26 September 2011

Francophile Manhattan: Helena Rubenstein & The Rockefellers

I never knew my mother's mother; she died years before I was born and so I have never been comfortable referring to Florence Williams as my grandmother.  My mother adored her mother, whose nickname was Billie, and often told stories about her and one of them was the genesis of this article.

During the Depression, when work for builders like my grandfather was nonexistent, Billie removed her wedding ring, took the train into Manhattan from Orange, New Jersey, and got a job as a receptionist at the Helena Rubinstein Salon on Fifth Avenue.  Rubinstein had made her fortune with face creams, being the first to realize that if creams were marketed for day, night, and anti-wrinkle, the customer would buy three times as many  jars.   For years I have searched for pictures of that Salon, and here is one of the reception area  by the esteemed architectural photographer Samuel Gottscho (1875-1971).  

The cosmetics mogul brought her love of all things French with her when she came to New York. To design the salon, Rubinstein chose the Hungarian Ladislas Medgyes who had outfitted her New York apartment with its sensational clear dining suite made out of a new wonder  material called lucite.  Oak and leather stools were designed by Jean-Michel Frank, a rug was inspired by Fernand Leger who also painted the mural for Nelson Rockefeller’s east side townhouse. Presiding over all that luxe was the  flattering portrait of Madame Rubinstein  in a yellow shawl by Marie Laurencin. Also like Rockefeller, Rubinstein dotted her apartment with African sculptures and surrealist paintings.  The rococo settee seen above in the Salon were a frequent Rubinstein accent.

The Rockefellers, father John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and his son Nelson, were prominent Francophiles who had the means leave a mark on the city.  Nelson's Fifth Avenue duplex, designed by Jean-Michel Frank, in 1937, was the setting for many events during his long career in the arts and in politics.   (Frank, who was made a refugee by the Nazi occupation of his native France, jumped to his death from a tall New York building in 1941.)  Meanwhile, John D.'s eponymous Rockefeller Center, under construction throughout the 1930s, was an extravagant love letter to all things French that has become, with time, an icon of American architecture. At its center is  Paul Manship's golden Prometheus: "Prometheus, teacher in every art, brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends."  Rockefeller's kindred spirit, you could say.

As is often the case with love affairs, one party was more enthusiastic than the other.   The French, their patented mixture of admiration laced with disdain, looked askance at the American skyscraper, finding something savage in this obelisk.  They tried out a variety of metaphors to contain the heady experience of the vertical building, from mountains to cathedrals.  The journalist, Jules Heret, sneered at them as  “maisons geantes,”  redeemed only by the magical aura cast by electricity.  One critic even dismissed Cass Gilbert’s stately Woolworth Building as “banal and ineffective.” I could take this personally as my grandfather and grandmother had to postpone their  wedding until October 16, 1913 so my Norman could finish working on the completion of the Woolworth tower. When the magazine Je sais tout published its first article about the construction of Rockefeller Center in December, 1931, the tone began to shift toward admiration for America’s “composition urbaniste,”

In 1935, Le Corbusier, a man who considered himself the master of le composition urbaniste, visited New York City  with its bouillabaisse of Beaux-Arts and streamlined architecture.  Later he committed his reaction to print in When The Cathedrals Were White (1947):  “In New York, then, I learn to appreciate the Italian Renaissance.”    

1.  Samuel Gottscho -  Helena Rubinstein salon in Manhattan, 1936, Museum of the City of New York.
2. Jean Lurcat - for Maison Mybor, hand-knotted wool rug, ca. 1930, Helen Rubenstein Collection, NYC.
3. unidentified photographer for Life Magazine - Helena Rubinstin in bed designed to her dimensions by Ladislas Medgyes, 1941, Museum of the City of New York. 
4. Fernand Leger - design for fireplace mural for Nelson Rockefeller's New York townhouse, c. 1938, Davidson gallery, NYC.
5. unidentified photographer - Prometheus, designed by Paul Manship at Rockefeller Center Plaza, 1930s, New York Public Library.
6. Le Corbusier - Metamorphosis of a violin, 1922, Pompidou Center, Paris.

13 September 2011

Two Old Maids And A Widow

Imagine this autochrome portrait of Emilie Floge at ten feet tall.  That is what I saw when I entered the second floor salon at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan.    Hanging in front of some half dozen French windows were larger than life transparencies of photographs of the Austrian designer.   As part of the exhibition Wiener Werkstatte Jewelry, they showed Floge wearing necklaces and brooches that were on display, dressed in outfits she designed for her business, Schwestern Floge.  The transparent scarf, designed at the Werkstatte, was an idea borrowed by the French designer Paul Poiret after a visit to Vienna in 1911.

