PHYLLIS ODESSEY

i admire anyone who buys for love

John and Dominique deMenil

She loves me, she loves me not?  This is not a question John de Menil  and Dominique Schlumberger asked each other.  It was love at first sight. Dominique was from a moneyed Protestant family and Jean (John) was from a Catholic dynasty that had lost their fortune. This unlikely union, is the subject of William Middleton’s new book,  Double Vision:  The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil.  Middeleton spoke last night at the Alliance Francaise. .

Dominique and John de Menil on their wedding day.

On the surface, it might appear that a book about two aristocrats who built a great art collection, would be of little interest and not warrant 16 years of research.   According to Middleton, the de Menils began as novices in the art world.  They created their collection over time, learning about art as they assembled vast holdings spanning centuries in a most unlikely location: Houston, Texas.

A portrait of Dominique de Menil painted by Max Ernst. 1932

The de Menils knew they wanted a small museum.  Their idea was to exhibit approximately 500 works of art at one time.  Dominique believed “habit blunts vision.”  She understood museum fatigue and wanted the art in the museum to feel fresh.

Totems Not Taboo, 1959 exhibition at The Museum of Find Arts, Houston.

Totems Not Taboo, organized by Jermayne MacAgy and funded by de Menils.

The de Menils’ art collecting was only part of their story.  They put their money where their mouth was. They supported numerous civil rights and human rights causes.  MiIddleton spoke about the de Menils’ reaction to the shocking segregation that existed in Texas when they first arrived in the state.  They contributed to the legal defense of many people of color in Texas.

Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Francis Barber part of de Menil Foundation, Houston, Texas

Rothko Chapel

In 1964 the de Menils commissioned Mark Rothko to do a series of murals for a chapel Philip Johnson was designing for their property.  The chapel was to be a place of meditation, non-denominational and a gift to the community.

Dominique de Menil putting the finishing touches on an exhibition at the museum.

One nagging question, not covered by Middleton in his talk, was how two people from affluent families became supporters, champions and backers of unpopular causes.  John de Menil was born Baron Jean Marie Joseph Menu de Menil.  Due to a financial scandal, the family lost a great deal of its wealth.  As a result, according to Middleton two of the de Menil sisters worked in factories their whole lives and never married, having no dowry.  This reversal fortune may have made John de Menil sympathetic to those  persecuted because of the color of their skin.  In addition, the couple fled Nazi occupied France in 1941, which also may have informed their future political leanings.  Reading the book, Double Vision may answer this question.

“What should move us to action is human dignity:  the inalienable dignity of the oppressed, but also the dignity of each of us. We lose dignity if we tolerate the intolerable.” Dominique de Menil

“The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil”: Talk with William Middleton and Kate Betts
French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF)
Monday, April 9, 2017

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