Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

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[Image © Alfred A. Knopf]

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

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Death & Desire: Dalí & Schiaparelli, review

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(Image: details of Salvador Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli at Chez Lopez, Neuilly, 1950, (c) Universal Photo/SIPA; Image Rights of Salvador Dalí reserved. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí, Figueres, 2017)

Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was the very antithesis of the peintre maudit. He came from a comfortable bourgeois family, found acclaim and acceptance early in Paris and became the toast of Surrealist circles while in his mid-twenties. Later he found fame and riches in America in the late 1930s, staying there throughout the Second World War and only returned to Europe in 1948. In both Paris and America Dalí mixed with high society, which relished indulging its decadent side by patronising and promoting Dalí’s shocking art. Dalí’s patrons lived ostentatiously, using their entrees into the art world to acquire cutting-edge art and extravagant fashion. It was only natural that Dalí and Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973) would meet and share common interests. The meeting would lead to a number of fruitful collaborations and exchange of ideas over the years.

The exhibition “Dalí and Schiaparelli” at The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (18 October 2017–14 January 2018) examines that collaboration between two stars of mid-century fashion and art. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings and prints by Dalí, many examples of Schiaparelli’s clothing and accessories, as well as jewellery, perfume bottles, photographs and publications relating to both of the creators. This is a review from the fittingly luxurious large-format catalogue.

Schiaparelli’s family was a line of distinguished Italian academics and scientists. After spells in Paris and London, then a period in New York (where she associated with the Dadaists who would later become the core of the Surrealist movement) Schiaparelli returned to Paris and began design work. Assisted by established couturier Paul Poiret, Schiaparelli began her solo career in Paris in 1927. Dalí’s debut exhibition in Paris, held in November 1929, with a catalogue introduction by André Breton, launched his career. Although Schiaparelli was older than Dalí, their careers in Paris commenced within two years of each other, within the world of the former Dadaists and the Surrealists.

Essayists in the catalogue point out that both her and Dalí were radicals who were devoted to the use of rigorous craft in the production of their unusual inventions. In Dalí’s case it was craft he personally learned through youthful independent studies and later at art school education; in Schiaparelli’s case she relied on the skills of craftsmen and others, as she never trained in the technical side of clothing production. Schiaparelli was an early adopter of artificial fibres and new materials, driven by the avant-garde aesthetic of her Surrealist friends. One of her closest friends was Gabrielle Picabia, first wife of the radical artist Francis Picabia.

Dalí and Schiaparelli’s first collaboration was a Schiaparelli telephone-rotary-dial powder compact, launched in 1935. The most famous collaboration was Schiaparelli’s High-heel shoe hat (1937). Dalí repurposed a high-heel shoe for his wife as a shocking novelty to be worn to a society ball; Schiaparelli refined the design and manufactured the hat in small numbers.

Gala Éluard Dalí (1894-1982), the artist’s wife, was an important link between designer and artist. Gala was obsessed with luxury, beauty and money and inevitably had a passion for haute couture. She had great influence control over Dalí, urging him to undertake work in order to make the maximum amount of money. He claimed to be financially illiterate and naïve. The evidence is that Gala was behind many of the artist’s business dealings and prompted some of the most questionable of his financially-motivated projects. While Dalí was avid for money, it seems that for him money was valuable mostly as a measure of fame, which he craved above all else. It was Gala who wanted the money for itself.

Before a social engagement, the painter introduced rips into one of Gala’s blouses and she wore it to the event. Subsequently, Schiaparelli made a dress with trompe l’oeil rips apparently revealing a pink under layer (1938). This same design was used on the cloth cover of the catalogue of Dalí’s 1979 Paris retrospective, considered to this day as one of the best publications on his art.

The intersection between art, fashion and money was the high-society ball. These lavish events allowed the aristocracy and newly rich to mix with stars and artists and to create a stir in society. Many attendees commissioned costumes from artists and a number of artists treated such occasions as a chance to make temporary art – or to become temporary art. (Leonor Fini was particularly known for her daring and beauty and used to make elaborate costumes for herself and a select few others.) The Dalís attended many society balls in the 1930s and 1940s, Gala sometimes wearing Schiaparelli couture. Gala wore a number of Dalí-inspired Schiaparelli outfits and hats and served as a proxy model, acting as a living link between artist and fashion designer. The events were covered by the press and thus acted as useful publicity for designers and artists.

Prominent photographers of the era documented the overlapping worlds of high society and fashion.  The catalogue includes a section of full-page photographs of the aristocracy, artists, actors and celebrities who the creators knew. Both creators worked with actors, Dalí painting stars (most notably Laurence Olivier) and Schiaparelli clothing stars of stage and screen. Dalí also worked sporadically on opera stage designs and costumes for performers. Included in the exhibition and catalogue are examples of the painter’s backdrops for operas, including Tristan and Isolde by Wagner, his favourite opera.

