“In November, the Horniman Museum returned Benin Bronzes to Nigeria (as announced in August) and Cambridge University pledged to return human skulls to Zimbabwe. Last week, Egypt requested the return of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum and there have been reports of a discussion between the British Museum and Greek authorities regarding the Elgin Marbles.
Barely a week goes by without news of repatriation of artefacts. So, why is this happening now?
Repatriation of items from one country to its supposed country of origin has been a hot topic for five years, since President Macron sent items from the French national collection to Burkina Faso. This is a form of deaccessioning, which is when a museum removes an item from its permanent collection. This can be by sale, exchange or destruction. The latter only usually for an object so deteriorated it is now worthless or dangerous.
Although public museums in the UK rarely deaccession – it is effectively prohibited by legislation except in very limited circumstances – the practice is common in American museums…”
I am pleased to announce the publication of a new pamphlet.
Abolish the Arts Council
by Alexander Adams with David Lee
This pamphlet lays out the case for the abolition of the Arts Council. The priorities of the Arts Council are now political ones, not artistic, and are contrary to the welfare of the arts, the wider society and the population. The current public-model of arts funding is imperilled because of the takeover of the Arts Council by politically-orientated staff. However, there will be no easy solution, as the Arts Council is only one of many bodies in the culture sector that has been captured and degraded by activists. Abolish the Arts Council discusses the problems and potential routes to a solution.
Published by The Bournbrook Press and Golconda Fine Art Books, serial number TBP002, ISBN: 978-1-7395829-1-3
Paperback pamphlet, 20 pages, A5, £3.00, international shipping available.
“Colchester and Ipswich Museums held a video conference event on the subject of decolonisation and democratisation. The organisers invited two activist historians to give talks. The organisers revealed their view by staging the event, as well as in their choice of speakers. Heritage organisations are run by managerial leftist elites, who dislike compromised artefacts and resent the populations they serve.
As part of the event, a video talk was given by Tristram Hunt, Director of The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) on the September 29th. He spoke positively about adapting museum presentations to target “new communities”. When asked about the possibility of laws allowing mass deaccessioning of artefacts, he stepped carefully and pointed out that this would require an Act of Parliament. He also avoided fully endorsing a question that advocated making audiences uncomfortable – a reframing of the “no white comfort” slogan of BLM – calling it “a very great question”, saying: “I get the point and I think that intellectual challenge and feeling uncomfortable about some of these histories is part of what we should do but I think at the same time don’t lose sight of the fact that we’ve trusted institutions to make that happen.”…”
The concept of private patronage is especially important in a time when the state-controlled institutions are increasingly falling into the hands of individuals driven by politics. Private museums and collections are bulwarks against an erosion of culture. In that light, this new monograph makes valuable reading. Ulrike Müller’s At Home in a Museum: The Story of Henriëtte and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh examines the nature and history of a famous private collection of art located in Antwerp. Although the museum seems like a burgher’s home, it is actually not a home and was built as a museum. This richly illustrated book recounts the development and character of a collection of a remarkable historical art sited in its purpose-built museum.
Belgian aristocrats Emil Mayer (1824-1879) and Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh(1838−1920) established both prestige through charitable deeds and wealth through income from shipping, distilleries and land. Emil bought some Jan Brueghel paintings and perhaps his lead influenced his son. Today, the remarkable Mayer van den Bergh Collection remains unchanged in Antwerp. With the exception of Emil’s few acquisitions, the entirety of the collection was assembled by Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858−1901). Upon his sudden death (due to a riding accident) his mother Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh decided to build a suitable museum as a tribute to her son’s collection. The museum was inaugurated in 1904, with a foundation established in 1906 to maintain continuity and integrity of the collection. This volume traces how that collection came to be, what it consists of and how it remained independent as a museum.
From the start, Fritz’s collection had a consciously, unashamedly connoisseurial character. It was not planned to have a tight historical or geographical focus; it would prioritise aesthetic considerations over documentary value; it would prefer the major over the minor. In some ways, it was – and appears – wilfully eccentric, both in senses of being unusual and also off centre. There are Japanese woodblock prints, medieval carvings, Gothic altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts, Golden Era Flemish paintings, Dutch genre pieces and Nineteenth-Century Belgian society portraits. Fritz “did not limit himself to collecting art from the past; he also expressed an interest in contemporary fine and applied arts. […] The wallpaper in Fritz’s death chamber, for example, features an Art Nouveau floral motif, which, at first glance, may seem unexpected. The motif recalls the wallpaper of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement […] Fritz also actively sought out contemporary artists who shared his historical interest and aesthetic preferences.” He was not a purist other than the most essential aspect of a great collector – he cleaved purely to his own taste without consideration of outside approval or disapproval.
