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Vollard at the Met.

I have always thought I'd have recognized Ambroise Vollard immediately if I'd encountered him on the streets of early twentieth-century Paris. The legendary art dealer and publisher's high, domed forehead, his pug nose, his neatly trimmed beard, and his beefy physique ate all completely familiar from the many portraits made by the artists with whom he worked. Pierre Bonnard, Paul Cezanne, Raoul Dufy, Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Felix Vallaton all made images of Vollard, often more than once. Collectively, these works not only determine our conception of this vital player in the French vanguard a century ago, but also influence our understanding of just what that vanguard was concerned with.

Portraits of Vollard act as notes of emphasis in the wonderful exhibition, "Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant Garde," at the Metropolitan Museum until early January. (1) They provide a kind of crash course in the history of modernism, beginning with Cezanne's truculent, brooding image (1899, Musee de Petit Palais, Paris) of the dealer who made his reputation. The painting signals early modernism's translation of perceptions into a new language of touch and structure, feeling and form. Cezanne's personal blend of anxiety, assurance, and single-mindedness is palpable in this tense, introspective picture. Vollard is perfectly recognizable--balding, pug-nosed, bearded--but his identity and even the fact that the subject of the painting is a figure, much less a specific person, seem no more or less significant than the fabric of broad, stabbing strokes out of which the image is created, a slow accretion that at once suggests physical density and threatens to explode into a murky constellation of autonomous planes. Or perhaps the anxiety is Vollard's. He recounted that he posed in a chair balanced precariously on a crate, forbidden to move and enjoined not to speak, from 8:00 until 11:30 in the morning, with only very brief rest periods. Once, he fell asleep--which he habitually did when posing--and tumbled off. After 115 sittings, terminated only because Cezanne was returning to Aix, the painter told Vollard, "I am not displeased with the shirtfront."

Vallaton's ferocious, rather retardataire vision of Vollard, painted about 1901, is next chronologically, but Picasso's confrontational portrait (Pushkin Museum, Moscow), from 1910, is the true descendant of Cezanne's painting, its flurry of sharp-edged, fluctuating planes the mutant offspring of the older painter's flat, wedge-like strokes. Vollard's large head and beefy shoulders fill the canvas, his heft and presence inescapable, despite the instability of the transparent fragments with which Picasso constructs the image. The painting spans extremes of invention and specificity. Cover the face, and the figure all but disappears in the fraying shuffle of grays and ochres. Reveal the face, and there are those unmistakable fleshy cheeks, the firm mouth framed by a short beard, the button nose, and the bulging forehead, balder than in Cezanne's portrait, like nodes of explicit reference struggling to emerge from the virtually abstract tonal structure created by the dotted planes. Some of Picasso's later drawings and prints of Vollard are also on view, all of them couched in more conventional languages and ostensibly more faithful to appearances, yet the Pushkin's Cubist masterpiece, for all its formal liberties, remains the most potent suggestion of a particular individual--that unmistakable fellow we'd recognize anywhere.

Bonnard painted his friend and fellow cat-lover many times. Twenty years separate a pair of portraits that present us with a seated Vollard, surrounded by works of art, tenderly holding a cat on his lap. In the earlier picture, painted in 1904, the setting is Bonnard's studio, with one of Cezanne's Bathers on the wall and the painter's easel reflected in a mirror. In the later painting, dated 1924, Vollard sits amid the haphazardly stacked paintings of his gallery, a Renoir nude hanging behind him. In the 1904 painting, Vollard cuddles the borrowed feline, gazing affectionately downward, while in the 1924 picture, whose title clearly identifies the little tabby as Vollard's own, the creature, sporting an incongruous bow, is dwarfed by his meaty hands. The firm structure of both pictures reminds us of Bonnard's ability to transform banalities of ordinary surroundings into compelling imagery while the attention to particulars reminds us of modernism's complex relationship with perception and materiality--an uneasy menage a trois composed of truthfulness, invention, and the literal stuff of painting. Another side of Vollard can be glimpsed in a little known Bonnard from a private collection, a rapidly brushed scribble of creams, whites, and chalky sky blue, painted about 1907, that shows the dealer presiding at a table of friends, artists, and colleagues in his basement dining room. The viewer is permitted a privileged place at the table, opposite the host whose distinctive features are immediately identifiable among his sketchily rendered guests.

