If you thought that Charles Saatchi was the master inventor of artistic reputations, think again. Aime Maeght (1906-81), the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, could show Saatchi a thing or two. While Saatchi tends to promote "discoveries" and then drop them, Aime Maeght's empire was built upon enduring partnerships with artists including Joan Miro, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard-but naturally enough, both dealers, past and present, have a keen interest in profits.
The Maeght fortune was created during the Second World War, not, it would seem, the best of times to set out as art dealer. For Maeght and his pretty young wife Marguerite, however, the timing was perfect. In the early 1940s Cannes and Nice were in the unoccupied part of Vichy France, where one could happily live it up, in contrast to the occupied north. Unfortunately, there was not enough art to go round. Pictures were hand to find, and tricky to sell, partly because most of the dealers in pre-war Paris had been Jewish.
It was fortuitous for Maeght that, for those artists and collectors stranded on the Cote d' Azur, radios were soon in even shorter supply than pictures. He and Marguerite had been selling radios and furniture in the Cannes shop that also housed their small lithography business. They had been dealing in a little art on the side since 1936, and once the war started, art seemed the better bet. Among the artists living nearby happened to be Bonnard and Matisse, whose studios in Paris were closed and whose income, without dealers, had dried up. But both were, atleast, alive. And so, when Marguerite asked Bonnard to lend her some pictures in order to advertise the artistic side of the business, he was happy to oblige.
When the Bonnard paintings went on view, Marguerite, alone in the shop, was immediately offered a huge sum by a professional dealer. She sold them, and then apologised to Bonnard for having done so "without thinking". He was not upset. He realised they were on to a good thing, and so offered Marguerite more works for sale. And then more. And when yet more were needed, Maeght found himself able to travel freely through occupied France to Paris in order to collect canvases from Bonnard's locked-up studio. He would then, so the story goes, cover the pictures in a coating of gouache (water-soluble pigment, the varnish and oil paints beneath acting as an impermeable layer), put his own signature on them, and then, just as easily, pass back through occupied France, smuggling the paintings out to sell them in the south.
The Germans eventually threatened to bomb Cannes and Nice, so the Maeghts and Matisse-whose work they were also selling-escaped into the hills around Vence, where the Maeghts had a family property near Saint-Paul (and where they were later to establish their Fondation). After the Liberation in 1944, Bonnard and Matisse encouraged Maeght to buy one of those dealerships in Paris washed up by the war. They found one on rue de Teheran, and Matisse volunteered to open it with an exhibition of his drawings in November 1945.
What artistic value should we attach to Maeght's contribution today? Looking around the Fondation Maeght near Saint-Paul de Vence, in the hinter-land of the French Riviera, one finds room after room full of abstract scrapings, prints, drawings and splashes by Hans Hartung. The works mean less and less as you see more and more: what Coleridge identified in Wordsworth as "an eddying rather than a progression of thought". It is much the same outside the gallery, amid the sculptures and umbrella pines that dot the terraced gardens. Here we take a ramble through the mind of Joan Miro. Evidently, there was a whole lot of eddying going on in that particular cerebellum. Many of the largest sculptures on view are by him, despite his unwavering inability to create three-dimensional works of real beauty.
Miro was indulged in these …