Fritz scoured Europe for treasures of fine- and applied-art from Flanders, Holland, Italy, Germany and Austro-Hungary, sometimes accompanied by his mother. He bought during the great age when South Netherlandish masterpieces were in circulation following the centuries of neglect that had seen these pictures put in storage or sold for a pittance by collectors and church authorities, who considered them primitives (hence Flemish Primitives). (Read my review here.) He bought and sold from the collection, refining his holdings. Knowledge that American collectors were buying Netherlandish art on a huge scale worried connoisseurs in the Low Countries. The relatively few early paintings in private and national collections (especially Belgian museums) prompted collectors to purchase work deliberately to keep art close to the location where they were created. Fritz’s activities were an expression of taste rather than a tightly organised investigation.
At the same time as American magnates were assembling collections of European masterpieces, one Belgian was doing the same. The boom in the international art trade in the 1880-1940 period saw the massive movement of art from their places of origin to museums and private collectors, many of them in the USA.
Fritz commissioned the De Scalden artist Edmond Van Offel (1871-1959) to illustrate a collection of German legends. This book was not published until after Fritz’s premature death. The one drawing here seems derivative of Beardsley’s illustrations. The De Scalden movement (1889-1914) was a Flemish school drawing on historical roots, something like the Nazarenes, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement. It was a Catholic movement that sought to break away from academic art. However, rather than taking the optical/Modernist road laid out by the avant-garde (Impressionists and Post-Impressionists), it sought to revive the regional, national and Gothic art. There was a clear sympathy between De Scalden and the Symbolists, Aesthetic Movement and the Decadents. It did parallel – constituted as it was as a society – the more adventurous groups Les XX, De XIII, Les Independants, La Libre Esthétique and Kunst van Heden.
So, what are the highlights of the museum?
Master Heinrich von Konstanz’s Christ and St John the Evangelist Group (c. 1280-90) is a polychromed walnut carving. It shows the two figures in identical golden robes. St John the Evangelist rests his head on Christ’s shoulder and rests his hand in Christ’s. The portrayal catches the modern eye by St John’s apparent effeminacy in his pose. It is an unusual sculpture and it is not surprising it captured Fritz’s attention. Wilhelm Bode wanted to acquire the sculpture for the Berliner Gemäldegalerie and even wrote to Fritz about the possibility.
The Mayer van den Bergh collection houses two great paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1565). The little-known Twelve Proverbs (1558) has 12 scenes of figures illustrating common Dutch proverbs, arranged in a grid format. In 1894, Fritz bought for 300 marks a painting from a Cologne auction house. It was thought to be a fantasy painting by Jan “Hell” Brueghel. It turned out to be Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s lost original panel painting Dulle Griet (Mad Meg) (1563) – a sensational find. Bruegel’s reputation was on the rise during the period, after a long stretch of obscurity and indifference. His art was considered too grotesque, scatological and crude for most art historians. Only with the acceptance of the Romantics and the rise of Symbolism were precursors appreciated more. The rise of Flemish nationalism in the 1890s provided an impetus to greater interest in Bruegel as a great original Fleming.
The collection comprised Medieval and Renaissance art. David Teniers the Younger’s painting of The Temptation of St Anthony (c. 1640-60) and typical panel by Joachim Patinir are familiar sights for museum goers. Other artefacts include stained-glass windows, stone carvings of many periods, bas reliefs in metal, Japanese prints and netsukes, coins and furniture.
Within months after her son’s death, a grieving Henriëtte had commenced work on a museum to house her son’s collection. The building of the museum was finished in 1904. It was maintained by a board of regents and was initially only opened to invited guests. “After the 1880s, a large number of collector’s museums were founded, across Europe and in North America. Some of the best-known examples include the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan (which opened in 1881), the Musée Condé in Chantilly (1898), the Wallace Collection in London (1900), the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (1903), the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris (1913) and the Frick Collection in New York (1935).”
The house was built with period features, including fittings such as panelling and fireplaces that were either original or replicated. There was antique furniture also. The rooms represented different periods of Flemish history: Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, Louis XVI. The rooms varied from the baronial to the bourgeois in character and size; it was not by any means a massive building, taking up only the land allotted to two adjoining residential buildings. It was a private vision of cultural history, on made without the control of state-accredited experts. Both the collector and his mother were averse to publicity and guarded their privacy actively. Few personal papers survive and there were no diaries or memoirs written by them, so there is relatively little personal information about their lives, which seems to have been their intention.