Vollard sat for the elderly Renoir many times, but Vollard as a Toreador (1917, Nippon Television Network Corporation, Tokyo)--Renoir was seventy-six, Vollard fifty-one--was apparently a favorite of the dealer's, who had a weakness for fancy dress. (A photograph of Vollard, posing, suggests that he padded his calves to look more impressive in the long stockings of the "suit of lights.") It's a tasty picture whose ribbony strokes at once take us back to the glory days of Impressionism and remind us of Renoir's efforts to restore mass and solid form to broken color, but apart from such high-minded art historical considerations, the contrast between Vollard's solemn, dignified demeanor and his extravagant costume is irresistible. Renoir's Vollard is the antithesis of Cezanne's introspective figure, Vallaton's angry man, or Picasso's severe gentleman, recalling, instead, the burly host of Bonnard's scene of cheerful revelry, with his napkin tucked under his chin, waving a wine bottle.

Easy as it is to recognize the man who sat for these portraits, they each present a different version of Vollard, making the personality behind those familiar features difficult to pin down. That personality comes alive, by implication, through the works that form the meat of the show: paintings, sculptures, works on paper, graphics, and illustrated books that Vollard bought, sold, owned, or commissioned during his career--he began exhibiting and selling works of art around 1892, at age twenty-six, and died in 1939--not only by the celebrated artists who made his portrait, but also by Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard, Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Maurice de Vlaminck, Aristide Maillol, Raoul Dufy, Odilon Redon, and Georges Rouault. Vollard's track record is remarkable. In 1895, he organized a pioneering exhibition (probably a series of rotating exhibitions) of the work of Cezanne. It was one of the twenty-nine-year-old dealer's first efforts and the fifty-six-year-old painter's first solo show, the beginning of a long relationship that established and cemented the Aix master's larger reputation. Vollard's exhibition was the fulfillment of a desire that dated from his first encounter with a Cezanne, in the window of the legendary color-dealer Pere Tanguy, when the future gallerist was still a student, sent to Paris from his native Ile-de-la-Reunion to study law.

But there are many notable landmarks throughout Vollard's career. In the early 1890s, as a fledgling dealer, he showed the Nabis--Bonnard, Vuillard, and their colleagues--when these young painters were attempting to reinvent representation not as illusionism but as a disquisition on the literal properties of paint on a surface. In 1895, Vollard inaugurated his new gallery at 39 Rue Lafitte with a show of Van Gogh's canvases, a radical gesture, coming only five years after the painter's suicide. Three years later, in 1898, in a no less radical gesture, Vollard showed Gauguin's Tahitian masterpieces, some of them hot off the presses. In 1901, he gave the nineteen-year-old Picasso his first show--expressionist works heavily influenced by Toulouse-Lautrec--inaugurating a connection that lasted until the dealer's death, and in 1904, he gave the thirty-five-year-old Matisse his first show-seminal works poised on the brink of Fauvism. Vollard was daring in what acquired, as well as in what he showed. He'd purchased some of Degas's late pastels during the artist's lifetime and, in 1918, after Degas's death, bought a number of works from the Degas Estate sales, including such ferocious late works as The Bath (c. 1895, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh), with its expressively simplified nude, seemingly caught unawares, its destabilizing viewpoint, and its unexpected cropping, a uncomfortable, uningratiating image of a type ignored by most viewers of the time or dismissed as unfinished.

Vollard wasn't infallible. Despite his seeming prescience in inaugurating his gallery by showing Van Gogh, he lost his enthusiasm for the troubled Dutchman's work after the lack of financial success of both the initial exhibition and a larger one organized the following year--which included major works from all periods of the painter's brief career. Vollard seems to have lost interest in Matisse, as well, just as this most inventive of painter's exploration of the power of shape and color became increasingly adventurous. Matisse went elsewhere. Despite Vollard's continuing connection with Picasso, he never seems to have "gotten" Cubism. There were artists exhibited by Vollard who never amounted to anything but since he rented out his gallery from time to time, it's not certain that he had any real interest in these also-rans. What is perfectly plain, however, is that for all his obvious appetite for new artists, Vollard was first and foremost a shrewd businessman, alert to the possibilities of a burgeoning marketplace. The exhibition and its informative catalogue, which tracks the dealer and publisher's relationship to his artists and his clients, surveys his archives, and traces the history of the works he himself owned (whether by design or default) make clear the importance of both Vollard's business acumen and his eye in the vital role he played in creating a market and a larger audience for modernist art.

