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20th Century French Masters on Display at Kimbell

By Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter

Dallas, TX – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: The 1920's are called the Golden Age of the Art Dealer in Paris. But the period following World War I was much more than that. [Jazz music begins to play.] It was a time to celebrate all arts and culture, and Paris was the epicenter of this great party.

Charles Stuckey, Curator, Kimbell Art Museum: Everybody who was interested in art, music, drama, dance, wanted to be there.

Sprague: Kimbell Art Museum Curator Charles Stuckey says post-war Paris was a tightly connected community - where every writer knew all the actors; where every musician was a friend to all the artists.

Stuckey: So Paris was a magnet. It was a place where there was a chance for everyone; if you wanted to be an artist, you left Lithuania or you left Oslo or you left Philadelphia and you made your way there, because if you couldn't play in Paris, you couldn't play.

[Jazz music fades out.]

Sprague: By this time, the painters Pierre Renoir, Paul Cezanne and Pablo Picasso had already laid the groundwork for a new, daring modern art. Established art collectors had begun to embrace it. And the world's economy was booming. It was the perfect time for a young art dealer, Paul Guillaume, to open a gallery. Guillaume was an aspiring artist who soon found that his greater talents lay in sales.

Timothy Potts, Director, Kimbell Art Museum: He was a great promoter. He had a very strong dynamic and engaging personality. He very much became part of Parisian society at all levels. He would deal very confidently with politicians as well as socialites, and the receptions at his gallery became events in themselves.

Sprague: Timothy Potts is the director of the Kimbell Art Museum. The Museum's current exhibit, "From Renoir to Picasso," features 80 works from Paul Guillaume's private collection, which were left to the Musee de L'Orangerie in Paris after the art collector's early death in 1934.

Potts: He really passionately and absolutely believed in the value of what was happening in the art world in his own day, in his contemporary art; and it became the central vision and purpose of his life later, in the last years of his life, to create a public museum where this sort of work could be fully appreciated for its qualities alongside the old masters and the other forms of art which were part of the canon already.

Sprague: Guillaume's collection is considered one of the greatest representations of early modern paintings in the world. It includes works from Matisse, Renoir and Picasso. But director of L'Orangerie Pierre Georgel says Guillaume's great eye for artistic talent came from less auspicious beginnings.

Pierre Georgel, Director of the Musee de L'Orangerie: He had no academic training. He was from a rather poor family; he didn't make long studies. In French we say he practiced on the spot, if I can say.

Sprague: To learn about Parisian artists, Guillaume settled in Montmartre, the famed enclave of the avante garde.

Georgel: And he knew just by living with them, eating with them, going to their studios, this is how he learned. Sprague: This is also how Guillaume accomplished one of his career's great triumphs, discovering lesser known artists such as Amedeo Modigliani.

Potts: Modigliani is a fascinating story.

Sprague: Again, the Kimbell's Timothy Potts.

Potts: He was a rather Bohemian character, a great talent in these early days, but did drink, did become involved with drugs that eventually killed him. And his was one of these tragic stories but makes for great headlines. His wife, who was pregnant, committed suicide when she heard the news of his death. And so, you know, one of the great romantic tragic stories of early 20th century art.

Sprague: The Kimbell's Charles Stuckey describes Modigliani as a synthesis between Cezanne and Renoir, someone who took figurative painting right to the edge of abstraction.

Stuckey: But as he does, he's able to capture a kind of mood with those dark earthy colors and those blank eyes, the lack of gestures that has this kind of melancholy.

Sprague: Included in the Kimbell's exhibit is Modigliani's 1915 portrait of Paul Guillaume in which he labels the art dealer the "new helmsman" or "novo pilota" of emerging art. Guillaume appears self-assured in a dark suit against a deep red background, with a cigarette glowing in his hand. The clearly admiring relationship between artist and dealer would eventually sour as Guillaume became frustrated by Modigliani's addictions. But his nurturing of Modigliani's career helped fuel enthusiasm for his paintings after the artist's death. Other artists in the exhibit include Henri Rousseau. His "Old Man Juniet's Trap," painted in 1908, was based on a photograph of Rousseau's neighbors. They're standing in a wagon along a tree-lined street, dressed for an outing.

Stuckey: Every leaf is painted, leaf by leaf. To see it belabored that way is striking. I mean, you can say, Is it old-fashioned? No. Is it Impressionist? No. Cubist? Sort of.

Sprague: Charles Stuckey points out Rousseau's comically inept sense of perspective in the painting by looking at the positioning of the family in their wagon. Stuckey: The little girl here, at some point in the picture he realizes he's left out her legs, so he puts them in between the bars on the back of the carriage. But they don't match up with her body? They don't match up with her body at all; and that would have been the appeal, you see, to Picasso, because he would have said, "That's what we Cubists are trying to do, Henri."

Sprague: There are seven Picassos included in the Guillaume collection as well. Most of them are not from Picasso's Cubist period, but are rather Neo-Classical and make the Guillaume collection unique. All the paintings, which usually make their home at L'Orangerie in Paris, are on tour while that museum is being renovated. Fort Worth is the only stop in the United States during the collection's tour. "From Renoir to Picasso" continues at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth until February 25. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.