This book includes numerous photographs of the interior of the museum, both recent and vintage. It includes a selection of images of notable works in the collection but is nothing like a comprehensive catalogue. For those of deprived of international travel, this book provides a glimpse of one of Belgium’s most distinctive and original museums.
2. History in the Future
Dr Müller explains that the Ghent collecting culture of the Nineteenth Century was different from that of Brussels. Brussels collections were concentrated on art that was produced in the territories that became Belgium in 1830, and tended to be more recent in a deliberate or subconscious attempt to reinforce a national identity; Ghent (and Antwerp) collectors focused on art of Flanders, eschewing the state for the cultural nation, and preferred medieval artefacts. Reproduced in the book are photographs of the 1894 World Fair in Antwerp, which was used as a chance to celebrate Flemish culture. (Fritz was a member of a society promoting preservation and restoration of distinguished buildings and monuments.) Although Fritz was forming his collection at this time, his taste was broader than Flemish art alone. (As already discussed.) The revival of historic architecture and patriotism in this period would play a part in the building of the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, which was in a historicist revival style.
Fritz’s amateur collection grew at a time when museums were becoming professionalised. The first university degrees in art history (at Belgian universities) were commenced at the time the museum opened. Fritz did research on his acquisitions, buying books and auction catalogues and subscribing to journals. He also consulted foreign art historians and museum personnel and was consulted in return, earning the respect of professionals. Fritz assisted in providing information to writers who published articles about his acquisitions but did not publish himself.
“It seems Henriëtte and Fritz were mainly interested in the archaeological and aesthetic aspects of the reconstruction of the 16th-century city centre of Antwerp. They did not identify with the dominant bourgeois Liberal interpretation of history that was so prominent in Oud Antwerpen. As members of the Catholic upper class, with strong ties to the nobility, the Mayer van den Berghs espoused very different ideals than the Liberal – and mainly anticlerical – bourgeoisie. Catholics focused on the traditional values of Christian faith and charity and on the conservation of existing societal structures. The Liberal Party, meanwhile, mainly pursued economic progress, striving to limit the Church’s interference in society and education.”
“After Fritz’s death in 1901, Henriëtte deliberately opted to establish her own foundation rather than bequeath his collection to the city, the state or another institution. She did this despite a long-standing Antwerp tradition of donations to the Museum of Fine Arts. […] Fritz and his mother did not maintain particularly close ties with members of the city’s Liberal cultural circles […] Fritz was not exactly well disposed to the Liberal municipal municipal council […]” Her caution was well deserved. In only one instance – fixed by bequest – was a donated collection kept intact by state or municipal authorities. In all other cases, the collections were dispersed.
Henriëtte wrote, “My poor Fritz would not have liked it at all that his art treasures were managed by the Liberals – whom he detested.” She established an enduring trust to preserve the museum from the city’s control. “I am mainly in favour of a tontine, to ensure that I cannot be forced to leave the collections that my son amassed to the city.” Her expressed hostility to the liberal city municipality, written into foundation documents, preserved her legacy. Namely: “The museum shall always bear the name ‘Museum Mayer van den Bergh’. The collections will remain unchanged in the state that they were upon my death. Nothing may be added or removed from the collections. No object that belongs to the collection shall ever leave the museum.”
Since that time, a compromise has been reached. Since 1974, the city employs the staff and allows access to visitors but the regents of the museum retain ownership and control of the museum and contents. Loans are rarely permitted. This is something we have seen modern authorities do repeatedly to bequests that were specifically left to be non-loan collections. (See the Burrell Collection, Barnes Collection, etc.) We should bear in mind James Burnham’s observation. “The truth is that, whatever its legal merits, the concept of “the separation of ownership and control” has no sociological or historical meaning. Ownership means control; if there is no control, then there is no ownership.” We might harshly view the regents’ position as little more than titular figureheads, politely permitted to maintain the illusion of control, while not having the capacity to pay its staff. We might generously view the compromise as maintaining the character and contents of the museum whilst permitting some useful flexibility. I recall seeing Dulle Griet in the 2018 Vienna exhibition of Bruegel.
She did not see the need or value of debasing the privacy and seclusion of her museum to the general public. Her dismissal of the possibility shows her aristocratic mindset. Did she foresee the compromises that would have had to have been made to allow mass viewership? She commissioned scholarly catalogues documenting the collection.