This brooch  from the exhibition, designed by Josef Hoffmann and made of silver and gilt, coral, opal, and lapis lazuli, may have been for sale at the Floge salon in Vienna.  It is exemplary of the mixture of Art Nouveau and Art Deco tendencies popular in the early 20th century and, also, of a problem Viennese designers faced, but never solved. 
An outfit from Schwestern Floge was ten times more expensive than one made by a seamstress and cost  four times more than one purchased at the (then) new department stores.  Even so, the firm was a success, employing up to eighty workers, all of them in back, behind the showrooms. 
"It was Emilie Floge in particular who kept the shop going.  It was due only to her initiative that the firm reached such a height...And then she worked like an artist, like a sculptor, at the dummy." - Herta Wanke, longtime employee.

The stark atmosphere that Hoffmann created for the salon  was stylishly a la japonaise and was an apt background for the bright colors of the clothes, intended to be just as much a provocation to the bourgeois Viennese as the paintings of Les Fauves or Der Blaue Reiter.  Among the customers were Sonia Knips and Friedricke Beer, daughter of the owner of the famous Kaiser Bar.  Like Emilie Floge, both sat for the painter Gustav Klimt.

Schwestern Floge opened its doors in 1904, its proprietors were three sisters: Emilie (31), Helene (34 and a widow) and Pauline (39). The Floge family belonged to Vienna's unemancipated  lower middle class. and, left fatherless in 1897, needed to earn their way. You could say the business began when the sisters were commissioned to design outfits in the new 'reform' style for a cooking demonstration.  Fin-de-siecle Vienna was more recepetive to reforms in women's dress than in political emancipation.  Freeing their bodies from restrictive corsets proved easier than throwing off the inconsistencies in sexual relationships or financial dependence on men.  Also, Viennese society saw reform dress as a way to declare fashion independence from Paris.
Emilie Floge (1874-1962) was known for her nervous disposition and, in  later years,she was considered aloof.  A sense of responsibility toward her sisters must have weighed on the freshness and unpretentiousness that her friends admired.  She became an early, enthusiastic driver,and a familiar sight in her yellow sports car.  Twice a year, she traveled to Paris to check out the competition and to buy her fabrics.

This portrait of Emilie Floge, made by Gustav Klimt in 1902, as Floge was preparing to open her great business venture is, for most of us, our introduction to this remarkable woman.  I found my uneasiness underlined by her contemporary, Hans Koeck: "The material consciously fits tight around the neck of the woman wearing the dress, as if to throttle her, as though the artist were aiming at the erotic effect of strangulation as in his 1902 portrait of Emilie Floge. Traces of his sublime sadistic imagination can be found on all occaions where the wearer's neck and breast are enclosed by an armour of fabric."

The nature of the relationship between Floge and Klimt has always been a delicious topic for speculation.  Throughout his adult life Klimt shared a flat with his mother and his sisters, Klara and Hermoine.  One doubts that he slept there overmuch as there three documented illegitimate children and a total of fourteen made claims on his estate (Emilie was his executor) after his death in 1918. 

Klimt was an unapologetic exploiter of sexual inequality, an old Adam.  Floge was regarded as an old maid in her day, but she was also a person with financial responsibilities who endeavored to use her talents to become a new Eve.  They had a very close relationship that was complicated by the bizarre mores of their time.  In his book Sex And Character (1903), the young philosopher Otto Weininger wrote: “…for the more highly differentiated, the discriminating man, the girl he desires and the girl he could only love and never desire, certainly have quite different dispositions, they are two quite different beings.”  Weininger was 23 when he wrote these words; he committed suicide soon after.

Kathe Frolich, fiancee of the dramatist Franz Grillparzer, knew both of them, and wrote:   “Klimt’s elemental force made a powerful impression on people and on women in particular and his appearance seems to breathe a strong smell of earth.  But he too reveals that crack which paralyses unreserved commitment to life; for many years he was bound to a woman in very close friendship, and he too was unable to devote himself completely to her.  A certain erotic neurasthenia comes through in his most sensitively expressed drawings and one surely does not go wrong is ascribing these to his most painful experiences.”
Epilogue to a career:  The Nazi invasion of Austria in 1938 brought an end to Schwestern Floge and the sisters retired to Ungarsgasse 39.  Their loyal employee Herta Wanke remembered the sadness of that time: “… the furnishings were worth hardly anything.  No-one was interested in Jugendstil and,, also, there was such a surplus of furniture in the Dorotheum ( a municipal pawn-broking establishment founded by Emperor Joseph II as a social service for the lower classes).”

