essay “Vollard’s Livres d’Artiste”). That’s too bad, because in addition to the fine quality of these works, they are noteworthy for the rare generosity with which they treat the reciprocity and polymorphousness of human desire, heterosexual or otherwise, and for the way their technical elegance and inventiveness of line, minus the artist’s usual bombast, serve to convey both that mutuality and that heterogeneity. Thus they beautifully illustrate the mutual identification and reciprocal enfolding of “style” and “subject matter” each with and in the other.

When I was standing in the Cézanne room, in front of one of the three stellar still lifes included in it, a woman in a wheelchair commented to me in passing, “Don’t you just want to eat that apple?” and then remarked that it was her favorite painting in the show and Cézanne her favorite artist of all time. I have no idea who she was, and it was pure fortuity that she was thinking thoughts similar to mine. But the incident helps to make a point: No matter what the new-art-history thesis of the show—and I agree that it’s an interesting one—it was the art that was getting to people, not the art-market theme.

Which brings me to the room at the center of the show—the one devoted to portraits of Vollard by artists he was courting or supporting or who were courting him. It’s a splendid room, but that is due greatly to the splendor of the art within it. It was a brilliant move to break up the series of rooms devoted mostly to individual artists with this one, with works by Félix Vallotton, Renoir, Bonnard, Cézanne, and Picasso brought together in it. This curatorial gambit speaks to the canniness of the show’s hanging, an important part of what’s so intelligent and effective about the exhibition. All combined, the paintings in this room produce a compelling picture of the man behind all the dealing, exhibiting, commissioning, and publishing, whose products are represented in the other rooms. They tell of a complex human being, shrewd and passionate, a bulldog and a pussycat all at once: Several of the portraits show Vollard slippered and domesticated, with his favorite feline pet. One of Renoir’s portraits presents him dressed up in flamboyant matador’s garb. Vallotton’s striking portrait has him stubbled and scowling fiercely. Cézanne’s portrait, which took more than a hundred sittings to produce and still dissatisfied its author, looks stern and thickly coagulated and laborious, suggesting a mutual recalcitrance, a certain resistant adamancy passing between the two men. Picasso’s portrait depicts a portly, rounded man, and though enshrined alone on the culminating wall of the room, it is milder and far less challenging than the portrait Picasso would paint of Daniel- Henri Kahnweiler, the dealer he would finally choose as his own.

Yet when all is said and done, it is the variety of talent that Vollard sponsored that comes across best. It is the variety of media that his artists tried their hand at, including the bright ceramics in the Nabi and Fauve rooms. It is the quality of the art that such a commitment to art produces. It is, ultimately, value other than economic that this exhibition stresses. It is the picture “From Cézanne to Picasso” gives of art mattering at a certain moment that makes this exhibition rewarding now—of there being high stakes in artistic discourse and of artists feeding off those high stakes artistically. Bravo.

Co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and the Réunion des Musée Nationaux, Paris, “From Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 7, 2007; travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, Feb. 17–May 13, 2007, and to the Musée d’Orsay, June 18–Sept. 16, 2007.

Carol Armstrong is professor of art and archaeology and Doris Stevens Professor of the study of women and gender at Princeton University.