Paley’s modern masterpieces in San Francisco 

With a Paul Gaugin front and center, Francis Bacon to the right and Paul Cézanne to the left, the first room in the new de Young Museum show starts off with a bang.

“The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism,” on view through Dec. 30, includes more than 60 big-name paintings, sculptures and drawings.

The works, against hunter green walls, give the exhibition an intimate feel, as if the visitor has been allowed inside an exclusive British gentlemen’s club.

Paley, the late, great brainpower behind CBS, once did display the works in his grand Manhattan home, before donating them to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Two haunting Bacon portraits dominate the first room: “Study for Three Heads” and “Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes.”

Known for his triptychs (a form usually associated with religious art), the British artist paints lumpy heads with balloonlike bulges using broad strokes.

While the 1962 oil on canvas “Study for Three Heads” looks like it could be pastel, “Three Studies for the Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” (1963) has a spongy black background, blood reds and gristle grays. It is typical Bacon grotesquerie: texture and imagery mimic meat and exposed anatomy.

“Study for Three Heads” is more evocative, the center visage oozing pathos and submission to fate with a cartoonlike shrug.

Matisse’s famous 1927 “Woman with a Veil” has a penetrating gaze, color blocking and expressionist texture. But “Odalisque with a Tambourine” (1925-26) is the pièce de résistance, positioned next to Pablo Picasso’s revered “Nude with Joined Hands” from the Spaniard’s rose period.

Matisse’s concubine sinks comfortably in a chair, her robe open, exposing folding flesh at the waist and under her breasts. The warmth characterizing much of Matisse’s oeuvre is sweltering, especially compared to the cool, detached Picasso.

Works by post-impressionists Jean-Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard hang side by side, exemplifying their typical mottled style, earthy tones and intimate, almost voyeuristic domestic portrayals.

Vuillard’s 1894 “The Window” — a staid painting with a woman obscuring her face — has as much existential alienation as an Edward Hopper.

Two large fauvist paintings by André Derain make the final room pop. Bright hues favored by fauvists — early 20th century artists who broke ground with radical color experimentation — would foreshadow art deco color trends.

Although the show is light on the best by Cézanne, Edgar Degas and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Cézanne’s “Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat” (1875-76) is an evocative piece by the master better known for landscapes and still-lifes.

Lautrec’s 1888 “Mme Lili Grenier” is a chuckle: a rich wife perches haughtily, self-satisfied and grandiose in a kimono.

At 3½ feet by 2½ feet, “Two Dancers” is a larger-than-usual charcoal-pastel by Degas, who observed with a photographer’s eye, “snapping” one girl adjusting her hair, the other, her shoe.


The William S. Paley Collection: 
A Taste for Modernism

  • Where: De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
  • When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tues.-Sun. except open until 8:45 p.m. Fri.; closes Dec. 30
  • Tickets: $20 general; $10 for youths
  • Contact: (415) 750-3600,

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Lauren Gallagher

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