In early years, the number of visitors was between 30 and 50 per month. With so few visitors (almost all of them previously known to Henriëtte), the tours could be led by the owner herself. When questioned about the possibility of the museum becoming fully public, Henriëtte responded: “This depends what you mean by ‘public’. Do you mean everyone, the masses? No. Are you referring to my friends, art lovers from Antwerp and abroad, famous people or people who were recommended to me? Yes, they will have access to the museum and I will be happy that so many of them have demonstrated an interest in my artistic endeavours.”
This is a pressing issue today, as conservative and reactionary groups are struggling to re-establish core values through cultural production and collection in the face of the pro-globalist establishment which is hostile to Western values, Christianity and localism. The model of the Mayer van den Berghs could provide a profitable one for those who need to keep their culture away from the influence of an expanding state. Disappointing as the compromises since Henriëtte’s death are, conservatives have to address the issue of pragmatism. What happens if a museum is not financially viable? Who will pay for necessary repair and security measures in an old building? Can a museum be maintained in an urban district that becomes inhabited by a new population that is hostile towards the museum? Should a museum refuse a gift of a valuable complementary artefact because of its charter? All of these problems – squalidly prosaic and expansive as they are – have to be considered by collectors considering preserving their collections in toto.
Unlikely as it may seem, this book could become a handbook for cultural conservatives looking for inspiration in their quest to preserve their culture. Highly recommended.
“Journalists get a slew of press releases every day, with press departments of arts venues seeking coverage to compensate for public lockdown. One must-read staple are the ICA’s daily list of recommendations, including music, cinema, books, talks and less orthodox material. One email links to a discussion on “what autonomous, feminist healthcare could be now” (ICA Press Release 25 March 2020); another link “explores the imaginaries created by [homosexual] public sex” (ICA Press Release 11 April 2020). Other recommendations promote queer visibility, transactivism, eco-activism, anarchism, anti-capitalism, anti-racist action, migration advocacy, anti-colonialism, radical feminism and other progressive causes. Not a single item among the hundreds sent is even mildly conservative.
“Staff of a publicly-funded arts venue see nothing improper about using emails to advance political causes. Promoting anal sex and polyamory to fight Nazism is just another day’s work for the ICA’s press department. Enter the sphere of publicly-funded fine art, where directors declare themselves activists, deem the public in need of moral tutelage and are intent on transforming museums and galleries into engines of social change. It is a field populated by firebrand curators, timid administrators, ignorant ministers and millionaires with saviour complexes…”
Iris Lauterbach (a Munich-based professor, who specialises in art and architecture in the Nazi era) has written a study of the work of the Monuments Men, basing it on extensive archival research.
In 1944 the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) section was founded. The team became known as the Monuments Men; a term made famous by the 2014 feature film starring George Clooney. Initially, it was planned that the Allies would agree a common system but there were political differences between the powers. While the American and – to a lesser extent – the British authorities were led by principles of neutrality and fairness regarding looted items on German territory, the French and Soviets were less neutral. Indeed, the Soviets were unwilling to give up much of the loot they took custody of in Germany and restored only some of it to Germany and other nations. Many items are retained in former Soviet lands and considered compensation for the massive cultural losses the USSR suffered during the Axis Powers’ invasion. This matter is still a sensitive subject for Russian and German authorities.
Founded 1944, they followed the frontline Allied forces as they fought, attempting to do what they could rescue treasures from not only the German military but also plunderers among the Allied forces and local populations. Their efforts were restricted by the strategic and material demands of a still active war. The first priority of the Monuments Men was to locate and recover art from the haphazardly improvised caches (over 1,500 of them) scattered across Germany, many in old mines and basements. Herman Goering’s lordly spoils were found in army trucks. Göring had been the process of trying to remove them from the advancing Allied forces when the convoy had been left stranded. Much of the art was not packed adequately and had been damaged by damp and rough handling. Bundles of Old Master drawings were found rotting in forests. Caches had been predated by plunderers.
Bavaria was in the American sector of occupation (comprising Bavaria, Württemberg-Baden and Hesse) and Munich was the regional capital of Bavaria. It made a natural centre for American operations. In a severely damaged city, the US Army discovered that the Nazi party building and the Führerbau (Leader’s building) to be in good condition and used them as centres for collecting, assessing, storing and administering looted art. The use of the buildings proved to be both practical and symbolic, by turning the centres of Nazi control into places were restitution of culture was administered. The buildings were designated the Central Collecting Point (CCP).
The Monuments Men pledged to act not as conquerors set on doing their own plundering but as careful stewards and impartial arbiters. It was partly their objects that led to the curtailment of a touring exhibition of “appropriated” masterpieces from Germany being returned to Germany.
