René Magritte, Philosopher Painter

04. R. Magritte_La m├®moire_1948

[Image: René Magritte, La mémoire (1948), oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Collezione della Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (FWB) Ministère de la Communauté française, Bruxelles
© 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

Magritte: Life Line is catalogue is produced for the solo exhibition of René Magritte (1898-1967) at Amos Rex, Helsinki (8 February-19 May 2019) and Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano (16 September 2018-6 January 2019). The basis of this exhibition is a lecture given in 1938 by Magritte. The curator and writers have taken his biographical lecture as a starting point for the selection of art by Magritte, using it to illustrate the themes he identified as his most important ones.

The lecture “Life Line” was delivered on 20 November 1938 at Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. The text is reprinted here in full. The artist greeted his audience with the words “Ladies, Gentlemen, Comrades” and included a swipe at Hitler. Magritte’s political commitment was never entirely full and it fluctuated. His support always seemed more an expression of anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Fascism rather than any desire to see a dictatorship of the proletariat. Surrealism implied members’ allegiance to Communism, as repeatedly stated in the movement’s manifestoes and statements. The speech was more about an undermining of our assumptions regarding reality and the natural laws than anything more polemical. He talks about the origins of his fascination with painting.

In my childhood, I used to enjoy playing with a little girl in the old disused cemetery in a small provincial town. We visited the underground vaults, whose heavy iron door we could lift up, and we would come up into the light, where a painter from the capital was painting in a very picturesque avenue in the cemetery with its broken stone pillars strewn over the dead leaves, the art of painting then seemed to me to be vaguely magical, and the painter gifted with superior powers.

For Magritte, art was bound up with magic and eroticism. His wish to make himself and others wonder in order to experience the world anew and the erotic impulse were twin motivations for Magritte as artist during his whole life.

Encounters with paintings by first the Futurists and then Giorgio de Chirico inspired Magritte to turn away from realism. When Magritte read the manifestoes and saw the art of Surrealism, he located a means of combining wonder and eroticism. In 1925 he began to explore the terrain which would come to be considered typically and uniquely Magrittean. Through inversion, metamorphosis, replacement of images by words and juxtaposition Magritte transformed aspects of the real world into something remarkable. In the early years unknown and impossible substances and painterly effects were part of his repertoire but in the years after 1930 this part diminished and Magritte dealt henceforth mainly with materials and objects that we recognise.

One night in 1936, I woke up in a room with a bird asleep in a cage. Due to a mahnificent delusion I saw not a bird but an egg inside a cage. Here was an amazing new poetic secret, for the shock I felt was caused precisely by an affinity between the two objects, cage and egg, whereas before, this shock had been caused by bringing together two unrelated objects.

Hereafter, Magritte treated his ideas as more consistent and less arbitrary. In Hegel’s Vacation a glass of water is balanced on an open umbrella. The conjunction is between an object which is used to contain water and one that is designed to repel water. This is typical of the newly refined process of image creation.

Magritte goes on to give some examples of his paintings as representative of his thought, rejecting the idea that painting was to give sensual pleasure. This was a position he temporarily reversed in the Second World War, creating paintings in the Impressionist style of Renoir to delight the senses in delicate brushwork and spectacular warm colour. The lecture text is accompanied by the original glass slides that the artist projected on the evening.

The catalogue includes an interview with Suzi Gablik. She stayed with the Magrittes in 1960 while preparing her landmark monograph on the artist. She discusses her memories of the Magrittes domestic life. Other texts analyse Magritte’s interest in Futurism, his relations with the Paris Surrealists and his partnership with his America-based dealer Alexandre Iolas. There is a bibliography and chronology.

There are versions of famous paintings included in the exhibition. Among these are The Red Model (with boots metamorphosing into feet), The Castle in the Pyrenees (a castle on a rock which floats over a sea), The Listening Room (a giant apple fills a room), Memory (a plaster cast of a woman’s head is splashed with blood), The Son of Man (a man in a bowler hat, face obscured by a hovering apple) and other compositions. The Marches of Summer (1938) has the awe-inspiring conceit of the sky and earth broken into giant perfect cubes, turning the world into a puzzle for titans.

