Paul Rosenberg was the Parisian art dealer who orchestrated the career of Pablo Picasso, becoming his impresario, spokesperson, intermediary and close friend.
“Picasso and Rosenberg promoted each other,” explains his granddaughter Anne Sinclair, the one creating Picasso’s image and the other “definitively establishing the reputation of my grandfather’s gallery.” Picasso knew that if he showed his work at the Galerie Rosenberg he wouldn’t be catalogued as just another avant garde painter but would win his place in the company of masters of the previous century. Rosenberg steered the artist away from Cubism, and Picasso, understanding the necessity of the marketplace, was, according to Sinclair, thrilled to find a dealer who grasped his desire to transcend cubism. Rosenberg established close friendships not only with Picasso but also Matisse, Braque, Leger and Marie Laurencin. But Rosenberg was Jewish and so, in the summer of 1940 after the Nazi occupation of Paris, he and his family were forced to flee and disperse, or hide if he could, his collection of hundreds of paintings. Before the year was out the Rosenbergs were given exit visas for the United States.
This deeply personal book is, in part, the homage of a granddaughter who wants to reclaim her place in the family that played such a seminal role in promoting modern art in the early part of the 20th century. Although she had grown up in the shadow of a large Picasso portrait of her mother and grandmother, looted during the War but now donated by Sinclair to Paris’s refurbished Musée Picasso, she had desperately tried, until a few years ago to make a life for herself, apart from the history of her family.
What changed? What made this successful journalist and well known television presenter decide in her sixties to discover a man so excited by painting that when he saw a work that he craved his whole body trembled, yet a grandfather she realises she barely knew or understood?
Sinclair maintains that the prompt was an altercation with a French bureaucrat who, in the process of giving her new identity papers following a move, asked if all four of her grandparents were French. With mounting fury, she reminded him that the last time people of her generation were asked that question was before they were put on trains to transit camps and then, often, to Auschwitz. He appeared to know nothing about these black times when Vichy administrators collaborated in the arrest and deportation of Jews in France. But at the same time Sinclair, former wife of disgraced politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, admits that in May 2011 she found herself forced to live in New York under painful circumstances, a prisoner in the city which had become for her “a place synonymous with violence and injustice.” But although that story is not one she even touches on in this book (tantalisingly she admits she might one day write a book about it) it is impossible not to see how that impacted on her decision to reconnect with the Rosenberg side of her inheritance and the discovery of a family “dearer to me than I would have believed.”
Yet this discovery, too, has a twist in its heart concerned with infidelity. In 2010 Anne Sinclair discovered a shoebox of letters including one, ten pages long, written by Paul and intended to be read posthumously, in which he revealed his bitter grief over an affair in the 1930’s between his wife and fellow art dealer, Georges Wildenstein. They did not divorce but their relationship was forever damaged and occasionally stormy. The young Anne had always known her grandfather was prone to depression and poor health, now she knew why.
There is a prologue to this English translation of a book, first published in France as 21, Rue la Boétie, the address of the Rosenberg Gallery and also the building, once seized by the Nazis, which became during the Occupation the Institute for the Study of Jewish and Ethno-racial questions, a hideous organisation devoted to disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda. Following French publication, the building’s current owner organised a white marble plaque for the façade bearing Paul Rosenberg’s name and that of the artists whose works he exhibited there for some twenty years when it was a temple of art.
Anne Sebba is writing a book about Paris from 1939-49 through women’s eyes