The staff was headed by qualified American art historians and curators, many of whom had studied under German art professors, some in exile from Nazi Germany. Senior officers and soldier guards were American; they were assisted by denazified German experts (including curators, conservators photographers and technicians), handymen and secretaries.
Every day precious objects (ranging from coins, books, jewellery, tapestries, furniture and historical objects to fine art of every description) were brought to the CCP. Much of it was in poor condition, damaged by theft, transportation and neglect. The art treasures that passed through the CCP were dazzling. They included the Van Eyck Brothers’ Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo’s Woman with Ermine, Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais and masterpieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Bruegel, Cranach the Elder, Titian, Tintoretto, the Impressionists and every major European painter. Historic books and scientific archives were included, along with the Hungarian monarchical regalia. A more melancholy group of artefacts were collections of Judaica confiscated from the liquidated Jewish populations of central and Eastern Europe.
The organisation classed items into three categories: A) art looted from public organisations in outside of Germany, B) art looted from private individuals, C) art removed from German institutions for purposes of safeguarding it. The art was photographed, described, numbered and given an index card. Some cards are reproduced in the book. The workload was huge. To assist curators a 9,600-book reference library was in existence at the CCP by November 1945. Assistants trawled the extensive NSDAP archives of art acquired for German museums, in particular Hitler’s planned museum in Linz, as well as paperwork for the personal art collections of Hitler, Göring and senior Nazis. Some of the art was stolen; some of it was acquired at extortionately low prices from owners who ranged from the eager to unwilling. (The MFA&A considered any items acquired during German occupation of a country to be illegal (i.e. stolen, coerced or unfairly acquired).) Germans who had assisted in these campaigns of acquisition were interrogated. Some were careerists, others were committed. A handful apparently retained loot and were involved in the black market for art. Among others, dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt escaped serious punishment because the MFA&A did not have access to sufficient documentation to determine the extent of his involvement in dealing looted and extorted art. As we know now, he retained a horde of stolen art which was left to his son and only recently discovered. The CCP also had to contend with theft from the depot. The widespread poverty, currency suspension and unemployment meant that theft and bartering were endemic in everyday life all over Germany.
Claims for restitution to non-German owners were made via their national representatives, with a few exceptions being Jews who fled East and inhabitants of the Soviet-occupied Baltic states if the claimants were resident in the West. Otherwise, national representatives would come to the CCP and collect works claimed by their nationals. Private claimants in Soviet-occupied nations generally had their returned property possessed by their state.
Returning work to former Axis powers Italy and Austria proved more difficult, with delegations engaged in protracted wrangling and diplomatic negotiation. The Bavarian Government considered these countries to be claiming too zealously and the CCP position wavered, dependent on the views of senior officers. The US government agreed to some of these dubious claims against the objections of the CCP. German claims were considered only after foreign claimants had petitioned.
The administrative and logistical difficulties of dealing with so many claims meant that mistakes were made. One error was not the result of a slip but a crime. When a Yugoslav art dealer called Ante Topić Mimara arrived to claim items for Yugoslavia, his claims were processed and the objects were taken before it was discovered that many of the items were not from Yugoslavia at all. It seems that a female German staff member at CCP assisted Topić and left with him, later to become his wife. She had apparently secretly provided Topić with a list of unclaimed works at CCP of unclear provenance for him to claim for Yugoslavia. The MFA&A had been duped in what was effectively a heist. The only major scandal in the MFA&A’s history was covered up by the US government, which failed to recover the items. Some of Topić’s private collection is now in a Zagreb museum but much of it has disappeared.
By August 1947 the MFA&A had restituted material appropriated by the Nazis in the following proportions: 65.4% to France, USSR 12.8%, The Netherlands 8.6%, Austria 4.5%, Hungary 3.3%, Poland 2.9%, and other countries 2.5%. Record keeping was difficult when huge quantities of materials arrived daily. Some of the items were mistaken believed to have been looted but turned out not to have been. Objects were sometimes lost (or stolen) and uncatalogued items surfaced randomly. This was in part due to the closure of other centres and the transferral of unclaimed work to the Munich CCP.
The CCP finally closed on 1 September 1951. 33,188 items were restored to claimants between August 1945 and September 1952. To put that into context one should know that the French authorities estimated that approximately 100,000 items had been stolen from French institutions and citizens, of which 61% were returned by 1950. Today Poland lists 60,000 stolen objects as still missing. (The CCP only handled objects in the American zone of occupation, with some foreign caches coming there. The figures naturally exclude looted items recovered by the other Allied powers and objects destroyed or undiscovered.) In 1952, custodianship of looted property at CCP was turned over to organisations under control of the Bavarian State. Some owners agreed to their objects being bought by the Bavarian State. Heirless items were divided up between various countries of origin, some retained in storage, some given to museums, others auctioned. Eventually, unclaimed works of little value were auctioned. The residue of unclaimed work of significance is now in the ownership of the FDR and the Bavarian State.
