The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Friday October 5, 2012
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Reliable sources have reported that CBS founder and chairman William S. Paley hung his prized possession, Paul Gauguin's "The Seed of the Areoi" (1892), in front of his home movie projector, and moved the painting out of the way whenever he watched I Love Lucy or other of his network's television shows. Whether or not the story is true, it's a curious metaphor for the collision of old world and new media, and the personal contradictions of the enterprising son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who built a broadcasting empire and launched the careers of Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. So what did he do in his spare time? A pragmatic man and a wealthy one, not above embellishing his resume or conflating his biography, Paley used some of his considerable fortune to acquire adventurous, ahead-of-the-curve modern art.

The aforementioned Gauguin canvas, which served as camouflage and decor, depicts the beautiful, raven-haired queen of a Polynesian secret society holding a fertility symbol in her hand -the model was the artist's 13-year-old Tahitian mistress - surrounded by the lush South Sea island landscape. And it's just one of many masterpieces found in A Taste for Modernism, an exciting new show of sumptuous artworks at the de Young, primarily focusing on late-19th and early-20th century artists of the French School and School of Paris. The show is a sampling of Paley's collection, born of a happy confluence of plentiful disposable income and a pair of wives with sophisticated, discerning taste in art, taste that reflected the Francophile inclinations and anti-German bias of NYMOMA in the 1930s, where Paley was a trustee. Those influences helped shape Paley, who started out buying English hunting prints before moving up several notches to paintings by Degas, Bonnard, Vuillard, Derain, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso and others on view here. There are also well-chosen bronze sculptures by Gaston Lachaise and Aristide Maillol, as well as drawings like "Two Dancers"(1905), Degas' classically beautiful, deceptively simple charcoal of his favorite subject, as well as sketches by Picasso, Renoir, and one by Ben Shahn showing Murrow as St. George, slaying a dragon personified by Joe McCarthy.

The characteristically unsettling, tortured, bloody-scarlet imagery of Francis Bacon's "Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes" (1963) inhabits the opening gallery. Adapted from photographs taken by Bacon's friend, it's a fractured psychological triptych, a vision of the divided self, a human with many faces not unlike Paley himself. Nearby, "Figures and Star"(1949), a tiny, delicate, slyly humorous oil and pastel by Miro of a sharp-beaked, bird-like creature, a female form and an asterisk is achieved with a sublime shorthand only the gifted Spaniard Catalan was capable of. The warm sensuality of "Reclining Nude" (1897) finds Bonnard indulging in his ongoing obsession with Marthe, his lover, model and later his wife, who's stretched out on a couch amidst ochre and brown tones, her head resting on a white pillow. It's displayed next to a trio of small Vuillard paintings of lived-in, intimate interiors with inviting indirect light and subtle shadows.

Several of the extraordinary Picassos will trigger a sensation of deja vu: "Boy Leading a Horse" (1905-06), of a young circus performer adrift in a barren existential landscape guiding a white steed with invisible reins; "Nude with Joined Hands" (1906), a portrait of Picasso's beloved mistress Fernande Olivier, standing naked against a sunset coral background; and "The Architect's Table" (1912), considered by many the greatest of the cubist paintings, were purchased from the Stein family and displayed at last year's Steins Collect exhibition at SFMOMA. Like the Steins, Paley had a fondness for Matisse, whose atmospheric "Odalisque with a Tambourine" (1925-26) evokes the languorous sensuousness of the South of France. In a room crowded with furnishings sits a voluptuous naked woman on the verge of sliding off a green and yellow upholstered chair; one arm draped casually around the back of her neck, her robe falls away to expose her ample breasts. Above her, a window opens onto a patch sky so blue and pure one can almost breathe the sea air and hear the waves of the Mediterranean lapping on the beach outside.

To experience this exhibition is to partake of a very personal collection of hand-picked works selected with an eye for beauty and technical brilliance. What would it be like to live with objects of such piercing aesthetic beauty, to open The New York Times on Sunday morning to find the faded blooms of Manet's exquisite essay on mortality, "Two Roses on a Tablecloth," looking back at you? That question is answered, at least vicariously, by a dozen large color photographs of the Paleys' opulent, antique-filled Fifth Avenue apartment, where the paintings are seen hanging on the walls like birds of paradise alighting in a garden of earthly delights.

My bags are packed, and I'm ready to move in.

The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism. Through Dec. 30 @ the de Young; .

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