Mem­o­ries of life next door to Pi­casso

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Louise Adler

My Grand­fa­ther’s Gallery: A Fam­ily Mem­oir of Art and War By Anne Sinclair Text Pub­lish­ing, 225pp, $32.99 THE Ga­lerie Rosenberg at Rue La Boetie 21 in Paris opened in 1910 and be­came Europe’s pre­em­i­nent ex­hi­bi­tion space for artists of the early 20th cen­tury. Paul Rosenberg, Europe’s most in­flu­en­tial art dealer, col­lec­tor and vi­sion­ary, would agree to rep­re­sent Marie Lau­rencin in 1913, Pi­casso in 1918, Braque in 1923, Leger in 1926 and Matisse in 1936. The mod­ernists were ex­hib­ited on the ground floor, the im­pres­sion­ists (De­gas, Renoir and Monet) were shown up­stairs. Be­tween the two world wars a dis­com­bob­u­lated pub­lic more ac­cus­tomed to the gen­teel im­agery of the im­pres­sion­ist would come to the Ga­lerie Rosenberg to see th­ese rad­i­cal new artists.

Now renowned French tele­vi­sion jour­nal­ist Anne Sinclair, grand­daugh­ter of Rosenberg, has paid homage to her grand­fa­ther, one of the truly great art deal­ers of the 20th cen­tury, in a “fam­ily mem­oir of art and war”. Sadly Sinclair is bet­ter known, in the an­glo­phone world at least, as the hap­less wife of for­mer In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund chief Do­minique Strauss-Kahn, a French pres­i­den­tial con­tender brought down by sala­cious ru­mour and scan­dal.

In My Grand­fa­ther’s Gallery, Sinclair re­veals a more in­ter­est­ing his­tory: a fam­ily of art con­nois­seurs de­voted to Europe’s cul­tural avant­garde, sup­port­ing, pro­mot­ing and form­ing deep and en­dur­ing friend­ships with some of the great artists of the early 20th cen­tury. The Rosenberg story is also the story of mod­ern Euro­pean Jewry: de­ra­ci­nated, per­se­cuted and ex­iled to the US dur­ing the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of France.

For Sinclair the mem­oir is not a sim­ple writ­ing ex­er­cise. As be­fits her class, she pro­fesses dis­taste for com­merce, em­bar­rassed by her grand­fa­ther’s role as an art im­pre­sario — the con­ven­tional in­verted snob­bery that views business as un­clean.

In the process of re­cov­er­ing her grand­fa­ther’s story through photographs, ar­chives, in­voices and vo­lu­mi­nous cor­re­spon­dence in­clud­ing 214 let­ters to Pi­casso, Sinclair (nee Schwartz) de­vel­ops im­mense re­spect for Rosenberg’s “call­ing that be­came a pro­fes­sion”, for his work, his courage and his con­nois­seur­ship.

The Ga­lerie Rosenberg was taken over by the Nazis in 1941 on the or­der of Otto Abetz, the Re­ich’s am­bas­sador to Paris. The Nazi ap­proach to mod­ern art was at least con­sis­tent: across Europe “de­gen­er­ate art” was de­stroyed, sold off or dis­ap­peared. The Rosenberg col­lec­tion did not es­cape the ra­pa­cious and cov­etous instincts of the Nazi war ma­chine.

The Rosen­bergs set­tled in New York for the du­ra­tion of the war, es­tab­lish­ing a new gallery in Man­hat­tan and re­turn­ing to Paris after the war ended.

The machi­na­tions of the art mar­ket are fas­ci­nat­ing — the stakes are high, the com­mer­cial gains and losses are sig­nif­i­cant and the in­flu­ence ex­erted on art prac­tice by deal­ers, col­lec­tors and in­sti­tu­tions can­not be over-es­ti­mated. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween artists and dealer is par­tic­u­larly com­pli­cated.