Chapters are short, each focusing on a different aspect of the CCP’s activity, arranged chronologically. Lauterbach includes information on the later use of the building as a venue for exhibitions of historic and contemporary art and design. This was done to promote new, non-Nazi art (most obviously abstract art, which absolutely contravened National Socialist aesthetic policy) and to foster American-German co-operation.
The book is liberally illustrated with fascinating photographs of the CCP at work. We see a Leonardo resting casually in a rack, a Titian Danaë stacked against a Claude Lorrain landscape and the Bruges Madonna being manhandled. Snapshots show smiling soldiers smoking cigarettes and posing next to Old Master portraits. Staff are shown working and relaxing and we get an idea of the conditions and attitudes towards the many aspects of the restitution of looted artefacts.
Lynn Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa (1994) is the standard account of the Nazi looting of art. The Central Collecting Point adds much detail to efforts to conserve and restitute that loot. This is a translation of the original German-language book, published in 2015. Lauterbach has extensively used the archives of various institutions – not least the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, her home institution – but has elected not to note precise sources for her information about the internal workings of the CCP contained in the MFA&A records. That is pragmatic but will disappoint scholars wishing to peruse the original documents. This title provides a balanced and informative overview of the subject. The prose style and numerous photographs bring the difficult and important work of the Monuments Men to life.
Iris Lauterbach, Fiona Elliott (trans.) The Central Collecting Point in Munich. A New Beginning for the Restitution and Protection of Art, Getty Research Institute, January 2019, 320pp, 238 mono illus., hardback, £55/$70, ISBN 978 1 60606 582 2
Patrons of the arts are not always given the respect or understanding due to them. Although it is artists, writers, composers and other creative figures which generate cultural products, it is the patronage of others who allow them to create (by commissioning art and providing stipends) and preserve the fruits of their labours in their private collections. Very often those collections become public and enrich the life of the state and population. Much culture would never have been produced if it were not for the generosity – and acquisitiveness – of collectors and patrons. Today, those who become wealthy are often scorned as exploiters and are unfairly maligned. Yet it is only through the patronage using funds derived from base commercial transactions that the most sublime cultural products of our eras are created and shared communally – be those sources the tithes of the Medieval church, the coal barons of South Wales, rail magnates of America, shipping tycoons of Greece or the income tax of modern Europe. It is only right that many museums today bear the names of the farsighted and adventurous members of the rich.
Two of the greatest benefactors of the visual arts in America were Dominique and John de Menil. They conducted their lives with a mixture of generosity, frugality, simplicity and attention to detail. Much of that came from their upbringings.
The ancestors of Dominique de Menil (1908-1997) included François Guizot (1787-1874), the renowned lawyer, statesman and historian. His father was guillotined during the Terror. Guizot went into public life and enacted lasting educational reforms, wrote many influential histories and founded La Revue française. Another branch of her relatives included the Schlumbergers, Protestant Alsatian industrialists. It was noted that Dominque’s austere attitudes and emotional restraint was derived from her Protestant upbringing. In Dominique’s family tree commerce, culture and public service were interwoven. In character she was cautious and abstemious.
Baron Jean de Menil (1904-1973) was descended from a line of soldiers and bankers. His great-grandfather was decorated by both Napoleon and Louis XVIII and conferred the title of baron. The de Menil’s were less favoured by fortune than the Schlumbergers – financially ruined then decimated by the Great War, the de Menils were in a poor state at the end of the Great War, at which time Jean was 14 years old. Jean went to work at Banque de I’Union Parisienne and became a rising star, rising to the level of executive by 26.
In 1930 the couple met and began a relationship that last until Jean’s death in 1973. In 1931 they married, the wife remaining Protestant and the husband Catholic. Using the bride’s dowry, they set up home together. Their first artistic commission – a portrait – was inauspicious. Their architect (who was converting their new home) introduced them to Max Ernst. While they liked the artist, they disliked the portrait of Dominique that he painted. They kept it in a cupboard for over a decade.
