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How Picasso Became Big Business

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In Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War, the artist featured in the title is—somewhat unexpectedly—a relatively minor character. This is clear from the book's prologue. The dramatic and moody opening takes us to a 1924 dinner party in the New York home of John Quinn, a Wall Street lawyer and pioneering patron of modern art and literature. After the coffee is served, Quinn leads his friends and fellow modern art enthusiasts to see his latest acquisition. They were, Eakin writes, “seized by the giant rectangle. Confronting them was a nocturnal encounter as alluring as it was strange.” Given the book’s title, a reader may expect the giant rectangle to be a canvas by Pablo Picasso—it is not.

The painting is Henri Rousseau’s famed The Sleeping Gypsy (1897), which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Rousseau was a self-taught artist who worked as a provincial French customs official. Picasso was fascinated by Rousseau’s work, introduced him to his modernist circles, and even hosted a famed banquet in his honor. As we learn later in the book, Picasso helped convince Quinn to buy this exceptional canvas. In this instance, Rousseau is the star; Picasso is in the background.

Throughout Eakin’s rollicking and fascinating history, subtitled How Modern Art Came to America, Picasso continues to appear somewhat haphazardly. This is not necessarily a problem, but it is worth knowing before reading the extensively researched and footnoted 480-page volume. (One wonders if a publishing house marketing department felt the need to put Picasso in the title, despite his supporting role.) There are a couple of other minor quibbles. For example, when a canvas’ price is noted, we are rarely given relative values to understand the cost in today’s terms. Also, the illustrations are painfully limited. One often has to Google or rely on Eakin’s textual descriptions of paintings to visualize the artistic works at the heart of the story. These are the book’s shortcomings, but they ultimately don’t hold up the engaging story that Eakin tells.

Pablo Picasso (right) with his art dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in Picasso’s Villa La Californie near Cannes, France, in 1957. Imagno/Getty Images

In Hugh Eakin’s Picasso’s War, the artist featured in the title is—somewhat unexpectedly—a relatively minor character. This is clear from the book’s prologue. The dramatic and moody opening takes us to a 1924 dinner party in the New York home of John Quinn, a Wall Street lawyer and pioneering patron of modern art and literature. After the coffee is served, Quinn leads his friends and fellow modern art enthusiasts to see his latest acquisition. They were, Eakin writes, “seized by the giant rectangle. Confronting them was a nocturnal encounter as alluring as it was strange.” Given the book’s title, a reader may expect the giant rectangle to be a canvas by Pablo Picasso—it is not.

Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America, Hugh Eakin, Crown,........

© Foreign Policy


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