Le grand Siècle

[Image: René Magritte, Le grand siècle (1954), oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen. © 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The exhibition also features less familiar paintings that are arrested and absorbing. The Great Century (1954) has a man looking across a sunlit park and a grand villa, all of which are under a vast ceiling. It gives us a strange sensation of contained in a building so vast that encompasses – perhaps – the entire world. (Something of a parallel to concept of existence as a simulation within an incomprehensibly sophisticated computer.) Countryside (1927) shows an irregular flat fragment of tree foliage dissipating, smoke-like, into the air; it is a placed in an alien landscape and under a cloudless sky. Celestial Muscles (1927) is a torn part of grey mist (or cloud) intruding into a room. The mist has a lovely silvered-lead quality and its formlessness is contrasted with its crisp arabesque outline; the conjunction creating a delicious frisson. These paintings appeal due to its combination of colours, textures and shapes, demonstrating how Magritte’s early period was largely intuitive rather than reasoned. These are examples of the sensual appeal of Magritte’s art, despite his avowal of a detached intellectual manner of creation. Magritte also talked of art showing us the poetry of the world and we can think of Magritte’s pre-1930 art as poetry without metre, with his art after 1929 (and especially after 1935) a more structured form of poetry.

One example of Magritte’s art entering the territory of the crime story (a genre Magritte enjoyed) is The Night Walker (1927-8). A man in hat and coat is strolling through a normal dining room which is lit by a streetlamp. It is a poetic rendering of the strangeness of our everyday world rearranged, drawing attention to a threat and mystery of the ordinary.

01. R. Magritte_Le noctambule_1928

[Image: René Magritte, Le noctambule (1927-8), oil on canvas, 55 x 74 cm. Museum Folkwang, Essen. © Museum Folkwang Essen – ARTOTHEK / 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The famous “Words and Images” illustrated text is included in its original manuscript form. This short explanation of Magritte’s ideas was published in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929 and has since been frequently reproduced. His paintings with words substituting for images provide further demonstrations of the ideas in “Words and Images”.  Art by Giacomo Balla, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico puts Magritte’s practice into perspective.

The selection is excellent and enjoyable. It is representative of Magritte’s main themes and includes pictures from his Impressionist phase and the Vache period, when he painted pictures that were crude, scatological and bawdy. Prints, painted bottles and bronze sculptures show Magritte’s work outside conventional picture-painting. The pairing of drawings and paintings with sculptures allows us to judge how satisfactory the translations into three dimensions for bronze casting by Italian craftsmen are. This catalogue is a fine book for anyone wanting to gain a general understanding of Magritte, as well as providing thoughtful analyses and a key text by the artist.

 

Xavier Canonne (ed.), Magritte Life Line, Skira, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 120 col. illus., £32.00/$40.00, (Italian version available), ISBN 978 88 572 3897 5

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9781138054271

 

In René Magritte and the Art of Thinking Lisa Lipinski situates Magritte’s art in the context of phenomenology of Merleau Ponty and other thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Lipinski, assistant professor of art history at George Washington University, presents Magritte’s use of pâpier collé and words as an extension of the inventions of the Cubists. The introduction of extrinsic elements of language into the field of painting opens up questions regarding semiotics and linguistics.

[Cubist] collage was a way of probing not only the reality or relationship of signifier and signified, but also the differences between words and images in terms of meaning, which according to structural linguistics is a function of the system rather than of the world. Unlike some kinds of images, words possess no natural relationship to the things to which they refer.

This has been subject of study by Foucault and other philosophers already. Lipinski presents a summary of the conclusions that she finds most salient. Instances of trompe l’oeil painting are discussed in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s proposition of “becoming-imperceptible”. For the artist his “painting has to resemble the world in order to evoke its mystery.” Summoning the mystery of the world into existence in his art required the quasi-deception of illusionism – a compact entered into by artist and viewer with the understanding that their suspension of disbelief will be mutually beneficial. Bloodletting (1939) – which shows a painting of a section of brick wall hanging on an interior wall – becomes a locus for examining the literalness of Magritte’s talk of the visible concealing the visible in levels. It makes us aware of the way signifiers in pictures relate to signified subjects and thus refer to the absent subject. Magritte’s art makes this matter the subject of a picture by playing with such notions of absent signified and by revealing of the should-be-hidden matter makes apparent the codes of representation that we accept.

The Human Condition is a series of paintings which use the motif of the painting mirroring the reality around it in a way that makes it indistinguishable from the surroundings. The surface of the depicted painting becomes as one with the surface of the actual painting, toying with ideas of verisimilitude, semiotics and language. The recurrent use of the picture as subject, the view seen through a window and the empty frame are other types of analysis of visual language.