In the 1910s, Dominique’s father Conrad Schlumberger had established a method of using electrical resistance to prospect for oil. By the 1930s, Schlumberger International was a major player in oil exploration and extraction. In 1936 Conrad died and two years later Jean joined the Schlumberger firm, bringing with him a great deal of banking and financial experience. The war forced their hands. After the fall of France, Jean travelled to Texas. Houston had become an important area for Schlumberger’s business and Jean went to head the branch of Schlumberger there. Dominique and the children soon crossed the Atlantic to join them. As soon as they arrived, Jean and Dominique (who had technical expertise in oil exploration) went to Venezuela to assist the branch there. German submarines had been sinking oil tankers heading north and this vital route of oil transportation was at risk. The de Menils did their part for the Resistance and the Free French Government by raising money.
After the war, the de Menils returned to Houston and commissioned a Modernist house. John dropped the title baron and his name was more frequently anglicised to “John”. The couple began to form an impressive collection of art, which numbered 10,000 items by the late 1970s. The core collections consist of Surrealism, European Modernism, American Modernism (including Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism), ancient art, African art and Native American and Latin American art. Out of these, the most important holdings are of Surrealism (particularly Max Ernst and René Magritte) and Abstract Expressionism (particularly Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman). The book includes colour plates of some of the best works in the collection, with many installation shots of landmark loan exhibitions they organised. They commissioned work by a range of world-class creative figures such as couturier Charles James, dancer Merce Cunningham, architects Philip Johnson and Renzo Piano and composers Morton Feldman and Pierre Boulez, among many others.
Although they agreed on all purchases, the couple’s personal tastes as collectors differed. John was the more acquisitive and enjoyed exuberant and combative art (especially Picasso). Dominique liked more meditative art, in particular Rothko and Magritte. It is curious that the de Menils formed such an attachment to Surrealism – a movement that was moribund by the time they started collecting seriously. By 1945, Surrealism looked tired, academic and meretricious, especially compared to the new American art emerging. Moreover, a large impetus of Surrealism movement was anti-clericism, even atheist, which rather contrasted with the de Menils’ strong Christian faith. They considered collecting and supporting artists to be a moral responsibility but they did not generally judge art in moral terms. (An exception is Matta – one of the de Menils’ artists – whom Dominique considered to be borderline obscene, with all his inter-penetrating quasi-organic forms representing veritable painted orgies.)
There were sometimes gaps in the collection. Most of the best canvases by Braque, Matisse and Picasso were unavailable and the Abstract Expressionists were selling briskly by the late 1950s. “One would go to the Leo Castelli Gallery and the whole show would already have been sold,” Dominique lamented. They would buy classic Ernsts and Magrittes from New York-based dealer Alexandre Iolas, whose judgement they came to rely on. The de Menils formed personal ties to a number of artists, including Ernst and Magritte – with whom they could converse in French. Middleton includes titbits from the private notes that Dominique made when meeting artists: Brauner said Picasso’s art made him feel good and want to paint; Lipchitz was dismissive of de Chirico and Rouault; Giacometti was “exceptionally intelligent”.
In 1951 the de Menils curated a landmark exhibition of Van Gogh at a venue in Houston. The event was a sensation and established the couple as both cultural powerbrokers and curators of discernment. The de Menils became deeply involved in MoMA, with John becoming a trustee. They donated work to the museum but made clear that their civic duty was towards Houston. Dominique made a donation of major works (including The Deep (1953), Pollock’s greatest painting) to the Centre Pompidou, Paris, when it opened. The de Menils also funded research and commissioned the catalogues raisonnés of Ernst and Magritte.
The de Menils were committed supporters of civil rights, the promotion of non-Western art and inter-denominational dialogue. In 1960, the de Menils decided to build a non-denominational chapel at Rice University, Houston and dedicate it to the spiritual power of art. In 1964 they commissioned architect Philip Johnson (who later resigned over aesthetic differences with the de Menils) and interior paintings from Mark Rothko and acquired an exterior sculpture by Barnett Newman. It opened in 1971 and became a centre for art pilgrims and those in search of a contemplative sanctuary. Despite a predominance of positive reactions, opinions have varied about the success of the Rothko Chapel, though the seriousness and significance of the efforts of all involved are unquestioned. The chapel has become a centre for events relating to human rights and political dialogue, which drew Dominique towards former President Carter.
The de Menils had an interest in presenting black art, from African origins to contemporary American art. They travelled in Africa and Asia on trips that combined art buying, museum visiting and consultation with religious leaders, all part of a quest to fuse spirituality and art. Different religions derive their identities from their differences and grow through competition and suppression of competing religions; each religion claims exclusive superiority. The de Menils’ good intentions and genuine desire to harmonise discordant worldviews seem admirable but naïve.
After the death of John in 1973, Dominique continued their work and conceived of turning their art collection into a museum. The $25m museum, designed by Piano, opened on 4 June 1987. The design was a sober, discreet, elegant and dedicated to art, eschewing merchandising. Dominique was insistent it was free to entry. The Menil Collection became one of the world’s leading museums.
