Thomas Hart Benton’s Mural: America Today at Home in the Met

In 1930, at the height of the Great Depression, Alvin Johnson, the director of the twelve-year-old New School for Social Research, asked Thomas Hart Benton to paint murals for its boardroom. Murals were in. Just then Alfred Barr and Abby Rockefeller had invited Diego Rivera to exhibit his murals at their brand new Museum of Modern Art. Both artists were radical and their murals depict the transforming effects of industrialization on the world, referring to both its beneficial and detrimental effects.

Benton was a marvelous draftsman. Each one of his ten panels consists of a series of rich cartoon-like images consisting of workers performing their assigned tasks, circus acts, dancing couples, farm animals, boxing matches, or people reading their newspapers on New York’s subway, power plants, locomotives, Zeppelins and the like. Within each mural panel, individual scene are separated by metal strips. It takes many worthwhile hours to decipher it all.

City Activities

City Activities

The cycle starts with the Deep South, with its white tenant sharecroppers, chain gangs and African-American cotton growers. Benton progresses to his own Midwest and Changing West with its industrialized wheat fields, pigs and typically decrepit horses. The next three panels depict Instruments of Power, Coal and Steel. Then it is the turn of the city: City Building, City Activity with Subway, and City Activity with Dance Hall, each with its own intricate imagery. Benton’s wife and child, as well as Alvin Johnson and the painter’s self-portrait, are part of the latter. Outreaching Hands fill a much smaller panel, now surmounting the entrance to the gallery, reminding the viewer that when Benton painted the panel America was in the grips of the Great Depression.

America Today had a checkered history and we are lucky that we can admire it in its entirety, beautifully restored to its original freshness. The New School’s boardroom eventually morphed into an ordinary classroom, where the paintings were at the mercy of busy and bored students. When the school sold it in 1953, the ten-panel mural was in the danger of being split up. Fortunately the AXA Equitable Life Insurance Company bought it for the company’s art collection and eventually exhibited in its lobby on Sixth Avenue. I admired it there regularly and made it a stop in my private tour of New York. In 2012, when the company planned to renovate its lobby, it gave the artwork to the Met, which restored it and gave it its own gallery in the American Wing. The gallery has the exact shape of the original New School boardroom.

Benton did not have much luck with his murals in New York. After he finished for the New School, the Whitney Art Museum commissioned Arts of Life in America to decorate its library. When the Whitney moved to its Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, it sold half of the mural to the New Britain Museum of American Art and the other half to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. It is wonderful that New York now has a complete, restored mural on permanent display at the Metropolitan. A temporary exhibit, featuring sketches, paintings and related material, is in an adjacent gallery.

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An Homage to the Madame Cézanne Exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Paul Cézanne painted 29 portraits, and made innumerable drawings, of Hortense Fiquet, whom he met in 1869. Paul, their son, was born in 1872. To legitimize him his parents eventually married in 1886. Dita Amory, the Met’s curator of the Lehman Collection,  and her staff succeeded in the formidable task of assembling 24 of these portraits. The paintings had never previously been united. This unique, intriguing exhibition will be on view in the museum’s Lehman Wing until March, 2015.

Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory by Paul Cézanne, 1891. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory by Paul Cézanne, 1891. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Hortense Fiquet is easily recognizable in Cézanne’s portraits, though each one is very different. Details vary little. She often sits on an arm- or straight chair, her hands clasped on her lap. In four paintings, she even wears the same red dress. She never smiles or aged during the twenty years it took Cézanne to complete the works, yet each of the portraits is unique. In the earliest one, dating from 1873-74, she is demure and shy.  Portrait number two, in which her shoulders are bare except for a necklace and her hair is free flowing, is the only one hinting at the couple’s intimate relationship. Most often Hortense’s expression is distant, stoic, sad, inscrutable, or introspective. One can feel the silence that reigned between painter and model.

My favorite portraits are the Met’s Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory and Boston MFA’s Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair, perhaps because they are very familiar. They are also less stark. In both Hortense appears less dour and content. The plants that surround her in the conservatory makes it a beautiful interior. The pattern of the wallpaper and variegated stripes of the sitter’s dress are reminiscent of Van Gogh and presage Matisse.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair by Paul Cézanne, 1877. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair by Paul Cézanne, 1877. Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Cézanne was a meticulous painter and to complete a portrait he required more than one hundred sittings. Yet Hortense, his most frequently used model, is almost totally forgotten by history. Her life with Cézanne, who for decades hid her existence, as that of his son, from his family, must not have been easy.

Yet her contribution to Cézanne’s art was never acknowledged. On the contrary, for most of her life with his family ignored her and his friends vilified her, referring to her as La Boule (the bowling ball) or The Dumpling, perhaps because later in life she may have been plump. (The couple’s son Paul was referred to as Le Boulet—the little ball.) Cézanne and Hortense only lived together sporadically. Money was scarce until 1894, when the legendary Ambroise Vollard started to represent him. It is of interest that until then Père Tanguy, a paint dealer, exhibited Cézanne’s as well as Van Gogh’s canvasses in his Paris paint shop. Until his father’s death in 1886, Cézanne subsisted on the monthly 200 francs allowance his father provided reluctantly.

Philippe Cézanne, grandson of Paul Cézanne, at the Met's Madame Cézanne exhibition opening.

Philippe Cézanne, great-grandson of Paul Cézanne, at the Met’s Madame Cézanne exhibition opening.

Hortense and Paul’s descendants became a close family. While in his twenties Paul Jr.  became his father’s agent and advocate. He also took care of his often invalid mother, serving as a messenger between his parents. Paul Jr. married late in life and “begat” Jean-Pierre Cézanne, who “begat” Philippe. A retired art expert, he now lives in Aix-en-Provence, the Cézannes hometown, where he busily preserves and protects his great-grandfather’s memory. Five years ago he successfully prevented the French railroad from despoiling the landscape of the Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain memorialized by Cézanne more than 80 times. Philippe attended the opening events associated with the Madame Cézanne’s exhibition at the Met and contributed a chapter recounting the history of his family in the stunning catalogue accompanying the show.

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Leonard Lauder’s Cubist Art Collection at the Met

The eighty-one paintings by Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger and Pablo Picasso that are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art illustrate the birth of Cubism in Paris at the beginning of the 20th century. They are the promised gift of Leonard Lauder to his native city. By restricting his collection to four painters, Lauder was able to buy masterpieces.

Though American museums owe their preeminence to the gifts of the wealthy, it is rare to meet these benefactors in flesh and blood. At the opening press conference Lauder took pleasure in explaining that when he decided to assemble a world-class collection, Cubism spoke to him. He also wanted the caliber of each work to be such that it would be difficult for a museum director to “take it off the wall.” He achieved his goal.

Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair

Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair by Pablo Picasso

Lauder’s collection will catapult the Met to take its place among the very few institutions that own such extensive collections of nascent cubistic art; a style that America’s foremost museum was slow to embrace. The Lauder Cubist collection rivals MoMA’s which includes Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, the school’s best-known work. Among Lauder’s thirty-one Picassos are two preparatory studies for this work. Lauder’s collection also includes many unfamiliar works. Picasso’s pastel-colored Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair, with its “naughty,” non-deconstructed breasts and other realistic overtones, surprised me and I loved Braque’s Trees at l’Estaque.

Among the four painters Lauder collected, only Picasso would attain larger-than-life status. Inspired by Paul Cezanne, he and Braque created dozens of cubistic images that Henri Matisse characterized as consisting of “little cubes.” The name stuck and Picasso and Braque persevered. For many years the two painters visited each other’s studios daily and cooperated so closely that even professionals sometimes had a hard time telling their works apart. Their early works inspired Juan Gris, another Spaniard, and Fernand Léger, who developed variants. Juan Gris’s work, with its rounded edges and softer colors, is more lyrical. His intricate Still Life with Checked Tablecloth is a bravura achievement.

Léger has always gone his own way. The Lauder collection includes his appealing Composition (The Typographer). The very large canvas depicts a worker deconstructed into overlapping cones, cylindrical tubes, triangles, and semicircles. Its muted primary colors gladden the heart.

In his opening remarks Ronald Lauder stressed that he and his brother Ronald grew up in New York while the family’s cosmetic business was in its infancy. In his low-key manner he explained how New York City, with its then excellent public schools, museums and other readily available cultural offering, stimulated his and his younger brother Ronald’s devotion to art. (Ronald founded the Neue Galerie that showcases German and Austrian art.) Now in their eighties the “boys” are able to magnificently show their gratitude.

Cubism, on view until February 16, 2015, is both overpowering and difficult to comprehend, but it taught me a lot about the form that shaped much of the art of the twentieth century.

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Ebola, Dr. Craig Spencer and American Hysteria

Dr. Craig Spencer

Dr. Craig Spencer

I spent the past week worrying about the health of Craig Spencer, that appealing-looking young man battling for his life at Bellevue Hospital in New York. He represents what is best about America and medicine. He used his resources to cure the ill to the best of his ability without regard to personal gain. As President Obama is fond of saying: “He put himself in harm’s way.” Craig deserves our concern as much as the other guys and gals we send to Iraq, Syria, or other places. The doctor did not catch Ebola during the time he was in Guinea and there was no particular reason for him to come down with the disease upon his return. When he did suspect—or realize—that he had contracted the disease, he exceeded protocol.

It is both our humanitarian duty, as well as in our practical interest, to combat, confine and eradicate the Ebola epidemic in West Africa as quickly as we can. If it continues to ravage there it is likely to spread beyond that region and that continent.

Epidemics are scary and unpredictable and can kill millions.

A quick search of the Internet revealed that the black or bubonic plague, which peaked in Europe from 1346 to 1353, killed between 75 to 200 million people (30 to 60% of the population). It is thought to have arrived from China via merchant ships on which sailors had been infected by rats infested by disease-carrying fleas. Quarantine measures failed.

A very deadly type of influenza—the Spanish Flu—infected 500 million people. It peaked from March 1918 to the spring of 1919 and killed 50-100 million individuals.

Like Ebola, both the plague and the flu kill quickly. However, unlike the Spanish Flu or the Black Plague, Ebola is much less infectious. It is not transmitted by air or water but only by close body contact or body fluids.

The AIDS epidemic began in 1979. Because of its long incubation time, its spread remained unnoticed for about ten years. It too is only transmitted by body fluids, and probably could have been contained, if stringent hygienic measures and wide education had been the order of the day. But the government was indifferent because initially, the HIV virus primarily infected gay men and drug users. By now, AIDS has infected a total of 78 million people, of whom 36 million have died.

Hysteria never helps resolve a crisis. As of now there are no effective drugs for the treatment of Ebola. Good supportive measures—intravenous fluids, oxygen, bed rest—all more effective when used early in the course of the disease—and good fortune, help.

Panic and hysteria are impediments to survival. Physicians and epidemiologists do not believe that the U.S. is currently at risk of a widespread epidemic and we have no choice but to believe them. Sealing our borders is not a real option. Borders are essentially porous.

If there is one guilty party in this story it is the halting of the development of an effective Ebola vaccine. Now drug companies are trying to make up for precious lost time. Such a vaccine would eventually solve the problem. Scientists have been good at eliminating major scourges like smallpox, rabies, polio, yellow fever, mumps, measles and even most forms of influenza. Specific medication would of course also solve the problem, but there are none for viruses, and none seems to be on the horizon. Until specific treatment is available, health care workers have to risk their lives and do the best they can. Let us all give them our blessing and support.

Major epidemics, like earthquakes, tsunamis, and draughts, are a reminder of the fragility of planet Earth. Ebola may be one of these catastrophes. Panic and irrationality are never helpful.

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Manhattan’s 86-Year Old Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf) School

The other day I hurried along East 79th Street on my way to the Met Museum when I glimpsed a likeness of Leonardo da Vinci paired with the promise of teaching the principles of the Italian Renaissance to children in elementary school. “How nice,” I thought, before realizing that it was the New York’s Rudolf Steiner School making this promise. I had a vision of myself, aged nine, attending a Steiner (Waldorf) School in Hanover, Germany.

Suzanne Loebl's Waldorf class

My class at the Waldorf School in Hanover, Germany. I am third from the right in the top row.

Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian educator and philosopher, founded his first “Waldorf School” for the children of the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart in 1919. Steiner developed many new methods of education, including attention to the capabilities of individual students, absence of grades, strong ethics, tolerance, a close relationship between teacher and student and immersion in particular subjects. The homeroom teacher, heading a particular class for eight years, taught history, mathematics, geography, anatomy or German every day for weeks at a time. The curriculum emphasized eurhythmics, a system of movements intended to promote musical understanding, anthroposophy, a deeply spiritual philosophy, music, and crafts. The school rapidly ran afoul of the Nazis, who eventually closed it. We read and wrote poetry, illustrated our essays, and yes, learned about the Italian Renaissance, as well as about Norse Gods, and the myths of other countries.

In my case, my parents did not select the Waldorf School because of its principles, but because it was willing to accept a Jewish kid like me in the Nazi-dominated Germany of the 1930s. In many respects the school fit me like a glove. I was smart and highly creative, but since I was slightly dyslexic, a condition not recognized then, I had a very hard time mastering the conventional subjects like reading, spelling, and arithmetic. I performed erratically because, I now believe, I also suffered mildly from ADD (attention deficit disorder). I often got and get lost when someone tries to teach me something complex. Even today, I learn best by figuring things out for myself.

I attended the Waldorf School for three years. Most everybody in my class was tolerant of me and of Ruth Iris, the other Jewish kid in my class. I was a loyal student, honestly believing that I loved the school and Herr Lange, our teacher. He actually was an actor and teaching was a second choice. He broke out in a sweat whenever he tried to teach us the rudiments of arithmetic, and I blame him for my lifelong difficulties with the subject.

It is only much later that I realized how deeply I hated growing up in Nazi-dominated Germany and how this included my attendance at the seemingly tolerant Rudolf Steiner school. With my mind’s eye I could “see” students and teachers thinking that I was “a nice little girl who was unfortunately Jewish.” I detested being special. I was relieved when we left Germany and I attended a traditional French lycée, though there too I was special, since to begin with I did not speak French. In Belgium some people disliked me for being German, others for being Jewish. By then, however, I was getting used to being different.

Unfortunately it is hard to evaluate the effects of a liberal education. As an adult I approve of many of Rudolf Steiner’s principles, some of which now permeate traditional education. I have done very well for myself in spite of a very spotty education. The creative aspects of the school fit my quirky intelligence. The homework assignments stressed long essays and fostered my verbal skills, and the absence of grades was good for someone with learning difficulties. I, however, missed the concrete evidence of grades that should indicate when making a special effort does pay off. I also question the eight-year-long relationship with one and the same homeroom teacher. What if a student does not get along with her or him? I was glad to leave the school when we left Germany and I entered the rather strict and conventional Lycée de Forest in Brussels.

It took decades for me to realize that it was not the Rudolf Steiner School I hated but growing up in Nazi Germany. Though I experienced only moderate antagonism and hatred, especially when compared with what was to come, these years left me with deep scars. It does not take much to make me again feel like a second-class citizen! I suspect that I have tons of soul-mates, since today half the world’s billions lord it over the other half, and there must be many children who are made to feel “inferior.”

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Dr. Sigmund Freud, Uncle Alex and the Centenary of World War I

A hundred years ago, when World War I was in its infancy, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria called up my great-uncle-in-law Alexander Loebl, Esq. and asked him to serve in his army. Uncle Alex had just graduated from law school, and though he was a loyal citizen of the Austrian Empire, he was terrified of going to war.

“I simply can’t go,” he told his crestfallen family. That evening Alex went to the opera, Vienna’s most sacred and treasured form of entertainment. His panic attack, however, escalated. At intermission Alex even fainted! What was he going to do? He knew that it was impossible for him to obey his orders and take the train to the front, and it was equally impossible for him to shame his patriotic family by not going.

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud, approximately 1920

Fortunately, some member of the family had heard of that “crazy” doctor who claimed that he could cure hysterics by “talk therapy.” The next morning Alex, armed with an ancient revolver, went to Freud’s home/office at Berggasse 19. He rang the bell and was admitted. In the entrance, two of the good doctor’s sidekicks confronted him. “I must see Dr. Freud immediately,” Alex barked, “otherwise I’ll shoot myself.” Freud’s helpers continued to deny him access.

Aroused by the commotion, Freud emerged from his study and asked Alex to explain his problem. “I cannot report to my army unit,” Alex confessed. “If I go to the front, I’ll die.” Sixty years later, when Uncle Alex told my husband the story, he recalled Dr. Freud fixing his brown eyes on his. “Young man,” Freud said. “You are going to take the train tomorrow morning and report to your unit. Nothing is going to happen to you. You’ll survive this war, and you’ll survive many other wars.”

To his family’s great relief, Alex complied with his orders. As a lawyer he never had to face active duty and he survived the war. He practiced law in Czechoslovakia, married Martha and lived peacefully in Bruno. Twenty-four or so years later, as the Nazis intensified their war against the Jews, Alex was about to be deported to a concentration camp where he surely was going to be murdered. His good Christian wife hid him as best as she could; still during the next three years his life was at constant risk. “During all these years,” he recalled after, “I thought of Freud and his brown eyes and recalled him predicting that I would survive ‘many wars.’” That gave him the faith to survive.

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Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford Revisited: Colt Revolvers, a Cradle and the Connecticut’s Charter Oak

A family wedding was the excuse for visiting Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, one of America’s finest and oldest museums, predating New York’s Metropolitan and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts by thirty-three years. The Atheneum still uses its original building, built in 1842. (See Suzanne Loebl: America’s Art Museums.) It, however, repeatedly outgrew its quarters and now consists of five interconnected structures. Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, the widow of Samuel Colt, the inventor of the revolver, donated one of these.

Samuel Colt (1814-62), a Hartford native, loved to tinker and designed a pistol with a revolving mechanism (hence the name “revolver”) that eliminated the need for reloading between shots. Modern warfare as well as Columbine High and Sandy Hook Elementary School are part of his legacy. Colt and his partner Samuel H. Walker developed assembly line technology for mass-producing arms, eventually becoming inexpensive enough for individuals to buy them. Colt pistols became the weapon of choice during the white man’s conquest of the West, the California Gold Rush, the Mexican War and the Civil War. During the 1850s, the Colt Firearm Manufacturing Company sold 170,000 pocket revolvers and 98,000 belt revolvers. Ever since, powerful firearms using Samuel Colt’s revolving mechanism have been keeping America safe, expanding its power and killing countless innocents. Not surprisingly, some of these models were called the .45caliber Peacemakers, a name that matches the present-day spirit of the National Rifle Association. 

The Colt Cradle at Wadsworth  Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut

The Colt Cradle at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

In addition to money, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt left the museum the couple’s extensive collection of firearms, art, jewelry and memorabilia. Most striking is the Colt cradle suspended between posts adorned with prancing colts—stand-ins for the family name. The cradle was sculpted from the trunk of Connecticut’s famous “Charter Oak,” felled by a storm in 1856. Legend has it that Joseph Wadsworth, ancestor of the founder of the museum, concealed Connecticut’s 1682 Royal charter from a tyrannical English Governor General of New England in one of the oak’s cavities. The oak became a symbol of American independence. At the museum the image of the oak, posthumously painted in 1857 by Charles De Wolf Brownell, is in a gallery adjoining the Colt memorabilia. The frame of the painting is also made from the tree’s trunk. The blue onion dome of the Colt Firearms Factory is seen in the background of the painting.

The Wadsworth Atheneum’s leading collections include works from the Hudson River School, Renaissance, older and newer American art, furniture and decorative art. A. Everett “Chick” Austin, one of America’s most colorful museum directors, shaped its holdings from 1927 until 1944. During his tenure the museum received the two million dollar Sumner fund, which Austin partially used to build an impressive Baroque, Modern, and Surrealist collection. Austin also added a theater, the first in any American museum, sponsored the immigration of George Balanchine, and hosted the first public performance of his future New York City Ballet.

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