Florine Stettheimer, Portrait of Myself (1923), oil on canvas mounted on composition board, 106.6 cm. x 66 cm.; courtesy the Columbia University Libraries Special Collections
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“A little bit of this, a little bit of that—it’s all very interesting, but you need weeks to go through it all.” That opinion, frustrated but not unappreciative, was voiced by a matronly visitor to The Power of Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum. You couldn’t ask for a better capsule review.
The topic of benefactors encouraging and, at times, shaping culture can encompass a myriad of fascinating and often knotty tangents. Chief among them for this exhibition are, as the title makes plain, ethnicity, religion and gender: Throughout the years examined here (roughly from the late 18th to the early 20th century), Jewish women were, almost by definition, doubly disenfranchised. Politics—whether predicated upon the Enlightenment, National Socialism or Bohemia—is also a component of the mix. Art, in all of its variety, is in there, too. Combine all of that with a geographical purview that zips from Berlin to London to Milan to Paris to Manhattan, and you have a show that has bitten off a lot to chew.
How well it chews is another matter. History can be clarified with startling effectiveness by a museum exhibition, but the rat-a-tat-tat cadence of The Power of Conversation will leave visitors hankering for a sense of bearing. How does a survey provide for personalities as audacious as Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin and Margherita Sarfatti—an art critic who was Mussolini’s mistress and a co-architect of Fascism—or artists as significant as Thomas Mann, Gustav Klimt, Medardo Rosso and Walter Sickert? By glancing upon them with efficient haste, that’s how.
Additionally, there’s an assortment of medals, letters, rare books, manuscripts, fabrics, photographs and films: a lot of stuff, artfully over-arranged. The installation will not go down in history as a model of underkill.
The main impetus for my attending The Power of Conversation was the promise of paintings by Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944). In that respect, the Jewish Museum delivers. Stettheimer, a cult favorite whose stylish, cartoon-like paintings are an acerbic form of autobiography, was a grand, big-city eccentric. Along with sisters Ettie and Carrie, Stettheimer hosted salons in her West 76th Street home, where the likes of the great American sculptor Elie Nadelman, the great American art critic Henry McBride and the great trans-Atlantic gadfly Marcel Duchamp hobbed and nobbed.
Of the 11 Stettheimer paintings on view, you’ll find one of her worst, Self-Portrait (1915-16); one of her wittiest, Soirée (1917-19); and Portrait of My Sister Ettie Stettheimer (1923), a picture in which intensity is inseparable from ridiculousness.
Who knew that a Christmas tree could simultaneously appear as an agent of the Apocalypse and an emblem of self-involvement? Stettheimer did, and it’s to her credit that she makes its power felt either way. The Stettheimer room alone makes a visit worthwhile.
Otherwise, the exhibition feels like an addendum to its accompanying catalog. There, you get a better sense of how the social gatherings put into motion by the various Jewish women made for milieus heady with artistic ferment. The audio guide, with its recordings of actors interpreting texts by participants in the various salons, provides some amusing bits of useless information. (Did you know that Picasso had a “whinnying laugh”?) Even so, the narrator’s voice is the audio guide’s biggest selling point: It’s the only chance most of us will get at having Isabella Rossellini whispering in our ear.
© 2005 Mario Naves
Originally published in the July 10, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.