But Vollard's reputation rests largely on the art with which he was associated and a great deal of what passed through his hands was extraordinary. "Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde" pays homage to his most powerful connections in a series of "exhibitions within the exhibition," each dedicated to a single artist or group of artists, that hint at the flavor of the shows Vollard himself organized. The selection of Cezannes, which amounts to a miniature retrospective, is alone worth a trip to the Met. The pictures range from cranky, sexually charged narratives from the late 1860S and early 1870s to magisterial, throbbing views of Montagne Sainte-Victoire and the Chateau Noir from the early 1900s--plus spectacular portraits, self-portraits, landscapes, and a few extremely choice still lifes. The room of Van Goghs exhibited or handled by Vollard is almost as exciting, including as it does such icons as the Met's two masterworks: L'Arlesienne: Mme Joseph-Michel Ginoux (1888-1889), the celebrated portrait of the innkeeper's wife, head on hand against a brilliant yellow ground, and La Berceuse (1889), the wife of Van Gogh's friend, the postman Roulin, clutching the rope of a cradle, against an explosive flowered ground. The Gauguin room is equally stellar, with works spanning the painter's entire evolution, from primitivist, super-heated religious images painted in Brittany around 1889 to key works from the Tahitian years, such as Manao Tupapao (The Spirit of the Dead Watching) (1892, Albright-Knox, Buffalo), with its terrified, robustly fleshed nude, face down on a pillow-strewn bed, and Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897-1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the artist's deliberate summation of all his previous work, with its allegorical frieze of golden skinned figures and its mysterious landscape. There's a fine selection, as well, of Gauguin's innovative woodcuts and eccentric ceramic objects.

Artists responded to these pictures before almost anyone else did and sometimes bought them from Vollard, whether they could afford them or not, as fuel for their own efforts. Picasso purchased a wacky, intensely colored "history painting" by Henri Rousseau. Matisse, Monet, and Renoir acquired important works by Cezanne, mostly of bathers. Matisse purchased his small, rock-solid group of three nude women in 1899, when he was in dire straits financially, but when, in 1936, he decided to give the painting to the city of Paris, he wrote that it "sustained me morally in the critical moments of my venture as an artist." Vollard's strength was cultivating the handful of daring collectors willing to acquire works by the artists he espoused, adventurous art lovers whose names figure importantly in the history of modernism and its reception: Louisine and H. O. Havemeyer, Auguste Pellerin, Isaac de Camondo, Sergei Shchukin, Ivan Morozov, John Quinn, and Gertrude Stein. They were not casual clients. Shchukin bought his substantial collection of superb Cezannes exclusively from Vollard, assembling through a combination of his own and his dealer's exacting eyes and bold taste, an extraordinary group of some of the artist's most powerful works. Morozov, who bought most of his eighteen Cezannes from Vollard, had a slightly less rigorous eye, but nonetheless ended up with first-rate pictures.

If Vollard had done nothing as a dealer but acquire and place the demanding works produced by the artists with whom he was most closely associated, his place in the history of modernism would be assured but, as the exhibition dramatically demonstrates, the celebrated dealer's role in determining the course of twentieth-century art was more complex. After World War I, he devoted a good deal of time to writing, everything from straightforward memoirs to satirical playlets to monographs on the artists he was closest to, including Cezanne, Degas, and Renoir. Vollard enjoyed true partnerships with some of his artists, exerting a real but beneficial influence on their direction. Inspired by Monet's paintings of London, for example, Vollard suggested that Derain see what he could make of the city, prompting a series of exciting paintings from 1906 to 1907 that remain among the artist's most potent Fauvist works.

Vollard exerted his most powerful and creative influence when he arranged for his artists to work in ways outside their habitual practice. Early in his career, he commissioned albums of colored lithographs--displayed at the beginning of the show--from Bonnard, Vuillard, and their fellow Nabis, eager to see how they would respond to what was then a relatively new medium for fine--as opposed to commercial--art. His curiosity and support were rewarded by the freedom and invention with which these young artists rose to the challenge. Bonnard and Vuillard took full advantage of color lithography's directness and subtly layered hues in their poignantly evocative, delicately colored views of Paris streets, parks, and interiors. Vollard also encouraged artists to make sculpture. Perhaps most importantly, he suggested modeling in soft wax to Renoir, whose hands were contracted and weakened by rheumatoid arthritis. He arranged for Picasso's early sculptures to be cast in bronze, ensuring the permanence (as well as the salability) of such simplified, essentially naturalistic works as the Head of a Jester (1905) and Head of Fernande (Rose Period) (c. 1906), as well as the aggressively fragmented, deeply sliced Head of Fernande (Cubist Period) (1909).

