the menil collection

A few blocks away from MFAH, in a quiet residential neighborhood, the Menil Collection anchors a cultural enclave of shaded streets where unassuming bungalows sit side-by-side with art filled chapels, artist pavilions, and outdoor sculpture. It’s the distinctive – and decidedly eclectic – vision of Houston philanthropists John and Dominque de Menil, whose private art collection forms the bulk of the museum. As modernists, the de Menils recognized the formal and spiritual connections between contemporary art and the arts of ancient and indigenous cultures, so while at first it might seem curious to pass through a gallery hung with Surrealists into a room full of carved statuary from Oceania, intellectually it makes perfect sense once considered. What appears at first to be slap dash has actually been meticulously planned. That spirit of intellectual provocation is one of the things I most love about this curious collection. Another is the fact that the de Menils enjoyed close friendships with many of the contemporary artists whose work they collected, including Max Ernst, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, Rene Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko; meaning much of the American postwar Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism hasn’t simply been collected, but commissioned.

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say thyssen-bornemisza five times fast

Imagine being so outrageously wealthy that you run out of space to display your encyclopedic collection of art.  Then imagine convincing the government to spruce up the 18th-century Palace of Villahermosa so that you can establish your own museum – across the street from the Prado, no less -  and free up a bit of wall space at home.  In a nutshell, that’s the story behind the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the legacy of steel magnate Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza and his wife, Carmen, a former Miss Espana and ex-wife of Lex “Tarzan” Barker. While the Prado allows you to focus in depth on the body of work from a number of great painters, the Thyssen gives you a stunning overview of art history from the Renaissance, to Flanders and France, German Expressionism, 19th Century North America, to Cubism, the Avant Garde and Pop Art. As if that were not enough, beginning in the late 1980’s local-girl-made-good Carmen started assembling her own collection of pictures.  So they built an extension to house the separate – yet complementary – Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, which while particularly rich in late- and post-Impressionists also covers the waterfront, so to speak. It’s all wonderfully eclectic to say the least – and small enough to be enjoyable while not overwhelming. I think what impressed me most of all was how expansively the collection delves into 19th century North American and Hudson River School painting.  (What a surprise to see the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington’s cook, Hercules.) We are so accustomed to revering the early European masters that it’s almost shocking to discover they could take any serious interest in our own pre-imperial culture.

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