The Ronald S. Lauder Collection
The Neue Galerie, New York City
November 11, 2022 - March 20, 2023
Reviewed by Ed Voves
November 11, 2001 was not a particularly favorable moment to open a new art museum in New York City. Exactly one month before, terrorist attacks had destroyed the World Trade Center, the death toll eventually being reckoned at 2,753. Over two hundred more were killed in related acts of 9/11 terrorism. New York City, America and the civilized world were stunned.
Despite the shock, Ronald Lauder went ahead with opening the doors to his splendid museum, located at 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street. The Neue Galerie, named for a famous German art gallery from the 1920’s had been conceived nearly thirty years before to showcase art from one of the most glittering, yet controversial, eras in modern history, the art of Germany and Austria, 1890-1940.
When it opened in the autumn of 2001, the Neue Galerie achieved that goal and more. It quickly became a beacon of culture, an affirmation of civilization in a time of cruelty and horror.
Twenty-plus years later – the Neue Galerie remains so.
The Neue Galerie is currently hosting a special exhibition to celebrate its first two decades. The exhibit is not so much a look back, but rather surveys Ronald Lauder’s devotion to art and humanity, sixty-five years of collecting works of art from an impressive range of genres and historical eras.
On view in The Ronald S. Lauder Collection are Greek and Roman portrait busts, works of medieval devotional art, gold-ground paintings from the early Renaissance in Italy, spectacular examples of knightly armor from the 1400's-1500's and, of course, Austrian and German art from that all-too-brief flowering of genius and creativity in the half-century before World War II.
The Ronald S. Lauder Collection, on view until March 20, 2023, might seem a slight departure from the thematic range of many of the nearly fifty special exhibitions which the museum curators at the Neue Galerie have mounted since March 2003. The premier exhibit examined the hard-hitting realism of German art during the 1920's, Christian Schad and the Neue Sachlicheit.
Since then, Neue Galerie curators have addressed many provocative issues, such as the self-portraits created by German and Austrian artists during the run-up to World War II. Even with the 2018 exhibition of the paintings of Franz Marc and August Macke, one of the most beautiful art shows I have ever witnessed, the staff curators at the Neue Galerie have never flinched, never dodged serious, unsettling aspects of art.
One of the main galleries utilized for the present exhibition is devoted to the Neue Sachlicheit era, brilliant, brittle, sexually-charged. Aside from these often disturbing remains of Weimar Germany, this exhibit is a joy to behold.
Beginning with its opening work of art, a wonderful late medieval tapestry, The Ronald S. Lauder Collection is a marvelous evocation of collecting, preserving and displaying cherished works of art.
The galleries devoted to Ronald Lauder's collection of Renaissance-era armor and classical statuary are magnificent arrays of art, each piece a major work in its own right, and collectively part of a forthright assertion of the continuing importance of these masterpieces. The Neue Gallerie curators have displayed Lauder's treasures to brilliant effect, testifying that these time-honored pieces have lost none of their power.
A skeptic visiting the Neue Galerie might take issue with including armor from the 1500's and ancient statues as being at odds with the impact of the Neue Galerie exhibits in the years since 2003. Might the display of gleaming Renaissance armor and the marble faces of Roman emperors be somewhat out-of-place (or out-of-date) in a museum noted for thoughtful examinations of the Nazi campaign against Modernism or insightful surveys of the sensual art of Egon Schiele?
The answer to any such fault-finding speculation is an emphatic no.
Each of the works of art on view in The Ronald S. Lauder Collection testifies to astute, judicious standards of selection. Each can provide serious matter for reflection, if we are willing to make the effort.
After considering this splendid collection as an integrated assemblage, I feel that that there is a common theme which links the interests of Ronald Lauder to the important issues which the Neue Galerie has explored in the years since its founding. This unifying theme is nothing less than the constant threat of disintegration and collapse facing Civilization and the resilience of artists and patrons when human society confronts a perilous future.
The great era of Austrian and German art, 1890-1940, was such an time. Gustav Klimt, Kolomon Moser and other Neue Galerie luminaries lived in an age fraught with political and social tension, psychological anxiety and challenges to cultural norms whose roots stretched back to the Middle Ages.