For Rosenberg his most pro­found re­la­tion­ship would be with Pi­casso (Rosi and Pic, as they called each other), one art his­to­rian sug­gest­ing they “made each other”. The lived next door to one another for many years; Pi­casso would show Rosenberg his can­vases in progress across the court­yard and through the kitchen win­dow. The two fam­i­lies lived in each other’s worlds un­til the war in­ter­vened.

Sinclair re­counts an apoc­ryphal anec­dote about Pi­casso, the staunch Span­ish repub­li­can who re­mained in Paris through­out this pe­riod. Ap­par­ently Nazi of­fi­cials ques­tioned him about his most en­dur­ing anti-war paint­ing, Guer­nica. “Did you do this?” they asked. Pi­casso is sup­posed to have an­swered, “No, you did.” Sinclair is care­ful to point out that this great­est of avant­garde artists was no re­sis­tance fighter — though

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priv­i­lege is equally clear he re­fused to col­lab­o­rate. Artists and their deal­ers are nec­es­sary co-rel­a­tives but all too fre­quently op­por­tu­nity in­trudes. After the war ended, Pi­casso re­turned to his orig­i­nal dealer, Daniel-Henry Kah­n­weiler, Rosenberg’s only se­ri­ous com­peti­tor. One can only imag­ine the lat­ter’s sense of grievance.

My Grand­fa­ther’s Gallery is not an in­ti­mate ac­count of Rosenberg. The reader fails to un­der­stand the in­ner life of this re­mark­able in­di­vid­ual. As the au­thor ad­mits, she hardly knew her grand­fa­ther. The cover pho­to­graph of a sweet lit­tle girl tightly but­toned up in her win­ter coat hold­ing the hand of her dap­per, be­suited grand­fa­ther clutch­ing his Lucky Strike cig­a­rettes and hat only hints at his wit, in­ten­sity and ur­ban­ity.

The mem­oir opens with a paradig­matic ac­count of an en­counter with the French bu­reauc-

it racy — one can’t fail to recog­nise the in­flex­i­bil­ity of the sys­tem that de­ter­mines French cit­i­zen­ship or af­fil­i­a­tion. Sinclair’s at­tempt to re­new her iden­tity card, to prove her right to cit­i­zen­ship, is an at­ten­u­ated rite of pas­sage we all recog­nise. For French Jews, de­prived of their rights and na­tional iden­tity, the task re­mains par­tic­u­larly painful and of­fen­sive.

Sinclair’s mother’s death and the rise of French xeno­pho­bia trig­ger a de­sire to re­assess the fam­ily mythol­ogy. She had grown up think­ing of her fa­ther as a hero-sol­dier, her mother deemed to “have sat out the war on Fifth Av­enue”. My Grand­fa­ther’s Gallery erases that re­ceived wis­dom.

In­ter­est­ingly for Aus­tralian read­ers, the mem­oir partly re­lies on an ar­ti­cle com­mis­sioned from Rosenberg in 1941 by Art in Aus­tralia mag­a­zine. In it he ar­gues that “painters be­fore their time do not ex­ist. They are al­ways of their epoch. It is the pub­lic who is be­hind in the pic­to­rial evo­lu­tion. The pub­lic ea­gerly ac­cepts the for­mula of a ‘re­cent past’ when it has been defini­tively ac­cepted, but re­fuses to re­gard or even at­tempt to un­der­stand that of their im­me­di­ate present.”

The Rosen­bergs were for­tu­nate — wealth and con­tacts made pass­ports, visas and travel pos­si­ble. Ex­ile was psy­cho­log­i­cally painful, but Rosenberg recog­nised that his fate was far more be­nign than that of 75,000 other French Jewish con­fr­eres. When the fam­ily left France in 1940, 400 paint­ings left be­hind were sub­se­quently stolen, de­stroyed or lost.

After the war Rosenberg re­lent­lessly pur­sued the re­trieval of this re­mark­able col­lec­tion. About 60 paint­ings would never be found. In his quest to re­store his col­lec­tion, Rosenberg re­cov­ered his life’s work, his pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment to mod­ern art and his sense of self. But his faith in the French repub­lic would never be fully re­stored.

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