Vollard's most important legacy may be the remarkable, exquisitely produced artist's books he commissioned, synthesizing his twin passions for art and literature by bringing together artists and writers, and giving both relatively free rein. In a 1931 interview, he described the process: "I do not look for an 'illustrator' on whom I impose such and such a manuscript. I look for a painter who will agree to illustrate the work which is the object of his predilection. I fix my mind on the painter who chooses his writer and then I leave the artist free to make the book into a succession of pictures" The results, well represented in "Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde" speak for themselves: Picasso's illustrations for Honore de Balzac's Le Chef D'Oeuvre Inconnu, Bonnard's illustrations for Les Pastorales de Longus, ou Daphnis et Chloe, Rouault's illustrations for Andre Suares's Passion, and more.

The most spectacular of these commissions, although not an artist's book in the usual sense, is Picasso's Suite Vollard, a series of one hundred prints, made between 1930 and 1937 and published in 1939. At the Met, all one hundred images are arrayed, floor to ceiling, in the last gallery of the show. The individual prints range from spare, delicate line drawings to fully developed, richly inflected explorations of the tonal possibilities of black and white. Picasso's entire vocabulary of drawing marks has been put in play: urgent hatchings, tremulous lines, pools of darkness, violent scribbles, tender touches. So has his complete lexicon of visual languages, from seductive modeling to prismatic angularity, from Neoclassicism to near-Surrealism. The Suite Vollard is a disjunctive but persuasive meditation on the aging artist's perception of himself, on male and female connections, on the difference between art and life, examined in terms of mythology, the classical past, and the studio, ending with a series of portrait heads of Vollard himself. It's almost too much to take in, while standing, at the end of a deeply engaging, thought-provoking exhibition, but the impact is undeniable. Still, it might be easier to contemplate sequentially, as it was intended, as a book or album.

Vollard's most unexpected commissions--almost certainly the most surprising inclusions in the show--were ceramics. In 1906 and 1907, he sent a number of his artists, including Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, and Rousseau, to work with the master ceramicist Andre Metthey in Asnieres, on the Seine, where the Impressionists had painted. The potter provided terracotta vases, dishes, and tiles, ready for painting and firing, and the artists were free to experiment. The motivation may have been to produce something accessible to a more general public, but the results were amazing. Matthey's simple shapes were transformed by brilliant color and exuberant drawing. The painters tried everything from repetitive, loose-limbed patterns to voluptuous figures whose bodies are inflected by the curves and swells of the plates and vases, all with great success. Reminiscent of the best Islamic and medieval fin glazed pottery, the Fauves' brief venture into ceramic decoration elicited from them some of their freshest, most uninhibited efforts. (Apparently, the public of the day was less than enthusiastic and many pieces remained unsold, but the project is said to have enhanced Vollard's reputation as a key figure in the Parisian vanguard.)

The exhibition's excellent catalogue and the wall texts trace Vollard's sometimes vexed relationships with his artists. On whole, he seems to have gotten along pretty well, allowing for the fact that artists are notoriously hostile to dealers, whom they often regard as parasites and almost always feel do not sell enough work for high enough prices. Vollard's relationship with Cezanne appears to have been unusually cordial, probably because the painter's independent wealth made him indifferent to Vollard's financial manipulations and, I suspect, he was grateful for the attention. Gauguin, on the other hand, accused Vollard of being devious and manipulative, although he himself went behind Vollard's back, encouraging friends to whom he had consigned work to undercut the dealer's efforts. Vollard, of course, was no slouch at being devious himself. He held works back, heightening would-be collectors' desire by making things appear harder to obtain than they really were, just as present-day dealers of hot contemporary artists are said to do with their sometimes fictional waiting lists. But the result of these machinations, coupled with the commissions of works in various media, was to broaden and heighten the reputation of the artists with whom Vollard was associated. As the catalogue essays and entries and the exhibition's wall texts remind us, no matter how acute his eye or how perceptive his aesthetic response, Vollard was primarily an astute businessman. But that doesn't diminish the fact that the exhibition is full of first-rate works by some of the most potent artists in the history of modernism--which is why we are interested in the complex man who bought, sold, and commissioned those works.

Coda: "Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde" changed my long-held idea of that complex man in at least one important way. The various portraits of Vollard at first reinforced my conviction that I knew what he looked like, but that certainty was upset by the inclusion of a film clip of the aged Renoir, shown still able to paint but clearly wracked by arthritis. Vollard strolls into the frame, balding and big, but far less massive and chunky than he appears in the portraits, his small, short nose less porcine. He looks suave and agile as he lights a cigarette for the emaciated painter and places it in his gnarled hand. Vollard looks nicer, more playful than he does in his portraits. Those dinners in the basement must have been fun.

(1) "Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde" opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, on September 14, 2006 and remains on view through January 7, 2007.
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Author:Wilkin, Karen
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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