Two books on the modern art of Paris

Painting and politics are hard to keep apart

Published 9 December 2014

A family memoir involving art dealers, Nazis and looted treasure is compared to a collection of 10 essays from the 1970s and ’80s reiussed in elegant format.

  • A family memoir involving art dealers, Nazis and looted treasure could easily sound righteous or sentimental. My Grandfather’s Gallery is neither. It recounts the life and career of Paul Rosenberg, the foremost modern art dealer in Paris during the 1920s and ’30s. The author is Anne Sinclair, his grand-daughter on the mother’s side. Her recollections are affectionate but open-eyed.

    Born in 1881, Paul Rosenberg and his brother Léonce inherited a prosperous antiques business from their father. Its future, they realised, lay in modern painting. Blocking their way, however, was Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the top dealer in pre-1914 Paris. Kahnweiler’s painters included Braque, Léger, Matisse and Picasso. World war gave the Rosenbergs their opening. German by birth, Kahnweiler in 1914 became an enemy alien. The French state sequestered his stock and auctioned it off when peace came to set against unpaid German reparations. Kahnweiler lost his business capital. The Rosenberg brothers gathered up his painters. Of those, Paul had the cream.

    For two decades, Paul rode high. He made big money for himself and his artists. Picasso moved in next to Rosenberg’s gallery in the bourgeois eighth arrondissement. Rosenberg bought racehorses. Then in summer 1940, anti-Semitic villainy dished him, much as chauvinist enmity had dished Kahnweiler. When the German army occupied Paris, Rosenberg left France for New York. He had sent some of his stock out of the country to safety. A trove of remaining work was impounded and left behind. From his gallery in New York, Rosenberg and his son, Alexandre, pursued a postwar campaign of restitution.

    Sinclair’s grandparents were more than the kindly folk she recalls as a girl. Rosenberg, it appears from letters, was a bottled-up workaholic with little time for family. His wife – the grandmother who spoiled Sinclair with cakes and gifts – had a long affair with his gallery partner, Georges Wildenstein. It split their business.

  • Paul Rosenberg in the office of his gallery in Rue La Boétie, Paris, in 1913

    Paul Rosenberg in the office of his gallery in Rue La Boétie, Paris, in 1913

  • Cuttable asides and slack editing make Sinclair’s tale harder to follow than necessary. The translation often plods. In compensation, Sinclair knows the art world and the political world from the inside. Though heir to the Rosenberg fortune, she chose the tough, male- dominated career of TV journalism and was one of France’s top political interviewers.

    Less happily, she was married to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist finance minister and formerly a head of the International Monetary Fund. When he was prosecuted in New York for sexual assault three years ago, she stood by him with notable grace before quietly divorcing him after criminal charges were dropped. Wearily aware that readers who know nothing else about her will probably know of that episode, she mentions it obliquely and in passing.

    My Grandfather’s Gallery bares a lot of awkward truths. Sinclair, to her credit, leaves it mostly to others to be indignant or shocked. Many of the French painters that Rosenberg sold in the 1920s and ’30s are coincidentally the topic of Jed Perl’s Paris Without End, a collection of 10 essays from the 1970s and ’80s. Published originally under the same title in 1988, it is now reiussed in elegant format. Perl’s and Sinclair’s are in one way quite different books. Sinclair loves painting, but recognises its backside: money, buyers and art-world politicking. Perl loves painting, and wants us to cherish the work for itself. Try as he will to keep it at bay, however, the politics of art criticism keeps creeping back in.

    An American art critic, Perl does regular battle in high-end magazines against what he takes for the follies and excesses of present-day art. Recent targets include Jeff Koons (“perfect vacuum”), Ai Weiwei (“great dissident, poor artist”) and tiresome “liberals” who Perl believes ‘are killing art by insisting that it’s always political’.

    Paris Without End returns us to similar battles on different terrain. Distrustful of labels, Perl asks us to look again at work by Picasso and Matisse once disparaged for not fitting their “brand”. He celebrates painters such as Jean Hélion and Balthus who even in their day were ill-fitted to a modernist narrative of progress.

    In a fresh introduction for this reissue, Perl acknowledges and lightens his embattled tone. An elusive enemy still haunts these pages: the conviction, “widespread now among art historians”, that visual styles “almost inevitably have some political or ideological import”. When – as most of the time – Perl shares with us what he sees and loves in modern French painting, his essays sparkle and teach. When going to war to expel dogma and partisanship from art, he underlines how entrenched they are.

    Edmund Fawcett is a writer and critic.

    Read our pick of the best art books for Christmas.


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