04 July 2015

Alma Schindler-Mahler-Gropius-Werfel: what a woman!

Towards the end of the 1960s, all my women friends used to devise a test question  to recognise "the perfect marriage partner", once they left university. Some wanted a man committed to left wing politics; some wanted a partner more concerned with health and fitness; and others wanted a man steeped in literature.

My question to any man I met was "who were Alma Schindler's 3 husbands and 1 long term lover?" I married the man who answered this question the best :)


Alma Schindler (1879-1964) was born in Vienna to the landscape artist Emil Schind­ler and singer Anna von Bergen in 1879. Emil Schindler was a rabid anti-Semite while Alma herself became a slightly lesser anti-Semite. This was strange, since two of Alma's three husbands were Jews.

After her father's death in 1892, Alma's mother married her late husb­and's former pupil Carl Moll, a co-founder of the Vienna Seces­sion. Moll was one of my favourite Secessionists and a very important connection for young Alma. Alma's lively social life expanded as she met the artists of the Vienna Secession, including the very attractive Gustav Klimt.

Alma played the piano from childhood and loved composing from 1895 on. She met the composer  Alexander von Zemlinsky in early 1900, began composition lessons with him and cont­inued learning until Dec 1901; then Mahler made her stop composing! Zemlinsky was a great teacher and a great contact for Alma (after all, he taught Arnold Schönberg as well). But perhaps Mahler didn’t like Alma and Zemlinksy being lovers.

In March 1902 Alma married an older Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) who was the director of the Vienna Court Opera. They moved into a home near the Opera House where they had two daught­ers, Maria Anna (born 1902) who died in childhood, and Anna (born 1904) who survived into old age. With her own career nipped in the bud, Alma became the chief supporter of Gustav's music. At least until she met and became very close with the young architect Walter Gropius. Gropius was my fav­ourite Austrian architect and eventually the director of my favourite art school in all the world, The Bauhaus. Gustav Mahler finally realised his wife had composing talent so he helped her prepare some of her songs for publication in 1910. 

The Alma Mahler-Werfel Diaries from 1898-1902 
edited by Antony Beaumont
were published in 2000.

The young couple travelled together to New York, where Gustav worked as a conductor. But in 1911 he tragically died, soon after their return to Vienna.

After Mahler's death, in the years leading up to WW1, Alma had a passionate affair with the much younger artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), who painted many works about their shared passion. Although they broke up after a few years, Kokoschka continued an unrequited and hopeless love for Alma and later painted The Bride of the Wind in her honour.

With the coming of WWI, Kokoschka enlisted in the Austrian Army, so Alma resumed contact with Gropius who by this time was a soldier himself. She and Gropius married in 1915 and had a child together, Manon Gropius, who died tragically at 18. Composer Alban Berg wrote a violin work in Manon’s honour.

With Gropius still in the army, Alma began an affair with Czech poet and writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) in 1917, an affair that became very public. Within a year, Gropius and Alma agreed to a divorce which became final in 1920. However Alma and Werfel did not marry until 1929.

In 1938, Werfel’s Jewishness became critical. With the Anschluss, Werfel was forced to flee Austria for France; so Alma joined him in a house in Southern France from 1938 until 1940. With the German invasion and occupat­ion of France during WW2, Werfel faced Nazism terrorism close up and needed to immigrate to the USA as quickly as possible. Luckily Varian Fry, organiser of a private Am­erican relief and rescue organisation, was saving intellect­uals and artists from Mars­eilles. Fry arranged for the Werfels to travel by foot across the Pyrenees into Spain, then to Portugal and by ship for New York. I do not understand why Alma went into exile with her Jewish husband since a] she did not like Jews, b] she quite supported Nazism and c] she actively supported Franco in Spain.

In the USA Werfel had great suc­c­ess with his novel The Song of Bernadette, which was made into a film in 1943. Alas Werfel died in the USA in 1945 but it did not seem to matter to Alma. In 1946 she became a USA citizen and remained a major cultural figure in New York. She died in 1964 in New York and was buried back in Vienna, along­side Gustav Mahler. Scholars carefully read her two books on Mahler, so not only was she a well-connected member of Vienna’s cultural elite, Alma was the main authority on Mahler's life and work. Accurately or not.

The New York Times said that early in life Alma seems to have understood that in the male-dominated atmosphere of Vienna, her role was to be a motivator and stimulant of brilliant men, in bed and out. But I wonder if being a famous socialite and active supporter of Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and others was enough. Surely her own musical talents could have been much better realised.

