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Eastern Europe: Glimpses of Brancusi, Goncharova in U.S. Art Catalogue

  • Robert Lyle



Washington, 29 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- An exhibition of modern art at the U.S. National Gallery of Art in Washington is drawing as much attention to its catalogue as to the pictures and sculptures on display.

The exhibited works, collected by an American furniture manufacturing family, include paintings by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Natalia Goncharova and Diego Rivera and sculpture by Constantin Brancusi in what national gallery director Earl Powell describes as a "stellar lineup of early 20th century art."

But the catalogue is getting lots of interest because it includes recently discovered reminiscences from just after World War II about several of the artists -- most notably Romanian-born sculptor Brancusi and Russian-born Goncharova and her husband, Larionov.

The personal reminiscences were written by Nannette Rothschild who, along with her husband Herbert, managed to meet the artists when the couple traveled to Europe in the late 1940s and early 1950s to search out new furniture designs for their company.

The Rothschild's were not connected to the legendary and wealthy European family. He was a carpenter born in New York City and they took over his father's furniture business, growing it into a major manufacturer of furniture for offices and middle-class homes.

Their daughter, Judith, became a painter and helped spark their interest in modern art, urging them into one of their very first purchases, a piece by Kandinski. That was just the start, however, and soon on their trips to Europe, the couple began searching out artists, wanting to meet the people behind the works they were finding so intriguing.

Art historians say the reminiscences, made public for the first time in the Washington exhibition catalogue, show how personal was the collecting done by the Rothschilds, but also tell a great deal about the world of artists in post-war Paris.

The sculptor Brancusi was living in Montparnasse in 1953, she writes, "old and a recluse, (who) had no agent or gallery" and who let it be known that he did "not welcome visitors to his studio." Nevertheless, the Rothschilds were able to get the French potter Claire Guilbert to arrange a visit to the one-time parking garage Brancusi used as a studio and living quarters.

Brancusi at first only admitted Guilbert, but a few minutes later reopened the door and invited the Rothschilds in.

"We saw a little old man with a long gray-white beard, very sharp, darting eyes, dark skin, and a most kindly expression on his face," wrote Nanette. He always wore "immaculate white pajamas, which were similar to our blue denims and reminded us of the white uniform of Mexican workers."

Brancusi's studio "made great sense to us as a setting for the kind of work" he had been doing for years, she wrote. "It was in perfect order and very clean, except that everything was covered with a fine white dust."

She said the floor was packed earth, very even and hard, without a speck of paper or debris, although there was a great deal of broken stone. A balcony of wood, about ten feet off the floor and reachable only by a carpenter's ladder, served as the sculptor's bedroom.

Brancusi showed the visiting Americans around his studio, uncovering one sculpture at a time to let them look and consider the work before covering it again carefully with its flannel hood.

Nanette said they expressed interest in a couple of his wooden sculptures, but Brancusi would not sell them because they were "full of beasties (worms)." Finally, she wrote, they agreed on the purchase of the polished bronze sculpture, "the Muse", although they had to wait for Brancusi to make a base for it.

In a week, they got a call that the base was ready, but were told to bring the purchase price in cash because Brancusi did not trust banks. When the Rothschilds arrived at the studio with the cash filling a valise, they found Brancusi in a "towering rage." He opened the suitcase, threw handfuls of the francs into the air and dumped the rest on the floor, exclaiming he would "have nothing to do with this money."

The Rothschilds quickly left the studio, but Guilbert stayed to learn that Brancusi had been visited the previous day by a tax inspector and the artist suspected the young American couple of having reported the impending sale.

The next day, she wrote, Guilbert heard from Brancusi that the whole deal was off because he claimed the Rothschilds had not given him the sum agreed upon. So a mutual friend went to the studio, searched on his hands and knees, and found the missing francs.

When the Rothschilds returned once again to the studio, Brancusi greeted them warmly at the door, kissed Nanette on both cheeks, and said "Brancusi bad boy."

Over several years, the Rothschilds visited Brancusi whenever they were in Paris, but purchasing his works was always fraught with difficulties. In 1955, Nanette wrote, Brancusi finally agreed to sell them his wooden sculpture "Sorceress." However, a few days later he called to say he would not ship the piece because he did not have a suitable base for it. That very day, Brancusi fell from the ladder up to his bed and broke his hip. He was hospitalized for some time and while he was laid up, he was visited by the director of New York's Guggenheim Museum who wanted to do a retrospective -- provided Brancusi would let the museum purchase two major pieces. One of the sculptures Brancusi sold to the Guggenheim was "Sorceress."

