Review: “Picasso’s War: How Modern Art Came to America,” by Hugh Eakin

Here we encounter two more intriguing protagonists: the legendary art dealers Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg. Kahnweiler and Rosenberg were both Jewish gallery owners married to Paris, who competed for Picasso’s favors and tried to evade the rising tide of antisemitism in French society. At first they did most of their business in Munich and Moscow, by far the two places most sympathetic to the avant-garde; but in a sudden reversal, both Germany and the Soviet Union became totalitarian states hostile to modern art, and so the Paris dealers turned reluctantly to the United States market. Barr was quick to trumpet a connection between artistic freedom and democracy, as he worked to persuade his MoMA board to acquire many of the same paintings that had been in Quinn’s collection. And now, in 1939, he was finally able to tell the story of modern art as he saw it: “With his usual taxonomic zeal, Barr had arranged the art in an improbably lucid progression of styles and idioms, initiating viewers in stepwise fashion into the new and difficult.”

Along the way, we learn considerable amounts about the art market and the transformation of galleries from salon-style hangings one on top of the other, to paintings in simple steel frames in “white cube” suites. Eakin, though not a professional art historian (he is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs), has mastered this material, read a mountain of sources and synthesized them skillfully, and he manages to braid aesthetics with history with personal details about the leading individuals’ love lives, adulteries and divorces.

Some of his prose tics are irksome, such as providing thumbnail portraits of each character (“A tall, fair-complexioned man with a sharp jawline, piercing blue eyes and a pronounced forehead in front of a balding crown,” etc.), which all start to sound the same; his novelistic, presumptuous inhabiting of historical people’s interiority in scenes (“As they glanced at one another around the table, they knew they had not been chosen casually”); and his habit of holding off the name of each new person or painting title until he has given a lengthy description of the same (“A small, dark-haired, high-strung man who was not much older than Kahnweiler” and so on for another 10 lines, before he finally lets us know it is Paul Rosenberg).

But once Eakin has introduced all the key figures and set them in motion, the book soars. His achievement is keeping the complex plotline moving, while offering sharp insights and astute judgments. He ends the book in dramatic fashion, tracing Rosenberg’s desperate attempt to escape the Third Reich’s tightening grip and relocate to the United States via Portugal — fortunately succeeding, with the aid of a warm letter of support from Alfred Barr. By then, modern art had conquered America, Picasso’s designs were being adapted into women’s clothing, and he had, “apparently overnight, become a mainstay of department store chic.”

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