There is some discussion of the Renoiresque paintings but Lipinski seems to misunderstand the rejection of these pictures. Viewers rejected the art because the style was incongruent with subject and in fact detracted from the legibility that Magritte’s art required to function effectively. The viewers may not have termed their unease and impatience in such terms but this was what caused these pictures to be rejected. Inside of the controlled dissonance and incongruity that Magritte habitually deployed, he was prey to unconscious dissonance by taking up a position where his language and subject short-circuited each other. The paintings fail to be pleasurable because the viewers intuit their inherent and unhelpful internal inconsistency. The Vache period is discussed briefly. The book concludes with a discussion of the photograph portraits of Magritte as indicative of the painter’s ideas.

This book provides a digestible overview of the Magritte’s themes as considered in the light of philosophy, semiotics and post-structuralism and will be of most value to university students.

Lisa Lipinski, René Magritte and the Art of Thinking, Routledge, 2019, hardback, 140pp, 14 col./40 mono illus., £115, ISBN 978 1 138 05427 1

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

 

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Magritte and Dalí

 

[Images: LEFT: René Magritte, The Imp of the Perverse (1928), oil on canvas, 81.3 x 116 cm, inv. 7418, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. © SABAM 2018 / photo: J. Geleyns – Art Photography; RIGHT: Salvador Dalí, Fantasies Diurnes (1931), oil on canvas. 81.2 x 100.3 cm, Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL. ©Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artists Rights Society), 2018]

A current exhibition explores the links between the two most iconic artists of the Surrealist movement. René Magritte (1898-1967) and Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) is on show at the Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, Florida (15 December 2018-19 May 2019) and will tour to the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium, Brussels, home of Musée Magritte. Curator of the exhibition, Dr William Jeffet, has assembled a group of paintings, objects, graphics and photographs that demonstrate the associations between the art of these two. Often this comes in the form of pairings of pieces by the painters; in the catalogue the direct personal interactions of the artists are discussed. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The curation rests on the world’s two outstanding collections of these artists. The Dalí Museum has the world’s best collection of Dalí’s best paintings, better than even Dalí’s own museum in Figueras. The second venue on the tour, Musée Magritte, home of the world’s largest and best collection of the Belgian’s art, has loaned excellent paintings. There are some loans from other institutions and private collections. The selection is of top-drawer pieces from the classic periods of the two artists – all work is from 1925-48) and it is intelligently chosen and organised.

When Dalí became involved in Surrealism (in 1928), Magritte was already part of the Paris and Brussels groups. Although Magritte only moved to Paris in 1927, he was established as a serious painter among the followers of the new movement. Dalí knew of Magritte’s art and wrote about the Belgian’s painting in articles for the Spanish press before their first meeting in the late spring of 1929. Dalí was enthusiastic about Magritte’s painting in these early years and not slow to publicly praise his paintings.

They came to share the same dealer, Camille Goemans, who signed them both to contracts in 1929. A large part of Magritte’s decision to move to Paris (in September 1927) was that his Belgian dealer Goemans had relocated to Paris in April 1927. It was the failure of Goemans gallery (in the wake of the Great Crash of 1929) that caused Magritte to quit Paris and returning to Brussels, where he took up commercial work again, designing posters and adverts for the coming years. Dalí would stay on in Paris, though poor in his early years. There is one letter from Magritte to Dalí in the Teatro-Museo archives in Figueras. (Jeffet comments that Dalí’s correspondence is considerable but dispersed and only a minority of it has been published. Again, we find an absence – a book Dalí correspondence would be of great interest.)

René and Georgette Magritte would witness one of the key events in Dalí’s life. In August 1929, Goemans and the Magrittes went to visit Dalí in Cadaqués. This proved a fateful summer for Dalí. Gala and Paul Éluard joined the party. Gala and Dalí began an affair; come September Eluard left for Paris while his wife stayed on in Spain with her new lover Dalí. Gala was notorious for her many affairs and Éluard apparently expected her to return to him. He was distraught when she did not. She would go on to marry Dalí, while continuing extra-marital affairs even into old age. Magritte resented Dalí’s financial success and critical attention in the 1930s and 1940s. It was only in the 1950s that Magritte achieved a comfortable income from his sales to American collectors via Alexandre Iolas’s gallery in New York. It was in New York that Magritte and Dalí met in passing for the last time, when Magritte was there to attend his retrospective exhibition.

