You well might question the artistic wisdom of a man responsible for such lowbrow TV hits as “I Love Lucy,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
But William S. Paley, longtime titan of the CBS network, vividly demonstrated through major artworks he collected that he was perceptive and intuitive — and perhaps clairvoyant as to which artists would grow in fame.
“The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism," a new, multi-faceted exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, can prove it.
In the show are masterpieces from Braque, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Manet, Miro, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec and others, many others. Sixty paintings, drawngs and sculptures in all.
Impressionism. Post-Impressionism. School of Paris. Modernism.
Timothy Anglin Burgard, curator-in-charge of American Art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, indicated that the exhibit, organized by The Museum of Modern Art in New York, to which Paley had bequeathed his collection, +simultaneously informs and inspires viewers.
Consider, for example, Henri Matisse’s 1927 painting “Woman with a Veil,” which shows his desire to utilize “a flatness, a two-dimensionality” combined with a classic pose of melancholia to “get at a greater truth…as well as beauty.”
Or two Pablo Picasso paintings from his Rose Period — the 1905-06 “Boy Leading a Horse” (which was owned originally by Oakland poet laureate Gertrude Stein and her brother Leo) and the 1906 “Nude With Joined Hands.”
“Boy,” which portrays a much younger Picasso than the 27-year-old painter who’d already become a master when he brush-stroked it, is visibly a work of genius.
It also was a linchpin of last year’s successful San Francisco MOMA exhibit, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde.”
For “Nude,” the artist painted a definitively sculpted head atop a less-defined body of a woman who is modestly covering her genitalia with her hands.
It’s alleged that Picasso stole the sculpture on which he based the head from the Louvre, returning it when he was done.
The exhibit, not incidentally, is majestically mounted, with paintings given breathing space on shaded walls that make them stand out.
Facts about Paley’s collection can be intriguing. But so can the attendant fiction.
In that category, said Burgard, is the broadcasting innovator’s middle initial, which didn’t stand for anything (though he’d never dissuade folks from believing that it represented his father’s name, Samuel).
Another inaccuracy: Paley was a co-founder of CBS, not its exclusive architect, Burgard noted during his brilliant and witty pre-opening press tour of the exhibit.
Also, Paley insisted “Woman with a Veil” was purchased directly from Matisse. The truth, said Burgard, is that the spinmeister bought it from artist’s son.
One real fact is that Paley’s first art purchase, in 1935, was the 1875-1876 “Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat” by Paul Cézanne.
Another fact is that Paley, as a Jew, had to overcome the rampant discrimination of his time.
He was denied admission to fraternities in college, and despite his subsequent major philanthropy and an upper-crust reputation garnered by owning a string of racing thoroughbreds, he was denied membership in multiple posh clubs.
As a young man, Paley, who died at age 89 in 1990, wasn’t exactly self-made. His father had earned millions manufacturing and selling cigars, giving William S. Paley quite a jump-start.
Paley the Collector, on the other hand, was strictly his own person: The range of the paintings in this exhibit is wider than you might expect.
On the modern end, for instance, are two existential early-‘60s triptychs of distorted faces by Francis Bacon. According to the audio tour, the artist said his portraits were of friends — because if they hadn’t been, “I could not do such violence to them.”
In contrast, on the other end, are two soft 1866-68 pencil sketches by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, “Portrait of a Woman” and “The Jockey.”
A photographic bonus for visitors is a hallway of large images revealing the interior of Paley’s Fifth Avenue apartment in Manhattan, where masterworks adorned the walls.
If you visit the de Young exhibit, make sure to stop in front of Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s “Mme Lili Grenier.”
It’s a 1988 painting soul-stripping the wife of a wealthy friend. She’s lounging in a chair while wrapped in a Japanese kimono, her hands toying with a pale blue ribbon. At age 20, she has a smug look of self-satisfaction — reflecting, most likely, how well she married.
Don’t miss it.
In fact, don’t miss the exhibit as a whole.
“The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism” will be at the de Young, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, through Dec. 30. Hours: Tuesdays through Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., except Fridays, when open until 8:45. Admission: $10 to $20, free for members and children 5 and under. Information: (415) 750-3600 or www.deyoungmuseum.org.