Welcome to the VERANDA Sip & Read Book Club! Each month, we dive into a new book and offer exclusive conversations with the author, along with a perfectly matched cocktail. This month's pick is Hugh Eakin's Picasso's War: How Modern Art Came to America. The nonfiction work follows a New York lawyer and passionate museum director as they fight to change America's perception of modern art. Get caught up on our past book club selections here.
It's New York in 1939 at the height of Picasso-mania. People are flocking to the Museum of Modern Art to see the landmark show, "Picasso: Forty Years of His Art” which has the entire city talking. High-end department stores across Manhattan are creating merchandise themed after the artist's iconic works so everyone can have their own piece of Picasso. With such a buzz, it is hard to believe that people were turning up their noses at the idea of modern art just a year earlier. In his newest work of nonfiction, Hugh Eakin details modern art's evolution in America from a despised art style to its most sought-after. Below, Eakin talks about the two pivotal figures in the modern art movement that inspired his work and his own love for Picasso.
While this is a piece of nonfiction work, the prose read very much like a novel. What was the inspiration behind this book?
I'm so flattered you call Picasso's War a novel! In choosing to write the entire nonfiction account of a small group of dynamic characters as they gave shape to one of the greatest cultural transformations of the 20th century, I was lucky to have found a story that had all the tension and drama of a great work of fiction. The story was inspired by many things: One was a visit to a private archive that contained hundreds of almost unknown letters between Picasso and his dealer during the crucial years when his international reputation was made; another was the discovery that some of the greatest works of modern art had escaped destruction or seizure by the Nazis only because they had—at the last possible moment—been shipped to the United States. This led me to an odyssey through more than a dozen archives in the US and Europe, where I was able to piece together how it all happened.
What was the research like for this book? How did you ensure the piece stayed historically accurate?
While I wanted the story to feel as alive and dramatic as possible, as a nonfiction writer I had to base every scene, dinner party, quote, and detail strictly on the source material I was able to uncover. Luckily, my characters not only left behind extensive diaries, letters, and documents; in them, they often recorded what they were doing and thinking, and saying during crucial moments. Several of my characters also used telegrams like we use text messages today: I could reconstruct day by day—and sometimes hour by hour—what happened during the course of a particularly important turning point.
In your own words, why was America so hesitant to accept modern art?
From today's point of view, it seems astonishing: Through much of the first half of the 20th century, Americans were deeply resistant to Picasso, Matisse, and the entire pioneering generation of European artists who built the art world we know today. Why? There were many reasons. One was cultural insecurity. The United States was for the first time becoming a world power, and it wanted to build all these prestigious museums of expensive historic art from Europe because that's what brought the greatest status and prestige. Modern art, although it also came from Europe, was so new and different that it was highly controversial, and therefore did not have much market value and was widely shunned. There was also a real fear that modern artists were subversive, and that movements like Cubism and Fauvism would undermine the moral fabric of American society: People protested, and even the New York Times wrote editorials against modern art.
While called Picasso's War, Pablo Picasso and other well-known modern artists serve as background characters in this book. Why did you choose to focus the narrative on a collector and a gallerist?
I was fascinated to discover a couple of characters who were very close to the most famous artist in the world, during the years when his American reputation was made, and yet who were almost unknown. So, there was an entirely new and unexpected story to tell. Picasso didn't become a legend in the United States spontaneously; it took decades of effort, and years of failure, by this tiny group of fanatical supporters, pushing against the cultural tide, and it almost didn't happen at all.
After the Picasso exhibition and the MoMA show, modern art became a hit in America. Can you explain how those exhibitions changed America's perception of modern art?
This is the story that the book seeks to tell. Without giving away the plot, Picasso's ultimate triumph in the US was never assured. It was to an extraordinary degree, the result of the right people being in the right place at the right time, but also the serendipitous influence of huge world events—that almost derailed the entire project. Even Hitler had an unintentional role in this.
For someone who wants to learn more about modern art, where do you recommend they begin?
Picasso is an excellent place to begin, not only because he was one of the leaders of the huge upheaval at the start of the 20th century that more or less rebuilt the foundations of art. He also continuously reinvented his own style and approach, so he contributed to not just one but many of the key movements that shaped modern art, from Cubism to Neoclassicism, to Surrealism to sculpture, and even political art. He knew and influenced many of the other leading artists. And he had such a long and eventful life—he was painting in 1900 when the century began and he was painting in 1973, the year he died—that you can trace a lot of the modern art story, and the story of the 20th century, in his work.
What's your favorite piece of modern art?
This is such a difficult question! There are so many paintings I admire for different reasons. I do think that, for sheer power and mystery and strangeness, Henri Rousseau's Sleeping Gypsy is unlike any other work I know. As one of my characters in the book said when he first saw it, it hits you with "a bolt of love." And it's just been beautifully restored and you can see it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
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