Carl Moll, White Interior, 1905We marvel, for instance, at the exquisite silver Coffee Service designed by Josef Hoffman and created by the Weiner Werkstatte in 1907-1908, or the goulash plates Hoffman designed for the Cafe Fledermaus. Looking at these gleaming objects or at Carl Moll's 1905 painting, White Interior, it is hard to conceive of this period of history as anything but a blissful time of gemütlichkeit.
These were years lived in the shadow of the 1898 assassination of the Empress Elizabeth. These were years when the drumbeat of war would result in a needless, futile conflict which led to the total destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And finally, these years climaxed in the 1918 pandemic, the misnamed Spanish influenza, which killed thousands in Vienna including Egon Schiele and his pregnant wife.
The contrast between such grim historical realities and artistic beauty is especially marked in the gallery devoted to Austrian artists and designers like Klimt and Hoffman. But if we look closely at the faces of the Greek and Roman leaders displayed in the room devoted to ancient art, we will find traces of anxiety and ironic feeling not far different from what we see in the modern German and Austrian portraits painted by Klimt, Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Christian Schad.
A brief look at the identity of just a few of the ancient "faces" in the Lauder collection will dispel any temptation to place them in some Olympian "hall of fame."
The top, left-hand, bust is that of Julius Caesar, struck-down by his colleagues in the Roman Senate. Next to Caesar is Alexander the Great, whom a number of historians conclude was likely poisoned by his generals. Who the tousled-hair individual on Alexander's left is not known, but his fearful expression hardly equates with any sense of ancient serenity. Appearing below this trio is Livia Drusilla, the "poisonous" empress well-known to readers of I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Next to Livia is Trajan Decius, the first Roman emperor killed in battle, when a wave of Germanic marauders breached Rome's frontier defenses in the year 251.
Did Ronald Lauder and the curators at the Neue Galerie organize this display of ancient portraits to make a statement on the fragility of political power or the fickleness of fate? Most-likely not, but the accompanying wall text shows a great awareness of two of the major features of classical sculpture, namely the constant probing of the human psyche and experimentation in depicting bodily movement and facial expression by ancient artists.
The urge to escape the static sensibility of pre-Classical art, in order to better convey reality through the rendering of the human figure, gave impetus to experimentation. This resulted in the visual play that focused on the contrast between taut and relaxed forms and between balance and static equilibrium. The search for movement on the basis of observation resulted in the development of a new canon for the representation of the body.
This dynamism in charting the way that the human body looks and moves, as well as the powerful emotional forces at work beneath the skin, unite these ancient portraits with those of later eras.
It is no coincidence that we are able to study the Hellenistic Greek masterpiece, Monumental Head of a Goddess in the same exhibition as Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, the "goddess" of the Neue Galerie collection.
Since the Neue Galerie collection and special exhibitions concentrate on German and Austrian art, 1890-1940, religious art is rather conspicuous by its absence at the museum. One could hardly expect otherwise, as one of the major thinkers of that era had declared that God was dead!
It comes as no small surprise that The Ronald S. Lauder Collection exhibition is graced by a magnificent display of treasures from the Middle Ages, the early Renaissance and the Baroque period in Italy. All three historical eras were notable for the religious sentiment of artists, scholars and the general populace. Almost all of the works displayed are devotional objects with the exception of a chess piece from the famous Lewis Hoard, discovered in Scotland, but most likely made in Norway, ca. 1200.
The range of art works in this stunning, golden-hued gallery include two sculpture fragments from the Romanesque period, Head of an Apostle, from Thérouanne in northeast France, ca. 1235, and Torso of Christ Crucified, Southern French, ca. 1140. There is also a striking bishop's staff or Crozier, carved from ivory, accented in paint and gold. The crozier, made in Tuscany, dates to the mid-1300's.
When the bishop's crozier was first gripped in hand, a symbol of high clerical status, the religious doctrines and social concepts of Christendom were beginning to shift to a more "this-worldly" stance. This occurred initially in Italy. We can observe this trend in the striking array of gold-ground paintings, mounted to splendid effect on a simulated stone wall.
Here we see small devotional scenes, mounted on backgrounds covered with delicate layers of gold leaf, as in Byzantine icons. Many of these works come from predella panels, series of episodes from the life of Christ or the Acts of the Apostles, painted at the base of altarpieces.