Both creators were wedded to the idea of expression through the expansion of technical parameters. Dalí experimented with early holograms, artist animation and tactile-assisted cinema. His installations, including the Bonwit Teller display and the World’s Fair of 1939, were innovatory though strictly speaking Surrealist exhibitions-cum-installations dated back to the 1920s. His lifting of imagery from the popular press and the use of ben-day dots has been led to critics hailing Dalí as a progenitor of Pop Art and Post-Modernism.

For her part, Schiaparelli was the first fashion designer to use zippers, certain artificial fibres and clear plastics. In terms of style, she introduced the wrap dress, wedge heels, power suits, jumpsuits and camouflage print as fashion. Her 1931 culotte designs scandalised Paris but soon gained a following among adventurous women. In her early career Schiaparelli favoured austere black and white. She introduced Shocking Pink in 1937 as a high-fashion colour; it would become her signature colour. Nineteen-thirty-seven was also the year she produced an organza dress in pale fabric which featured a painted lobster – a Dalinian motif.

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(Image: Salvador Dalí, Aphrodisiac Telephone (1938), Plastic (Bakelite) and painted lobster, 7 x 12 x 4.5 inches, Collection of The Dali Museum, St. Petersburg, FL; (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

The design was reissued by the House of Schiaparelli in spring 2017. The catalogue illustrates new designs by the House of Schiaparelli, allowing readers to judge the influence of Surrealism and continuity from the design ethos of the house’s founder.

Both creators used motifs of insects, including ants, butterflies and grasshoppers. Dalí had genuine obsessions with ants and grasshoppers and they appeared in many early paintings. Schiaparelli used a transparent Rhodoid collar to hold insect jewellery. Her favourite motif was the butterfly.

Some clothing items included in the exhibition are true Surrealist statements, as peculiar as anything in a Surrealist painting. Boots with long fur (1938), and the later Woman’s sweater with long fur (1948), have long fur which makes them almost as impractical as Meret Oppenheim’s iconic Fur Teacup (1938). It is possible that Schiaparelli was inspired here by Oppenheim rather than Dalí. Schiaparelli’s designs flirt with the repulsive in the way so much Surrealism does.

Although the direction of influence seems to have been predominantly from artist to designer, there are instances where the direction is the other way. A Schiaparelli-style dress with a low-cut back appears in Dalí’s Woman with a Head of Roses (1935). It is possible that Schiaparelli’s fantasy of hiding her face behind a bouquet inspired Dalí’s flower-headed women, introduced in 1936.

Surrealism sought to blur the line between art and life. The Surrealist project of disrupting everyday life included the concept of wearable art, partly as a manifestation of the subconscious influence on our lives and also as an attempt to overturn established modes of thinking and acting. The use of unexpected objects as potential clothing was part of the Surrealist outlook on life. Mannequins were a staple of Surrealist art; one group exhibition consisted of Surrealist decoration of mannequins. (Mannequins had become objects of fascination since Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical paintings of the 1910s.) It is perhaps not coincidental that the ideal exemplar of Surrealist beauty was the conjunction of a sewing machine and an umbrella, two items related to the creation of clothing and the protection of clothing from rain.

Both creators viewed the woman as an exotic object to be transformed and to be revealed through transformation. In Dalí’s case, the transformation is a metamorphosis. Dalí’s versions of Venus de Milo-with-drawers and woman-with-drawers motifs show the woman’s body as complex container. In the latter motif, the woman gazes into the open drawers of her torso in an act of introspection. The motif was translated by Schiaparelli into the Desk Suite (1936/7).

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(Image: Salvador Dalí, Anthropomorphic Cabinet (undated), pencil on paper, Collection of Schiaparelli, (c) Salvador Dalí. Fundacio Gala-Salvador Dalí (Artists Rights Society), 2017)

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(Image: Elsa Schiaparelli, Illustration of Bureau-Drawer Suit, Schiaparelli Haute Couture, (Fall/Winter 1936/7), courtesy of (c) Schiaparelli archives)

Gloves which have top tips of the fingers removed to reveal the nails below have a certain conceptual elegance, restating the idea of revealing parts which are expected to be covered by a clothing item.

There are many criticisms that can be levelled at Dalí but one of them is not lack of artistic ambition. His driving themes were beauty, temporality, fear of death, obsession with putrescence and the power of erotic desire. Comparatively speaking, Schiaparelli’s morbidity is less omnipresent. Her Skeleton dress (1938) is one of her most striking designs. A close-fitting black evening dress has ridges of padding which evoke the wearer’s bones beneath. It is a creation which fuses elegance and the macabre, something that can be seen in the work of other fashion designers including Alexander McQueen.