Jeffet and Michel Draguet, director of the Royal Museums of Fine Art of Belgium, write about the parallels and differences between the artists. Both Dalí and Magritte were well versed in art history and studied at highly regarded art schools in Brussels and Madrid. Both were part of the veristic or oneiric strand of Surrealism, which included realistic depictions of recognisable objects alongside the fantastic and impossible, as opposed to the automatist strand, which was developed by Ernst, Masson, Matta and Gorky, where forms were often abstract and generated by random factors. However, they differed in style. Magritte deployed a neutral and direct approach, akin to commercial illustration or the more stolid naturalism of Low Countries Realism of the Nineteenth Century. Dalí cultivated a virtuosic style, flamboyantly difficult derived from Italian Renaissance painting, with passages of microscopic detail and flashes of bravura brushwork, making a hyperreal but very personal style.

Various themes of the artists include dreams, the erotic, reality subverted, the symbolic portrait, the nostalgic ideal landscape, Surrealist still-lifes and the self-portrait. They drew on their home territories: the Ampurdan plain and bay of Port Lligat of Catalonia and the pastures and waterways of Brabant and suburbs of Brussels. They used a recurring set of images, which became associated with the artists. The artists developed repertoires of certain pictorial methods of achieving states of dislocation in viewers: change property (size, weight, strength, rigidity, flammability and so forth), transformation (bird into egg and so forth), replication, juxtaposition (including montage and actual collage), use of words, representation of unknown or impossible substances, titular contradiction and quotation of familiar Old Master art.

 

[Images: LEFT: Salvador Dalí, The Invisible Man, 1932, oil on canvas, 16.5 x 23.8 cm, Collection of The Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL. ©Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala-Salvador Dalí, (Artists Rights Society), 2018; RIGHT: René Magritte, The Unexpected Answer (1933), oil on canvas, 82 x 54.4 cm, inv. 7241, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. © SABAM 2018 / photo: J. Geleyns – Art Photography]

Magritte had pioneered the motif of the inflammable object on fire. His Discovery of Fire (1936) shows a tuba burning; Dalí next year drew people engaged in fine dining at night, illuminated by burning giraffes. (Magritte despised Dalí’s burning giraffes, finding them crass and comical.) Dalí also used another of Magritte’s signature motifs, the veiled form. This veiling of the face or body is often linked to the death of Magritte’s mother, whose face (it was claimed) was found shrouded by her nightdress. The sinister aspect of the veil as shroud is apparent in The Lovers (1928), where anonymous lovers kiss while their faces are hidden from the world – voluntarily or otherwise. In Dalí’s paintings of the early 1930s there are many fantastical, sinister and erotic forms concealed by sheets. The approach held psychosexual power and a nagging mystery for Dalí. Some of Dalí’s most effective compositions involve the theatricality and tactility of sheets partially revealing and concealing objects and figures. While Dalí was clearly the borrower, his uses of the motif differed from the originator’s usages.

Both artists engaged in the craze for object construction. While Dalí’s were assemblages of found and modified objects, Magritte’s were generally bottles or plaster casts painted.  There is the comparative display of the two artist’s variations of the Venus de Milo. Magritte’s is a colour painted plaster, while Dalí’s is a painted bronze including drawers with ermine-covered handles. Minor pieces but an appealing juxtaposition. Another point of exact intersection is the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1869). While the Dalí Museum has a full set of the Spaniard’s etchings (1934) (apparently not executed by him but actually a master printmaker), it only has the title page of Magritte’s illustrations (1948, here dated “1934”). Could not examples of Magritte’s interior illustrations have been borrowed to expand this display? These illustrations aptly foreground Dalí’s immersion in his own fantasies to the detriment of the illustrative function of the prints, whereas Magritte’s showcase his flexibility and versatility, using images and technique nearly unique in his oeuvre.

