Legacies are dangerous things. They endow wonderful treasures but make odd and awkward stipulations upon the recipients. Legacies are delicious traps set by the dead. A legatee receives a rich collection of art but one which cannot be tampered with. A great donation perpetuates the donor’s character and bows future custodians to his idiosyncratic will and its generosity is mixed with perverseness and not a little mischievousness. Every great deed has a touch of cruelty at its heart.
The pre-formed collection gathered on the basis of connoisseurship and bequeathed to an institution – bounded by restrictions on deaccessioning – is an antidote to the new self-lacerating identity-driven hierarchy-averse tendency that damages current trends in collecting and academic thought. Those dead white male plutocratic collectors, with their acquisitive tendencies, stubborn attachment to pleasure, independent views on aesthetics and wilful disregard of diversity-and-inclusion agendas, are actually bulwarks of the sheer love of art against forces of joyless political positioning. Connoisseurship is the apotheosis of discrimination – that is, of cultivating taste for the excellent and understanding that only the best, judged on its own terms, is sufficient of admiration.
The bequest of Herman Herzog Levy (1902-1990) to McMaster Museum of Art, Hamilton, Ontario has the delights and drawbacks of every bequest but an extra element. The current exhibition A Cultivating Journey (Vancouver Art Gallery, 3 March-21 May 2018; touring to Kelowna Art Gallery, 16 June-28 October 2018) catalogues the impressive collection of European art that Levy collected from the 1920s to the early 1970s.
Levy (who was born and resided in Hamilton) made his living in the gem trade. Habits of his profession carried over into his art collecting: the search for overlooked or undervalued works of beauty and rarity, the cultivation of discerning taste, long hours of contemplation and learning. All these qualities – combined with disposable surplus capital – allowed Levy to pursue his passion for art. He was civic minded and participated in many activities to benefit Hamilton and Hamiltonians. He was deeply involved with the administration of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and acquired works for it, as well as donating some of his own art. His taste was not parochial and he apparently had little appetite for Canadian art. He collected European fine art (particularly German prints), Chinese ceramics and Japanese woodcuts. His painting collection was donated to McMaster in 1984. In terms of the value that his bequest would provide to Hamilton, his European works of art provided a complement to donations of Canadian art. As a group, his collection forms a primer in European art, equivalent to that of a small regional museum in Europe.
What makes the Levy bequest unusual is that he set aside a legacy to be spent on non-North American fine art for McMaster. New works acquired with the fund were chosen to relate to the pieces in the collection and fill in gaps in areas. Areas of acquisition were Dutch painting, German graphics and School of London (Auerbach and Freud). The catalogue helpfully sets out which works were donated by Levy and which purchased later with his legacy.
The collection is eclectic. There are good prints by Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder and other Germans. The Dutch and Flemish portraits and still-lifes include one of only two identified paintings – a still-life including fish – by Philips Breughel (1635-c.1662), great-grandson of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and a fine anonymous still-life with oysters (possibly by Alexander Adriaenssen). Drawings include attractive works by Boucher, Gainsborough and Cassatt.
[Image: Jean-Victor Bertin, Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825), oil on canvas, 82 x 114.5 cm, Herman H. Levy Bequest purchase 1993, McMaster Museum of Art]
Roman Figures in the Sabine Mountains (1825) by Jean-Victor Bertin (1767-1842) is an example of the academic tradition that dominated French Classical and Neoclassical painting, as practised in France and Rome. Bertin worked in Rome and is closer to the Classical than the Neoclassical. The latter more expressly political in content, was crisper in execution and – following the examples of David and Ingres – more coolly coloured than the Classical painting that came before. Bertin is much closer to Poussin than he is to his colleague Ingres. Like Poussin (who lived in Rome), Bertin went into the campagna to sketch and then compose his idealistic landscapes by combining motifs and observations from life. Bertin’s work is notable for being a last lingering of the Classical French painting made in Rome before the Neoclassicism, Romanticism and Realism overtook the approach.
There are good landscapes by Courbet, Monet and Pissarro. Albert Marquet’s river view in Hamburg is not his finest but strong. (Did Marquet ever let a bad picture out of his studio?) Marquet is at his best in the winter, capturing blues and greens and dank stone and foliage. This 1909 canvas of a sunlit view is too warm in coloration to be a classic. Other works of this period include an indifferent Sickert figure painting, Braque Cubist drypoint and a Klee watercolour.
There are curiosities such as bold but rather crude still-life by Émile Bernard and a sombre still-life by Bernard’s colleague Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885) is an odd work.
[Image: Vincent Van Gogh. Still-life: Ginger Pot and Onions (1885), oil on canvas, 34.5 x 49.5 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]
The oriental ginger pot (without lid) is contrasted with three onions. Painted in Neunen while the artist was living with his parents, it combines the aestheticism of a young painter keen to learn the technical and theoretical aspects of his craft while also reflecting ordinary life. The latter had drawn Van Gogh to painting peasants, miners and the urban poor and the onions – a staple food of the poor – can be related to the subject of frugal repasts. The ginger pot, probably owned by his parents, was an object of the exotic Orient coveted by the bourgeois for its inherent qualities and its status as an imported luxury. The painter may not have been concerned about symbolism and was more likely keen to add textural and colour variety to the ensemble. Whatever the inspiration, the muted colours and reciprocal rounded forms create a pleasing but slightly bleak picture.
[Image: Roderic O’Conor, Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898), oil on canvas, 48.9 x 61 cm, gift of Herman H. Levy, 1984, McMaster Museum of Art]
One of the unexpected highlights of the collection is Red Rocks and Foam (c. 1898) by Roderic O’Conor. This marine by the Irish painter is an energetically painted, pungently coloured and robust picture that can be classed as an early Expressionist work. It has the exuberance of a Soutine landscape or a later Munch painting. O’Conor has used his own observation as the basis of the composition but improvised the brushwork and the serpentine forms of the foam. Dry-brush (scumbling) has described a speckling of spume and an ominous mauve sky has been briskly painted. Painted alla prima in bravura fashion, the painting need not have taken more than an hour to create. That vigorousness in approach – matching the energy of the waves – is part of the credo of Expressionism. The pathetic fallacy of Nature depicted as a mirror of the viewer’s emotions and the creator embodying what is present in Nature and conveying this in the art, both feed into Expressionist art as it was practised in the early decades of the Twentieth Century.
There is a typically thoughtful yet daring portrait by Chaim Soutine of a male painter. As the recent London exhibition attested, Soutine had acute sensitivity regarding his portrait subjects and never overwhelmed them by projecting too much of his own feelings in to his depictions. The subjects come across as quite different individuals.
Essays by specialists provide overviews of areas of the collection as well as selected commentaries on notable works. Many works are illustrated full page and a full list of works is included. All text is in English and French. The touring exhibition and catalogue are a fitting tribute to Levy’s generous bequest.
Barker, T. Bruce, L. DeWitt, I Holubizky, A Kidson, A McQueen, K. Ness, C. Pierre, A Cultivating Journey: The Herman H. Levy Legacy, McMaster Museum of Art, 2018, paperback, 250pp, col. illus., English/French text, ISBN 978 192 6632186
© 2018 Alexander Adams