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The William S. Paley Collection, de Young Museum

I have seen many good exhibitions this year, but one of the best is at the de Young museum in San Francisco, which I visited on Sunday: "The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism." Paley was one of the founders of CBS, and when he began collecting art in the 1930s or so, it was still possible to get great examples of works by the likes of Gauguin, Cezanne, Picasso, and Matisse, for relatively little, because not many rich collectors wanted those works at the time. And it's not just that he got a few good pieces: it seems that almost everything he bought is a superb example of each individual artist. Just look at the pictures below: many of them are iconic pieces that are considered key to the work of the artist:

Paley's discerning eye was evident in the small works that he collected, too, such as this painting by Vuillard, and this small drawing by Picasso:

The quality of the work is, to us, self-evidently very high. But it took a particular eye to discern what Paley called the sensuous quality in these works, which were considered barbarous by most people until well into the twentieth century. That is indeed what lies on the surface of the pictures, despite their crudity compared to nineteenth century painting: look closely, and you can see the painter's delight in oil paint, in the placement of different kinds of marks, the aligning of different sorts of colours.

And another remarkable thing is that Paley was collecting for the sake of work in which he found pleasure. There's a dispiriting tendency lately for museums to mount exhibitions devoted to the private collections of billionaires, and you get a completely different feeling from looking at their collections of Koons, Orozco, Kiefer, et al. All fine artists in their own way, but you get the feeling that the actual collecting of them has much more to do with an investment portfolio, rather than Paley's way of collecting. Maybe the difference is that we are seeing Paley's collection after he died, so it becomes a historical monument, rather than a contemporary advert. In any event, it's a remarkable exhibition, and well worth your time if you get to San Francisco.

Runs until December 30, 2012.


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