Brancusi later apologized for selling the sculpture, despite his previous agreement with the Rothschilds, saying he "owed" them a work. It was never to be, wrote Nanette, but at least the "Sorceress" is still on public display at the Guggenheim.

Even more intriguing to art historians are Nanette Rothschild's recollections of Natalya Gontcharova and Mikhail Larionov.

The artist couple had left Moscow for Paris in 1914 as fairly well-known contemporary painters, but by the early 1950s, their work was mostly forgotten and they were living in abject poverty in the French capital. The Rothschilds had purchased a lithograph by Gontcharova in an out-of-the-way Paris gallery in 1951, but had never heard of her. A year later, upon running into another painting by her, they set out to meet the artist who, with her invalid husband, lived in a tiny two-room apartment on the top floor of an old building in Paris.

"Gontcharova was a delightful person, with a slender, tight little figure, face of great beauty, and magnificent, snappy black eyes," wrote Nanette. The apartment, no more than 4.5 by 5 meters was mostly "occupied by the stacks of canvases that were their most precious possessions."

She wrote that Larionov had suffered a stroke during the war and that the small pension the couple received was used up for food and medicines for him. Gontcharova "went daily to a nearby restaurant to buy a bowl of soup to take home to him" and that the proprietors, realizing that she ate next to nothing herself, asked if she wouldn't join them for the midday meal, paying for it by telling stories of her prewar life in Russia.

That saved Gontcharova's life, wrote Nanette, because she could not leave her husband long enough for her to stand in line at the soup kitchen, which was her only other recourse.

The Rothschilds learned over several visits that Gontcharova and Larionov had taken many of their early paintings with them when they left Moscow in 1914, which were shown in a number of exhibitions in Western Europe, winding up in Berlin. Following that exhibit, the paintings were being shipped back to Moscow when World War I broke out. They were at the German border and about to be confiscated when the German gallery owner stepped in and claimed them as his own. He stored the works for the artists and returned them after the war. It was on these paintings that Gontcharov and Larionov were still living "so meagerly" in the early 1950s, "trying to sell one at a time for food."

During one visit to the tiny apartment, Nanette wrote, Gontcharova showed her a trunk filled with paintings, drawings, textiles and packages of scripts related to her work for the Ballets Russes. Gontcharova related how that tie began in Moscow where she and Larionov were among a group of intellectuals who met frequently to discuss and criticize everything.

One night, Ballets Russes founder Sergei Daighilev joined the group and asked how they liked the ballet they had just seen performed. Gontcharova criticized the work, so Daighilev challenged her to write the next ballet. She protested that she knew nothing of dance, but Daighilev said that was "just the reason you should try."

Gontcharova told Nanette that she threw herself into the work and enjoyed it tremendously, but was afraid to attend the first performance of "Le Coq d'or" in 1914. The audience loved the ballet and shouted for Daighilev to "fetch" the author.

Diaghilev sent a cab to bring Gontcharova to the theater. She had been so nervous about the event, she told Nanette, that she had rubbed a little sore on her cheek, so when the cab came to fetch her, she quickly cut a piece of black court-plaster in the form of a flower and pasted it over the inflamed spot.

She received the acclaim of the audience and the next day, Gontcharova said, "every fashionable woman (in the city) was wearing a black court-plaster rose on her cheek." Gontcharova said this had occurred in Moscow, but Nanette says the records indicated that it took place in Paris. Daighilev's Ballets Russes was formed in Moscow but frequently toured West European capitals into the 1920s.

Nanette Rothschild wrote that she and her husband bought several pieces of both Gontcharova and Larionov and that finally there was a revival in Russia art of their early period "so that when she died in 1962, they had at least been relieved of the extreme poverty to which they had earlier been reduced."

The Rothschilds died in the 1970s, but they left an interesting legacy. The works are now owned by a foundation, but it is charged by their late daughter Judith to donate everything to deserving museums within the next two years. So, this private collection will become public, but as importantly, so are the personal recollections of some of the great artists of the 20th century.
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