Note:  In 1981, the estate of Emilie Floge was archived in Vienna.   New information about her work was revealed.
1. Friedrich Walker - Emile Floge with a green scarf, c. 1910, Neue Galerie, NYC.
2. Josef Hoffmann - brooch, 1908, Neue Galerie, NYC.
3. Josef Hoffmann - design for showroom - Schwestern Floge, c. 1902, Estate of Emilie Floge, Vienna. 
4. unidentified photographer - reception area at  Schwestern Floge,  c.1905, Estate of Emilie Floge, Vienna.
5 Friedrich Walker - Emilie Floge at Attersee, 1910, courtesy Neue Galerie, NYC.
6. Dora Kalmus (Madame d'Ora) - Emilie Floge, 1909, Osterreisches National Bibliothek, Vienna.
7. Gustav Klimt - Portrait of Emilie Floge, 1902, Vienna State Museum.
8. Friedrich Walker - Gustav Klimt & Emilie Floge in a boat on Lake Attersee, 1910, Vienna State Museum..
9. Moritz Nahr - Emilie Floge, 1905, Vienna State Museum.
10. Gusatv Klimt - Emilie Floge in a Concert Dress, 1906, Vienna State Museum.

06 September 2011


It was a foggy day on Lake Attersee, so Gustav Klimt couldn’t see across the water through that telescope.  We know that he used the telescope to  frame the  elegantly untethered landscapes he painted.  He was not being serious about looking on this particular occasion, his face  turned slightly toward the photographer.  If we didn’t know about his vanity, we could intuit it from the cumberbund he is wearing that accentuates the barrel shape he  acquired in middle age more than it restrains it.


The introduction of photography and of Japanese art to western audiences occurred during the same period, a happy coincidence that has kept legions of art historians busy ever since, trying to assign blame or influence, depending on your preference.  We also know that Klimt turned his opera glasses on objects close at hand, a technique that produced results which resemble what a near-sighted person sees when they go outside without glasses.  Such assaults on the perfection of Renaissance perspective have often been viewed as illegitimate means, regardless of ends.  As recently as thirty years ago, curator Peter Galassi’s exhibition Before Photography at the Museumof Modern Art was received skeptically, its examination of cross-influence between the two media dismissed as a parlor game.

Lake Attersee, situated in western Austria, is far removed from the hectic life of the capitol city.  Not that Klimt didn't enjoy being over-stimulated but, away from the distractions of so many attractive Viennese women, the artist  found an atmosphere conducive to working with landscape.  Both sublime and subliminally inspiring is the famed  Rosenwind, an easterly wind off Lake Attersee that carries the fragrance of a thousand roses from a castle garden, perfuming the air with magic.

When I visited the Klimt  landscape exhibition at the Clark Art Institute I saw Arthur Schopenhauer's idea of nature's chaos brought under the control of art.  From close up, Klimt's brushstrokes appear abstract but back off and they represent flowers, trees, and water (but seldom sky) while remaining noncommittal, a very loose form of verisimilitude indeed.

Buildings inhabit space almost as an afterthought, as though these gardens were not also human creations.  The orderly looking farmhouse seems no match for its surroundings,  a Freudian image of emotion's triumph over reason.  Klimt's attitudes toward nature, human and otherwise, were pessimistic and regressive.  He wrote once that he yearned to find a place where "fate will allow us to enjoy our pleasure."  This from a man whose self-indulgence needed more than a cumberbund to restrain it. 

Gustav Klimt Landscapes was one of four exhibitions at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (other displayed the works of architects Otto Wagner and Josef Hoffmann and the painter Bernardo Bellotto) were part of the Vienna Project at eleven institutions of art, music, and theater in Massachusetts during the summer of 2002.
1. unidentified photographer - Gustav Klimt and his telescope, c.1905, courtesy Clark Art Institue, Williamstown, MA.
2. Gustav Klimt - Italian Garden, 1913, Kunsthaus Zug/Foundation Kamm Collection, Switzerland.
3. Gustav Klimt - Fruit Orchard With Roses, c. 1911, courtesy Clark Art Institute. Williamstown, MA.
4. Gustav Klimt -  Roses Under the Trees, 1905, Musee d'Orsay, Paris. (to be restored to its original owners who sold it the Nazis under duress  - March, 2021)
5. Gustav Klimt - Farmhouse with Birch Trees, 1911, Belvedere Galerie, Vienna.
 6. Gustav Klimt - Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee, 1916, private collection, courtesy Clark Art Institute,