Picasso’s American debut was a financial flop
Penguin Random House

Picasso’s American debut was a financial flop

‘Picasso’s War” by Foreign Affairs senior editor Hugh Eakin, who has written about the art world for publications like The New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and The New York Times, is not about Pablo Picasso’s time in Nazi-occupied Paris and being harassed by the Gestapo, nor about his 1937 oil painting “Guernica,” in response to the aerial bombing of civilians in the Basque town during the Spanish Civil War.

Instead, the Penguin Random House book’s subtitle makes a clearer statement of intent: “How Modern Art Came To America.” This war was not between military forces but a cultural war combating America’s distaste for the emerging modernism that had flourished in Europe in the early decades of the 20th century.

Eakin was present at The Norfolk Library Saturday, March 16, for a conversation with Robert Dance, author of the 2023 biography “Ferocious Ambition: Joan Crawford’s March to Stardom,” a member of the library’s board of directors and a trustee of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford. The event was a “bonus” part of the Haystack Book Festival, a program presented by the Norfolk Foundation — delayed from the event’s 2023 October panel discussions due to scheduling.

Picasso's 1910 oil painting "Femme et Pot de Moutarde" ("Woman with Mustard Pot") was shown at the 1913 Armory Show in New York, Boston, and Chicago. The Chicago Tribune reported a viewer commenting, “But how did the mustard pot survive after such evident mutilation of the lady’s features?”The Hague

Eakin and Dance’s conversation touched on the 1913 Armory Show in New York City. Also known as the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the Armory Show was a groundbreaking event and marked the inaugural showcase of modern art in the United States. It served as a pivotal platform, acquainting American audiences — for better or worse, per the conservative attitudes of the day — with prominent European avant-garde figures like Marcel Duchamp and Henri Matisse, catalyzing a profound shift in the landscape of American art.

“The one thing to keep in mind is that images circulate easily today, so we’re even familiar with art that we haven’t seen, but the opposite was true 100 years ago,” Eakin said at the Norfolk Library. “Everything had to be seen, you had to confront it, and there was a scarcity, especially of new art. Access to artworks was very limited unless you were traveling to Europe. The [American] taste at the time was: You have a country that is an insecure, powerful new country that’s just arrived on the world scene. What [America] wanted more than anything was to be regarded as a great European power. America wanted to have those Old Master paintings, paintings that were owned by princes and kings.”

This was also the shared opinion of such influential shapers of East Coast America’s established art world, like art collector and philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardener, who went on to found Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1903; financier John Pierpont Morgan, one of the greatest benefactors of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and art collector and industrialist Henry Clay Frick, whose collection of distinguished Old Master paintings can be seen today at The Frick Collection on the Upper East Side of New York City.

“Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” ("The Young Ladies of Avignon") by Pablo PicassoThe Museum of Modern Art

“The idea of new art having value was a shocking concept,” Eakin continued. “There was also a larger tradition of insecurity, but also theorizing about deviant art — what would come to be called ‘degenerate art.’ We think of this as a Nazi term, but actually, the conversation about degeneracy in art starts in the United States, and it starts very much with shows like the Armory Show.”

Picasso had actually shown work in America prior to the 1913 Armory Show. In 1911, Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer and gallerist who would go on to marry modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, showcased the first exhibition of Picasso’s drawings in the United States in his gallery 291, located on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Eakin noted that 83 cubist drawings by Picasso were shown, each priced at $12 dollars. Only one sold — to American artist and critic Hamilton Easter Field. The two had already met in Paris.

For a pop culture perspective of Picasso at the time, we can look to James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster “Titanic,” where Kate Winslet’s American socialite character Rose has brought Picasso’s 1907 pro-cubist oil painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” aboard the RMS Titanic. This is a bit of historical revisionism, as “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” did not sink with the ship but is hanging in The Museum of Modern Art thanks to an acquisition by the museum’s patron, Lillie P. Bliss, who features prominently in the later half of Eakin’s book. Still, the remark by Rose’s fiancé, an American industrialist, rings true for the time and his own social circles: “Something Picasso… He won’t amount to a thing. Trust me, he won’t.”

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