At least until the time of her engagement to Mahler, Alma had composed her own Lieder and instrumental pieces. Yet only a limited number of her songs were published - in 1910, 1915 and 1924. Three additional songs were discovered in manus­cript form in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, after Alma’s death.

I have not seen the book The Bride of the Wind: the life and times of Alma Mahler-Werfel by Susanne Keegan (published by Viking). But The Times was impressed. “Ms Keegan interweaves Alma's amorous progress through some of the most elevated artistic figures in Europe with a portrayal of Viennese social life at its most culturally refined, when it combined steaminess, stuffiness and artistic aspiration in a uniquely creative cocktail”.

30 June 2015

Rembrandt - Old and New Testament

No other old masters, in any country or any century, showed as much interest in Jewish people or Jewish themes as did Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) in the Netherlands. Other painters, eg Grunewald, Durer and Bosch, did occasional Old Testament scenes, but almost always from a Christological point of view. Their Old Testament stories were only important in as far as they could prefigure New Testament events. So I take note of the mid C17th in the Netherlands; it was one of those very rare periods in art history when Jewish images were beautifully painted by stout Calvinists. As we can see in Rembrandt and colleagues: the Book of Esther.

Comm­erce had exp­an­ded to the ext­ent that the Dutch Republic had become the cul­turally and eco­n­om­ically most flourishing country in Europe. Much of the wealth and beauty of this city emerged be­cause of the Iberian Jews escaping op­p­ress­ion in their own lands. They set­t­led around Waterloo­p­l­ein, to the southern part of Amsterdam, and helped est­ab­l­ish a number of important in­dustries. Fortunately by the begin­ning of the C17th, Jews in Holland were al­lowed to pr­actise their religion freely.

Rembrandt had painted in Amsterdam before, but he only moved permanently to the capital in 1631 where he was learning with Pieter Lastman (died 1633). Lastman did a number of fine Old Testament subjects and it will not surprise us that Rembrandt's early work took much from the old artist - his themes, and also his sense of light and scale. See Lastman's Triumph of Mordechai 1624, for example.

Rembrandt married Saskia van Uyl­en­­burgh, a wealthy wo­m­an. This allowed him to live a life of comfort and joy, and to buy a house in the main Jewish area of Amsterdam: Jod­en­breestraat. Rembrandt was a Calvinist in good standing with his own church and, at the same time, was socially and geographically very close to the city's Se­phardi commun­ity. 

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1631
58 × 46 cm.

Normally at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

St Peter in Prison, 
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1631
59 × 48 cm.

Israel Museum, Jerusaem

The exhibition "Rembrandt from Amsterdam and Jerusalem: A meeting of two masterpieces at the Israel Museum" was introduced in artdaily. Two very early Rembrandt master-pieces are displayed side by side. The Prophet Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem is on special loan from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam for the Israel Museum's 50th anniversary. St Peter in Prison 1631 is from the Israel Museum's own collection.

There is an obvious resemblance between the two paintings. The modern viewer is drawn to the figure in the centre, an elderly bearded man whose face was filled with sadness and despair, raising an intriguing question: Did Rembrandt wish to draw attention to a special connection he noted between the prophet and the apostle, or is it simply that he had painted the same elderly model in both paintings?

Exhibition curator Shlomit Steinberg noted a 650-year gap between the two events described in the paintings. Nevertheless both took place in Jerusalem near Mount Moriah, and they both showed a great personal crisis that had implications of a historical and fatalistic nature. The prophet Jeremiah mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, while Jesus’ senior apostle St. Peter found himself locked up in gaol. As Peter entirely dependent on the whims of the Roman soldiers, he had good reason to fear for his future.

It is quite possible that the great similarity was mainly due to the fact that Rembrandt worked from the same model, probably a neighbour or acquaintance. Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, his studio partner, regularly painted this particular elderly man. His face was full of expression thanks to his white beard, high forehead and his bleary eyes, befitting the figure of a prophet or of Jesus’ tormented emissary. In both paintings, Rembrandt clearly described the moments of anxiety, doubt and desolation of the protagonists.

In both of these small oil paintings on wood, Rembrandt worked in his typical style, creating a high contrast between light and dark. This helped in deciphering his messages, both explicit and implicit, religious and human. Another important motif was the monumental pillar which appeared in both paintings, standing for the steadfast belief of those sitting at its feet. The artist's reference for the symbol were the pillars in Peterskerk in Rembrandt’s old hometown of Leiden.