They were political opposites, with Magritte a member of the Belgian Communist party and Dalí supporting the Fascists and Falangists, though for both these were sentimental attachments rather than ideological positions. There were tensions between the Belgian Surrealists and the Parisian group. In Paris, Magritte was decidedly a Walloon and both more subversive and more conventional than his Parisian colleagues. Magritte bridled at the domineering style of André Breton’s leadership, the cycles of tribunals and expulsions and the endless debates over the compatibility of self-determination and political commitment inherent in the Communist basis of Surrealist thought. In that respect Magritte and Dalí both distanced themselves from Louis Aragon’s demand that Surrealist’s adherence to Communist doctrine. Aragon specifically criticised an assemblage by Dalí which included a class of milk, asserting that glasses of milk must be given to the sickly children of workers rather than wasted in art. The exhibition includes a reconstruction of the very piece – Surrealist Object (1931/1973)) – that Aragon denounced. Dalí retorted that he was in the grip of his delirious unconscious and that he must follow its most extreme and inexplicable manifestations regardless of politics. This was a stance that led to his eventual expulsion from the group. While Magritte agreed with left-wing policies, he could never bring himself to follow the dictates of Socialist Realism or the incorporation of explicit political messages into art. Magritte also found himself frozen out of the official Paris group, having fallen out with Breton several times.

Both artists collaborated with their wives as models. Gala was celebrated as a muse for a number of artists and named as a subject in Dalí’s painting titles and public pronouncements. Gala Dalí appeared at events such as society balls, exhibition openings and audiences with prominent individuals. Georgette Magritte, however, appeared often in the paintings but is only occasionally named, mostly in private portraits. Her position as a model was not made explicit during Magritte’s lifetime, probably due to propriety and modesty. Gala was a cosmopolitan exhibitionist, whilst also being extremely private; Georgette was a middle-class Catholic Walloon. Georgette was a participant in her husband’s photographed japes and short films, but this seems in the spirit of play and mischief rather than fame-seeking, as these were not intended to be public.

The book includes two essays, a chronology for the two artists, illustrations of exhibited art (and related unexhibited art) and many photographs of the artists and their wives, colleagues and collaborators. There is much more to be said on this pair of artists, particularly on their sources. The pair drew on published sources and applied Surrealist ideas to work in the commercial sphere. There is a fruitful loop between commercial sources feeding fine art and fine-art ideas appearing in commercial art. There is little discussion of the artists’ separate correspondence, which is a shame. Magritte mentioned Dalí in passing a number of times, as quoted by Torczyner, and in this catalogue there are some quotes from Magritte’s letters in the Écrits complets. The references are cutting, denigrating Dalí for his sensationalism. The extent of Dalí’s letter-writing is unclear.

This is a fascinating and approachable book for anyone interested in Dalí, Magritte or Surrealism. The exhibition is sure to attract a lot of attention in Europe when it arrives in Brussels later this year.

 

William Jeffet, Michel Draguet, Magritte and Dalí, The Dalí Museum/Ludion, 2018, hardback, 144pp, 80 col./b&w illus., $19.95, ISBN 978 949 303 9001. Available from http://www.thedali.org

© 2019 Alexander Adams

See my art and books here: www.alexanderadams.art

Collectors without Remorse: Dominique and John de Menil

Cover_Final

[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

Rene Magritte, Post-Impressionism: Liverpool, 2011

“The effects of Liverpool’s time as City of Culture in 2008 are still becoming apparent as various building projects reach completion. Liverpool has many excellent museums, to which number the Museum of Liverpool is due to be added. My visit to Liverpool was before the museum’s opening on July 19th, so I made do with two significant shows which will run until the autumn: a survey of Magritte and a partial reconstruction of a pioneering exhibition of Post-Impressionist art held at the Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool in 1911. (The Bluecoat Gallery itself has recently been refurbished. The excellent diverse bookshop and the well-stocked art-materials store have both left and the gallery, which occasionally hosted worthwhile shows, now runs an exhibition programme of the driest and least engaging type. What was once a hub of artistic activity has been reduced to a deracinated husk. Best to bypass it entirely and visit the newly relocated Probe Records next door instead.)

“The 1910-11 display “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” at the Grafton Gallery, London is a celebrated landmark in British Modernism. What is less well-known is that the show (minus the Manets) travelled to Liverpool before the pictures were dispersed. Art in Revolution: Liverpool 1911 (Walker Art Gallery, closes September 25th) is an investigation of the second display, which included local Liverpool artists alongside the French painters. The French artists included Denis, Derain, Matisse, Picasso, Serusier, Signac, Vlaminck and others…”

Read the full review on THE JACKDAW, September 2011 here:

http://www.thejackdaw.co.uk/?p=81