There are many parallels between the pair’s work in jewellery, perfumes and perfume bottles, though mostly this occurred late in their careers when they were not collaborating directly. The catalogue includes many quotes relating to the creators though there are no letters between them and one wonders what their personal relationship was and how they actually collaborated on specific projects. There is further investigation to be done in this area.

The catalogue is printed in an edition of 1,800 copies, of which 500 are hardback. Including generous illustration, essays and useful information, it is sure to become a collector’s item for committed Dalí fans, fashion aficionados and researchers on Surrealism and fashion.

 

John William Barger, Hank Hine, Dilys E. Blum, et al., Dalí and Schiaparelli, Salvador Dalí Museum, 275pp, 59 b&w/133 col. illus., paperback, $39.95, ISBN 978 0 9834799 9 4

Joan Miro: Brussels, 2011

“How often have we seen – of late – exhibitions of Modern masters with didactic subtitles? These subtitles tell us why we should visit this exhibition when we have seen so many on this particular artist before. It is the subtitle that gives us the curatorial slant. What happens is not that famous artists get “played out” but that curators and curatorial imperatives get played out. Museum directors and curators naturally want to show great artists but, unless inaccessible art is made available, there are really only two routes for monograph retrospectives: greatest hits or the hidden side of X. Recently we have seen a spate of the second approach; witness Picasso the Communist, Picasso the Surrealist, Picasso the erotic artist.

“Two exhibitions of Joan Miró (1893-1983) in London and Brussels this summer take different approaches. The London display is subtitled “The Ladder of Escape” and aims to revise our view of the artist, while the Brussels display, one on a much smaller scale, is subtitled “Peintre Poète” and presents a more conventional view of the painter. The Brussels exhibition conceives of the artist as lyrical, straining to escape the boundaries of conventional restrictions and mores, whereas the London one purports to uncover an overlooked political dimension to Miró’s art. I visited the Brussels display in person but I am assessing the London one from the catalogue…”

Read the full review at THE JACKDAW, June 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=78

Paul Delvaux: Marseille, June 2014

“It is fitting that Marseille, a centre of ancient civilisation on the Mediterranean coast, should host this exhibition of the art of Paul Delvaux (1897-1994). Though this Belgian painter-printmaker has been categorised a surrealist, the more that is learnt about his art, the less appropriate the description seems. Delvaux is essentially a classical (or perhaps Mannerist) artist freed from convention and decorum by surrealism. His art refracts myths of antiquity, memories of childhood and private allegory through a post-Cubist lens. Everywhere one encounters impossible angles, insupportable topography and distorted scale…”

Read the full review originally published in APOLLO, July 2014 here:

http://www.readperiodicals.com/201407/3377646601.html

Paul Delvaux Museum, St Idesbald

“If you have heard of Belgian painter Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) then it is likely to have been in connection with Surrealism. He gets a couple of illustrations in thematic surveys of Surrealism, rarely more. Unless you locate a specialist publication on the artist, it is hard to get an overview of his development. Delvaux is poorly represented in British public collections.

“Born near Liège in 1897, Delvaux initially studied architecture in Brussels, though he abandoned his studies because his grades in mathematics were insufficient, transferring to the painting course.  Delvaux’s earliest pieces are landscapes composed with a naturalistic palette, later leavened by Impressionism. As is usual for Belgians of this period, the Impressionism is more a form of vivacious naturalism with vibrant lighting effects and vigorous brushwork rather than sustained application of complimentary colour theory. Throughout the late 1920s he picked up and attempted to blend a welter of (often conflicting) influences: Renoir, Cézanne, Modigliani, Ensor. After 1925 one constant emerges: the human figure, often as a nude, as the principal subject. In the late 1920s Delvaux came into the orbit of Flemish Expressionists (less bold and strident than the Germans, they evolved a dull-hued, restrained style dwelling on figures in domestic settings, clearly displaying an attachment to realism)…”

Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, March 2011:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=66

Francis Picabia: Catalogue Raisonne, vol. 1

“It is a truism that Western culture has a tendency to absorb dissenters and co-opt rebels by transforming their opposition into a marketable commodity. This truism is never more evident than in the exhaustive and expensive cataloguing process for art that was considered to be marginal, worthless provocation when it was made. Few artists were as disruptive and irreverent as Francis Picabia (1879-1953). As an original member of the Dada movement and then a Surrealist, he mocked social mores. Later, in straitened circumstances, he produced a series of kitsch pin-up paintings that seemed to blot his copybook as an avant-gardist, but which have in recent years been taken up by proponents of Post-Modernism and Bad Art….”

Read the full review at THE ART NEWSPAPER, 6 July 2015:

http://www.theartnewspaper.com/comment/reviews/books/157321/

More archived reviews to follow.