Because it is important for the modern viewer to grasp some of Rembrandt's sources of inspiration, the exhibition includes examples of Rembrandt's prints on Biblical and New Testament themes by his teacher Peter Lastman. And because it is important to examine other artists who were in turn inspired by Rembrandt, the exhibition includes works by his pupils and followers like Gerrit Dou, Ferdinand Bol, Govaert Flinck and Gabriel Metsu. In particular the viewer should examine The Dismissal of Hagar, a large oil painting by Rembrandt’s pupil Jan Victors and Portrait of an Old Man by his contemporary Salomon Koninck, whose style was clearly influenced by Rembrandt.

"Rembrandt from Amsterdam and Jerusalem: A meeting of two masterpieces at the Israel Museum" is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem throughout June, July and August 2015.

27 June 2015

Catherine the Great, The Hermitage and Melbourne's winter blockbuster

Russian Empress Catherine the Great reigned from 1762-1796, a period of cultural renaissance for Russia. She was regarded as the nation’s foremost patron of the arts, literature and education and founded The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It is now one of the most visited museums in the world and is renowned for holding the world’s finest collection of the arts.

Works from the Hermitage, gathered by Catherine the Great herself, will go on show at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the blockbuster Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition series. Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great will feature 400+ works, including paintings by Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens and Titian. My personal favourites are the stunning decorative art pieces that display the life and loves of the 18th century's second most important Russian ruler. The programme opens on 31st July and will close on 8th Nov 2015.

Catherine the Great,
by Alexander Roslin,
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

This Melbourne exhibition will concentrate on Catherine's commitment to the arts as a tool for education, dip­lomacy and cultural exchange that heralded a long period of enlightenment in Russia. The commissions and purchases during her 34-year reign created the foundations for the Hermitage AND, it would be no exaggeration to say, contributed to nation building and cultural identity.

I knew quite a lot about Russian collecting patterns in the 18th cemtury, but Mikhail Dedinkin* from the Dept of Western Art at the Hermitage added far more information. From the beginning of her reign in 1762, Catherine the Great became a very knowledgeable person in the field of fine arts, without visiting Italy, France or Germany. She educated herself slowly, step by step, starting with the first load of paintings that arrived from a Berlin collection: 13 Rembrandt paintings, 11 Rubens, 7 Jacob Jordaens, 5 Anthony van Dycks, 5 Paolo Veroneses, 3 Frans Hals, 2 Raphaels, 2 Holbeins, a Titian, 2 Jan Steen and other Dutch artists. She had enough treasures to open the Hermitage in 1764 in a small way, separate from her own residences.

Some collections came to Russia in toto. In 1779 the Empress acquired 200 paintings that had belonged to the British statesman-collector Robert Walpole. Inspect the very large David Teniers II painting, The Kitchen 1646, which arrived in Russia as part of this Walpole collection. Two years later a set of 120 paintings arrived from the French collector Comte de Baudouin. Melbourne visitors can examine Rembrandt's portrait of the Young Woman With Earrings 1657, acquired by the Hermitage in 1781 from the Comte's treasures.

Young Woman With Earrings 
by Rembrandt, 
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

There was no systematic approach in the early years, and the first catalogue was not published until 1776. Catherine was guided by her team of advisers, based in either St Petersburg or abroad. Prince Gallitzin, who was the Russian ambas­s­ador in France and then in the Netherlands, was the greatest adviser of them all. He knew the most important artists of his time, as well as the critics and dealers, and Catherine absolutely trusted him.

If Catherine put her individual stamp on any particular part of the collection, it was in the library. It became the greatest library in Russia, con­sis­t­ing of 40,000+ volumes, together with the archives of significant writers and philosophers. Her most famous collections were the comp­lete libraries of Voltaire and Diderot. She remained closely connect­ed to Voltaire until his death, and when Diderot had a problem publishing his encyclopaedia in Paris, she purchased his library and appointed him as her official librarian there.

Catherine had quite broad tastes, so along with the very fine oil paintings, there were also sculptures, Chinese treasures, archit­ect­ural works and decorative arts. Peter the Great and his daughter Empress Elizabeth both loved Chinese art, especially since there were important trading connections between Russia and its neighbour to the east. Catherine, very naturally, continued this interest. Her Chinese collection was not huge, but it was magnificent. 

Part of a porcelain table setting of 60+ pieces that Catherine the Great commissioned 
from the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory in Paris
for her lover Prince Grigory Potemkin in 1777
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

In conjunction with the art exhibition, the Consort of Melbourne will perform harmonies of European choral music from the C18th. The live performances will include the works of composers Vedel, Berezovsky and Bortniansky. *Readers may want to find Mikhail Dedinkin's article which appeared in Gallery Magazine, published by the National Gallery of Victoria, July-August 2015.