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Picasso, Nazis And A Daring Escape In 'My Grandfather's Gallery'


Not a lot of people you can ask, so what was Picasso really like? Well, Anne Sinclair knew him when she was a little girl. And her grandfather, Paul Rosenberg, was perhaps the most famous art dealer in Paris, whose gallery brimmed with paintings by Picasso, Mattise, Braque, Leger, and many modern masters. But those works were banned when the Nazis strutted in and Paul Rosenberg and his family had to flee for their lives. They wound up in New York City, safe but shaken. And much of the art he cherished and represented was stolen, lost and/or destroyed. Anne Sinclair is one of the best-known journalists in France, the longtime host of the weekly television program "Set Sur Set," and now director of the French Huffington Post. She tells her grandfather's story and reveals a vignette of survival in her new book, "My Grandfather's Gallery: A Family Memoir Of Art And War." It is translated by Shaun Whiteside. Anne Sinclair joins us from Paris. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANNE SINCLAIR: Well, thanks to you.

SIMON: So what was Picasso really like?

SINCLAIR: Well, Picasso was a giant, as you know. I have memories of him when I was a little girl. And I was not so much interested by the man but especially the garden with the sculptures that are now in the MoMA in New York. He had the magnetism -incredible - and the look, especially - I don't know if you had the book in your hands, but there's a photograph - he looks at me with the eyes he used to look at people, and it was incredibly sharp and very impressive.

SIMON: But you didn't want him to paint you, did you?

SINCLAIR: When I was 14, he suddenly told my mother, oh, your daughter is getting big girl now. She's got nice eyes. I see eyes everywhere on her face. So I imagined that I would have a twisted face, you know, like Dora Maar paintings. And I cried, no, and I ran into the garden. So that's why I never had my portrait by Picasso.

SIMON: If we were to step into the Galerie Rosenberg in, let's say, 1938, what would we see?

SINCLAIR: Well, my grandfather was a pioneer in modern art. So he had Matisse, Leger, Picasso on first - refusal. And people that were going along the streets so - paintings so different that they were accustomed to see, so they hesitated to come in. And when they came in, he was taking them at the first floor where there was some Renoir and Monet and some much more soft paintings. So people could understand that that's what Picasso was interested in especially, that he was putting the modern art inside the history of art.

SIMON: And then what happened when the Germans came in in 1940?

SINCLAIR: My grandfather was the head of an association that refused to buy what the Nazis called degenerate art because Nazis wanted to clean all the museums and all their private collections from all they thought was degenerate. So there was wonderful paintings of old modern art - very low prices. And my grandfather said to other dealers, we won't buy any of these paintings even if the price is very interesting because it would be giving some money to the Nazis. So he was on the black list. So he knew he had to flee to the United States so he could first survive and then begin his job again.

SIMON: How did he pick up his life after the war?

SINCLAIR: He lived until 1959. And he wanted most to recover his looted paintings. You know, there were more than 400 looted, especially in the vault he had in the south of France. There were a lot of galleries in Paris. They knew it was, well, stolen art. So my grandfather went to all the galleries, pointing to paintings and said this is mine and this is mine. And they wouldn't discuss anything because they knew they would have been in such a mess. And he made some trials also. He sued some Swiss galleries with the help of the Swiss government also because Switzerland had been a great place to resell all stolen art.

SIMON: I'm struck by the fact that, almost like a Peru story, what I gather inspired you to go to find out more about your grandfather's life was interestingly an immigration clerk who kind of challenged your Frenchness.

SINCLAIR: Well, you know, I wanted build my life by my own. And I wanted to be a journalist. I didn't want to be an heir. So I wanted to make my life on my own. And when I reached 60, my mother died. And then suddenly, I said I want to put the pieces of my origins together. Really, it was back to my origins and say, well, I'm also my grandfather's granddaughter.

SIMON: I wasn't going to mention your former husband and what happened, but you have a sentence toward the end of the book where you say (reading) the city of New York, which seemed enchanted to me in my childhood, had now become for both me and my family a place synonymous with violence and injustice. How?

SINCLAIR: It's the only pages I wrote after what I would call the incident.

SIMON: This is you were married to Dominique Strauss-Kahn who was arrested and charged with rape? Yes. And the case was thrown out.

SINCLAIR: It was really painful for me and painful for my family. And I had to face head-on the best I could. But please understand that it's now far behind. And that I have come out of all this. And I want to move on and not to look back.

SIMON: Anne Sinclair, her new book, "My Grandfather's Gallery: A Family Memoir Of Art And War." Thank you so much for being with us.

SINCLAIR: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.