These include paintings by artists whose pioneering contributions have been obscured by High Renaissance titans like Raphael and Michelangelo. Exceptional works are on view, like the small rondel depicting the Prophet Isaiah by Lorenzo Monaco, ca 1410-1415, and the powerful interpretation of the features of Saint Paul, attributed to Lippo Memmi, one of the masters of the distinctive style of painting in Sienna during the 1300's.
Bernardo Daddi, Madonna and Child with Four Angels, 1348
My favorite among these gold-ground masterpieces is the panel painting by Bernardo Daddi showing the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus, adored by four angels. Daddi, who is believed to have been trained by the great Giotto, was one of the leading Florentine painters of the 1300's. Combining elements of Giotto's physicality with the gracefulness of Sienese painting, this is a pivotal work in the shift from the medieval conception of art to that of the Renaissance.
The four angels are almost entirely based on the canons of christian imagery. The golden halos of the angels in the foreground obscure the heads and necks of the angels in the rear. There is hardly any differentiation in the faces of the angels. Even the color of the robes match, light-green in front, creamy front. The bodies of the Virgin Mary, likewise, hearken back to medieval ideals, including Byzantine art. But with Daddi's depiction of the faces of the Virgin and Child, an awesome leap forward to a new art form, both human and divine, has been made.
Look closely at the eyes of Mary and Jesus. They focus upon each other, knowingly and tenderly. This is the electrifying moment in the lives of each mother and baby when they both recognize each other. However, there is an added note, a hold-over from Christian iconography. In that the perceptive look of the Christ child dawns the first moment of awareness of his destiny, again both human and divine.
If one is looking to pinpoint the moment of transition from the art of the Middle Ages to that of the Renaissance, a good choice would be Daddi's Madonna and Child, created around 1348. This was in the midst of the Black Death. It was a horrible time to live, but just when such inspirational art is needed most.
If Bernardo Daddi's Madonna and Child represents the shift from medieval art to the Renaissance, to compare this painting with Kurt Schwitters' Untitled, 1921, would seem to be totally inexplicable. No two works of art, the Italian "primitive" of 1348 and the post World War I Dada collage, could be further apart. Or maybe not.
Daddi's Madonna and Child is a devotional work, painted with rare color pigments and backed with tooled gold leaf. Kurt Schwitters' Untitled is one of his "Merz" constructions or collages. Merz was a word initially related to bits of refuse, to be used wherever and whenever needed. For Schwitters that became all the time. His Merzbilden (Merz pictures) led in due course to Merz sculptures, Merz buildings and Merz poems. When Schwitters had to flee Nazi persecution, he took his Merz theory of art with him into exile, first to Norway and then to England where he died in 1948.
Schwitters, like Daddi, lived during difficult, seemingly apocalyptic, times. But he endured and so did the motivational spirit impelling him to create art. Merz is the art of survival and of connecting with others.
When I look at the abstract composition of Schwitters' Untitled from 1921, I see geometric forms and blocks of color coming together in a mutual embrace, in a manner very much like Daddi's Madonna cradling the Infant Jesus in her arms, their faces tenderly touching.
Am I correct in this unorthodox compare/contrast? Yes or no, there are certainly unifying threads - ideas and ideals, aspirations and inspiration -which draw great works of art and great artists together. This bond of unity is discernible in all of Ronald Lauder's treasures on view at the Neue Galerie. One can only be grateful to him and to the curators and staff of the Neue Galerie, itself a work of art.
This is the appropriate moment to highlight the role of Serge Sabarsky in the Neue Galerie saga. A great art curator and an enthusiast for German and Austrian art, Sabarsky played a crucial role in planning the Neue Galerie, but sadly died before it opened.
As a way to preserve Sabarsky's memory, the museum's restaurant is named in his honor. Cafe Sabarsky replicates a cafe from Old Vienna with light fixtures designed by Josef Hoffmann, furniture by Adolf Loos and upholstery from a 1912 Otto Wagner design. There are gleaming mirrors and a Bosendorfer grand piano which is used for cabaret, chamber and classical music performances. The menu serves outstanding Viennese cuisine and there is an endless supply of gemütlichkeit.
I have never traveled to Vienna, nor has my wife, Anne. It does not look like we will be going there any time soon.
However, to paraphrase a line from the movie, Casablanca (of which Ronald Lauder is a great admirer): "We'll always have the Neue Galerie."
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd, All rights reserved
Introductory image: Ronald S. Lauder in his home, 2022. Photo: Shahar Azran. Image courtesy Neue Galerie New York