Memories of life next door to Picasso
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
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.