William Middleton has used access to the de Menil’s private papers, the Collection’s archives and interviews with colleagues and friends of the subjects to build a rich and sensitive portrait of the de Menils as public figures and private people. The book is thoroughly footnoted and illustrations are well chosen. The great diversity of activities and interests of the subjects – as well as the sheer industriousness of their collecting and curating – mean there are no dull passages or repetition in this narrative. The biography is a warm, balanced and respectful tribute to two major figures in American culture and philanthropy.
William Middleton, Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018, hardback, 784pp, col. and mono illus., $40, ISBN 978 0 375 41543 2
This year a sculpture by Sam Durant entitled Scaffold was erected in a sculpture park managed by Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. The wooden sculpture juxtaposed elements of playground-activity structures and gallows. One minor aspect of Scaffold referred to the hanging of Dakota Native Americans in 1862 as part of struggles between the Dakota Nation and the American government. That reference had been missed until it was pointed out, at which time a campaign to remove the sculpture was begun by the Dakota. “This is a murder machine that killed our people because we were hungry,” said a member of the Dakota Nation, equating Scaffold with an actual gallows that hanged members of the Dakota. In May the museum destroyed Scaffold and the artist renounced his work.
This year there was a protest by some black artists against the display at the Whitney Biennial of a painting of murdered black activist Emmett Till. Black activists lobbied to have the painting by Dana Schutz, a white artist, removed as offensive and hurtful. “The subject matter is not Schutz’s,” said one protestor, claiming ownership and authority over the representation of a historical event.
In these two cases, activists claimed ownership over aspects of history in order to suppress art works. In one case it resulted in the destruction of art. Pressure groups have noticed the weakness of curators, administrators and politicians and their unwillingness to protect art from censorship. Sympathetic towards notions of social justice, administrators sometimes submit to emotional blackmail by groups which demand censorship…”
“With the opening of a new building adjoining the Tate Modern Bankside site, and the appointment of a new director, Dr Maria Balshaw, things seem buoyant at the Tate. Yet below the surface the organisation is headed towards crisis.
“Although you wouldn’t know it from the fawning accolades of newspaper profilers, Balshaw’s appointment alarms art historians. Balshaw, the new director of Britain’s largest fine-art museum, with four venues and £1.3 billion in assets, is not an art historian but a student of literature who attained a doctorate in critical theory, specialising in American authors. Critical theory is an academic branch of postmodernism that, preferring to concentrate on art’s ideological and social role, sees no qualitative difference between high and low (or popular) art forms. This might be a problematic grounding for the director of Britain’s largest collection of high art. Hitherto in her roles as head of the Whitworth and Manchester art galleries, she has demonstrated no detailed understanding of fine art or any willingness to defy fashion, exhibiting and collecting art on an agenda underpinned by identity politics and feminism.
“Indeed, Balshaw is a proactive and politically driven individual who will not be taking a backseat position. She has previously made statements that women and minority artists should be given a more prominent position in the arts world. As explained previously on spiked, the relatively low number of female artists in the Tate collection is due to historical restrictions on women artists that no longer exist. However, for feminists, that statistical imbalance justifies the promotion of women artists regardless of the quality of their art.
“If the Tate was a stable or manageable organisation, then a figurehead leader would be a viable proposition. Unfortunately, the Tate has huge and ever-increasing problems…”
“Antoine Wiertz (1806-1865) was born to an impoverished family in Dinant, Wallonia (later Belgium). After studying at Antwerp Art Academy, he won the (Belgian) Prix de Rome at a second try, in 1832. His grand manner was Romantic and painterly, derived from Rubens. His subjects anticipate those of the Symbolists. Though Wiertz made his name with historical and religious compositions, the allegories and (often gruesome) scenes of contemporary life are his most distinctive contributions to art.
“In 1850, partly in order to establish Belgian art as independent of French influence (led by the School of David; J-L David (1714-1825) spent his last years in Brussels) the newly formed state agreed to build a studio and dwelling for the benefit of Wiertz, the first truly “Belgian” artist. The initial agreement was that the artist would donate works to the state but it seems Wiertz early on had the idea of turning the studio into a permanent museum. The government drew the line at Wiertz’s proposal to fund the construction of a ruined temple in the studio grounds. Upon the artist’s death the combined house and studio became possessions of the state. Both building and grounds have remained unchanged since 1868, now a fragment of a lost age lodged under the glass towers of the European Parliament….”
Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, January 2011 here: