The real Menil

ANTIQUES Staff

ANTIQUES Staff

September 2008 | It would be hard to refute the art world consensus that the most admired collector of the second half of the twentieth century was Dominique de Menil (Fig. 6), the French-born heiress to the Schlumberger oil drilling equipment fortune, whose eponymous private museum of 1982 to 1986, designed for her adopted hometown of Houston by Renzo Piano (1937–), is as universally esteemed as its founder. In the centennial year of Menil’s birth, her status as aesthetic visionary and high priestess of art only continues to rise.

Menil died just weeks after the opening of Frank Gehry’s Museo Guggenheim Bilbao, which set off a disastrous redirection of museums worldwide. In retrospect she seems the personification of values that now appear nearly extinct, as speculators see art only as an investment and museums act as vehicles for civic and corporate marketing.

With the authority of those born to wealth, the incorruptible Menil rejected the commercialism that has spread from the art market and infected once-sacrosanct institutions like a plague. She disdained the trendy and superficial, championed the arcane and challenging, considered philanthropy used for self-promotion to be not merely vulgar but immoral, and felt that museums that stooped to anything to attract ever-larger audiences betrayed a sacred trust.“Art is what lifts us above daily life,” she wrote, in the most succinct summary of her aesthetic philosophy. “It makes us more open, more human, more refined, and even more intelligent.”

If Menil had one contemporary rival as America’s premier postwar Maecenas, it was her fellow connoisseur-collector and museum builder Paul Mellon (1907–1999). Both these formidable figures possessed an uncanny “eye” and instinct for the best, though each had quite different tastes (his aristocratic and Anglophile, hers austere and global) and diametric temperaments (he psychoanalytical and secular, she religious and spiritual).

Last year, the hundredth anniversary of Mellon’s birth was celebrated by commemorative exhibitions at the several museums and galleries he founded and enriched. There will be no such formal observances in honor of Menil, which is wholly appropriate because she seemed to exist outside normal notions of time. Those who knew her invariably describe her as otherworldly. On the few occasions Menil and I met, she was gracious and comme-il-faut to a fault, but gave the distinct impression of being somewhere else, as if listening to Gregorian chants only she could hear. Nonetheless, she was more acutely attuned to the creative forces of her times than almost anyone.

The thematically unrelated yet oddly complementary areas she and her husband, the Schlumberger executive John de Menil (1904–1973), focused on—surrealist and twentieth-century painting and sculpture, African and Northwest American tribal artifacts, antiquities from the Paleolithic to the classical, and Byzantine art—gives the Menil Collection an intensely personal character, reminiscent of the renowned Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, with a comparable mix of quality and quirkiness that makes it impossible to confuse it with any other museum.

In June 1835 Pugin converted to Catholicism, which had been his abiding passion throughout the previous year. His conversion led, in due course, to more commissions, many arranged by the Catholic peer John Talbot (1791–1852), sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford. In 1848 the widower Pugin married another Catholic convert, Jane Knill (1827–1909), who became stepmother to his six children, bore him two more of her own, and cared assiduously for him during his final years.

A lifetime’s propensity to some forms of nervous exhaustion, made much worse by mercury poisoning in 1851, resulted in Pugin’s decline into madness. He was admitted first to a private mental hospital, and then, when he showed but little improvement, to Bethlem Royal Hospital in London in June 1852. His wife took him home to Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet in East Kent in early September, and he died there on September 14. He was buried in the church he had designed next to his house in 1844, Saint Augustine’s Abbey, in a tomb ornamented with sculptures of members of his family.

But what of Pugin as an architect, not least of many Catholic churches, Saint Giles’ among them? Between 1832 and 1834 he made several trips abroad to study medieval buildings. Beginning in 1835 he collaborated with Sir Charles Barry (1795–1860) on designs for Barry’s best-known commission, the New Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), where Pugin was responsible for nearly all the lavish interior decoration.1 Soon after, he wrote the first of many books, Gothic Furniture in the Style of the Fifteenth Century, which was published in 1835. Pugin subsequently wrote on subjects as varied as designs for gold and silver, and iron and brass. His book Contrasts, or A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, which he self-published in 1836, made his reputation and heralded the revival of the Catholic style of the Middle Ages.

With the authority and confidence of those born to wealth, the incorruptible Menil rejected the commercialism that has spread from the art market and infected once-sacrosanct institutions like a plague. She disdained the trendy and superficial, championed the arcane and challenging, considered philanthropy used for self-promotion to be not merely vulgar but immoral, and felt that museums that stooped to anything to attract ever-larger audiences betrayed a sacred trust. “Art is what lifts us above daily life,” she wrote, in the most succinct summary of her aesthetic philosophy. “It makes us more open, more human, more refined, and even more intelligent.”*

If Menil had one contemporary rival as America’s premier postwar Maecenas, it was her fellow connoisseur-collector and museum builder Paul Mellon (1907–1999). Both these formidable figures possessed an uncanny “eye” and instinct for the best, though each had quite different tastes (his aristocratic and Anglophile, hers austere and global) and diametric temperaments (she spiritual and religious, he psychoanalytical and secular).

Last year, the hundredth anniversary of Mellon’s birth was celebrated by commemorative exhibitions at the several museums and galleries he founded and enriched. There will be no such formal observances in honor of Menil, which is wholly appropriate because she seemed to exist outside normal notions of time. Those who knew her invariably describe her as otherworldly. On the few occasions Menil and I met, she was gracious and comme il faut to a fault, but gave the distinct impression of being somewhere else, as if listening to Gregorian chants only she could hear. Nonetheless, she was more acutely attuned to the creative forces of her times than almost anyone.

The thematically unrelated yet oddly complementary areas she and her husband, the Schlumberger executive John de Menil, focused on—surrealist and twentieth-century painting and sculpture, African and Northwest American tribal artifacts, antiquities from the Paleolithic to the classical, and Byzantine art—give the Menil Collection an intensely personal character, reminiscent of the renowned Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, with a comparable mix of quality and quirkiness that makes it impossible to confuse it with any other museum.

One key to understanding the Menil Collection’s magic can be found in the couple’s intriguing Houston house, where they combined severely reductive architecture with voluptuously sculptural objects decades before Piano’s luminous galleries were installed to similarly striking effect. The timeless time capsule of the Menil house, albeit in an imperfect state of presentation at the moment, is administered by the Menil Collection, which uses it for special events, and it is not open to the general public.

Apart from illuminating a significant chapter in American patronage and taste, the Menil house is an architectural landmark in its own right (Fig. 2). Designed by Philip Johnson in 1949—the same year he began his breakthrough Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—this was his first building for anyone other than himself. It was also the first modern residence in Houston’s staid River Oaks section, which caused some embarrassment to at least one of the family’s five children, the photographer Adelaide de Menil. “As a teenager I longed to live in a ‘normal’ house like everyone else,” she told me not long ago.

For the first fifteen years of Johnson’s career he followed the international style principles of his idol, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969). The Menil house relates closely to Mies’s flat-roofed, redbrick courtyard house series of the 1930s in Germany. Alas, this pedestrian adaptation lacked Mies’s sharpness, or even the élan of Johnson’s own Glass House (another Miesian knockoff).

Although the Menils were pleased with the external appearance of the finished product (and Dominique’s sister and brother-in-law were sufficiently impressed to order their own house from Johnson), the owners found the interiors disappointing. Never ones to be cowed by an architect, they took matters into their own hands and had four windows punched into the forbidding exterior. Later on they asked a local architect, Howard Barnstone, to add a steel-frame barrel- vaulted tent to cover the building’s central glass-walled atrium, which they filled with tropical plants.

When various architectural alterations failed to make the Menils’ house more livable, they turned to other means. Instead of following Mies’s textbook furnishing formula of his paired Barcelona lounge chairs, X-base glass-topped coffee table, Knoll leather-upholstered daybed, and Brno dining chairs (which his principal American follower used at the Glass House), they confounded Johnson by introducing furnishings antithetical to high modernism’s minimalist aesthetic.

Photographs taken six decades after the Menils moved in still convey a palpable tension between Johnson’s architecture and the inhabitants’ most unexpected improvisation: chairs made by or attributed to John Henry Belter, the German-born New York cabinetmaker (see Figs. 1, 7). His ingeniously laminated and extravagantly carved pieces (most sought-after in rare rosewood) are now regarded as the pinnacle of American rococo revival furniture design, although Belter’s stylistic originality and technical inventiveness put his works into a category beyond mere revivalism.

During the first half of the twentieth century there had been isolated flurries of renewed interest in Victoriana—a fad of young Oxford aesthetes in the 1920s and Hollywood movie studios in the 1940s, among others—but it was generally derided in the decorative arts and architecture until the destruction of numerous Victorian era landmarks in the United States and Britain helped spur the historic preservation movement in the 1960s.

The best-known bellwether in the re-appreciation of Belter was Helena Rubinstein, the pioneering cosmetics entrepreneur, whose enthusiasm for surrealist art and tribal artifacts also paralleled the Menils’. However, the self-made tycoon Rubinstein—as flamboyant in manner and appearance as the self-assured heiress Dominique de Menil was restrained—was drawn to the most theatrical pieces. Because Rubinstein’s inclinations were so baroque, her Belter furniture did not stand out as boldly as the Menils’ did against the chaste backdrop of Johnson’s architecture.

That dissonance at the Menil house evoked the visual nonsequiturs beloved by the surrealists, including one of the couple’s favorites, Max Ernst (1897–1976), whose collages often included images cut from Victorian publications and startlingly recombined. Scattered throughout the house were several lamps by the Swiss furniture designer Diego Giacometti and his celebrated sculptor brother, Alberto (see Fig. 5). Although reminiscent of metal torchères that survive from classical antiquity, the siblings’ elegantly slender lighting fixtures, in bronze or plaster, incorporated disembodied anthropomorphic forms that recall Alberto Giacometti’s earlier surrealist works as much as his attenuated human figures of the postwar period.

Dominique de Menil also patronized the most brilliant American couturier of the day, Charles James, whose genius for cut and structure raised his designs to the level of architecture in fabric. James’s erratic personality and lack of business acumen thwarted his ultimate success, but around 1950 he was at his peak, and the Menils’ request that he “warm up” their new house with upholstered furniture of his own design seemed a masterstroke to
everyone but the mortified Johnson.

James’s sensuously curved sofas, sectional banquettes, and poufs, covered in monochrome neutrals, fell somewhere between the antic spirit of Belter and the sleek simplicity of Mies (see Fig. 5). Perfectly scaled to the rooms for which they were tailor-made, James’s seating did not swoop as ostentatiously as those of two other mid-century American designers of upholstered furniture, Isamu Noguchi (1904–1988) and Vladimir Kagan (1927–).

In addition to Belter, another sign of Victoriana’s approaching rehabilitation was the tripod-footed black-and-gold lacquered Chinese games table that James recycled as a dressing table for Dominique de Menil (Fig. 4). It brings to mind the mid-nineteenth-century japanned papier-mâché furniture of French or English origin that became newly fashionable when reintroduced as accent pieces by such French tastemakers as the master decorator Stéphane Boudin (1888–1967) of the Paris firm Maison Jansen, and the eccentric Left Bank antiquaire Madeleine Castaing (1894–1992). Menil’s table is similar to pieces selected by Boudin for the Queen’s Sitting Room at the White House during his comprehensive refurbishment during the Kennedy administration. That small chamber remains the last intact remnant of Boudin’s effort, which included two other Victorian interiors—the Treaty Room and Lincoln Sitting Room—which marked an important turning point in historical design.

By the time Dominique de Menil died, at eighty-nine, her half-century-old residence was showing serious signs of age. The house was taken over by the Menil Collection and its contents pared down; but to give the rooms a sense of the original owners’ presence, another of their daughters, the costume designer Christophe de Menil, deployed appropriate examples of painting and sculpture—a Frank Stella (1936–) here, a John Chamberlain (1927–) there. Some found the results too stark and gallery-like, and there are plans to reinstall the still controversial James upholstered pieces in the fall.

This kind of gradual rethinking, not uncommon in historic houses of far older vintage, is likely to continue until some sort of happy medium is achieved, informed as it must be by the Menil house now being used for official entertaining on a scale that precludes certain domestic niceties. What is certain, however, is that this frequently photographed, closely scrutinized document of the high modernist style at its most rarefied and personal will continue to cast an inimitable spell on admirers well into the century beyond the one that gave it life.

* Quoted in Calvin Tompkins, “The Benefactor,” New Yorker, June 8, 1998, p. 56.