BY MARGOT HORWITZ

 

Businessman and philanthropist Ronald Lauder W’65 has
opened a bright, new
art museum—Neue Galerie New York—during a dark time for the city.

 

 

 

Before he was a Penn undergraduate, chairman of EstÈe Lauder International, United States Ambassador to Austria, or a noted philanthropist and restorer of lost Jewish communities, Ronald Lauder W’65 had a fascination with art. This lifelong passion for collecting and exhibiting has recently culminated in his creation of the Neue Galerie New York, a unique blending of early 20th-century German and Austrian fine and decorative arts. It is a charming, accessible museum that has both extended the city’s cultural horizons and raised its spirits at a difficult time.

Lauder, who in addition to the distinctions above is the current chairman of the Museum of Modern Art, possesses an educated and intense interest in art as broad as it is deep. This enthusiasm was nurtured in his teen-age years during frequent trips to the great cities of Europe, particularly Vienna and Paris.

Lauder’s extensive travels intensified not only his appreciation for art, but his command of foreign languages. Already fluent in French and German by the time he came to Penn, Lauder studied Swedish to fulfill the language requirement for his self-created major of international business at the Wharton School. He believes undergraduates should spend time learning languages, as in the language-and-culture curriculum that is the focus of the Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies at Penn.

The Neue Galerie New York is the result of years of planning by Lauder and the late Serge Sabarsky, the Vienna-born owner of a major gallery of German and Austrian art. The two met while Lauder was building his own collection, and a warm friendship developed between them. Convinced that their collections belonged in a beautiful building that the public could enjoy, they bought the Beaux Arts
Vanderbilt Mansion at 86th and Fifth Avenue, which had been designed in 1914 by the architectural firm CarrÈre & Hastings, creators of the New York City Public Library and Vernon Court. (See accompanying story.)

The choice of the mansion was serendipitous for many reasons, notes Lauder. He points to the time of the building’s design—1914—as the same period when many of the art works were being created inside Europe.

The Neue Galerie’s size sets it apart from many of its neighbors along New York’s august Museum Mile. With only 4,300 square feet of exhibition space, arranged for special as well as permanent exhibitions, the museum can hold 300 people. It is also unique for its equal inclusion of fine and decorative arts from the artists of the period. Paintings, sculptures, and a wide range of works on paper hang near large and small design objects, ranging from dramatic ceiling fixtures and drawing cabinets to flatware, glass, and china.

After Serge Sabarsky’s death in 1996, Lauder pressed ahead with architect Annabelle Selldorf on the building’s restoration. She left some rooms untouched, such as the elegant second-floor salon, while redesigning others as suitable settings for the objects of art.

The inaugural exhibition, “New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890-1940,” was followed by this spring’s exhibition of early portraits from Vienna and Berlin by Oscar Kokoschka, whose works in watercolor, gouache, and pencil on paper remain in the Austrian galleries.

Walking through the Neue Galerie is like visiting someone’s wonderful, art-laden city home. Well, perhaps most town houses don’t strive to instruct the guest with signs describing German Expressionism or the Bauhaus movement. But it is nice to have both a visual treat and a learning experience in as accessible an institution as this one.

The decision to house the collections in a relatively small building was a conscious one. Lauder speaks of visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art “three or four times a week, while I was at Penn. I would go through one room each time, memorizing the pictures I’d seen that day. I think it’s better to view a limited number of art works—and really enjoy seeing them. I hope that’s what people experience at the Neue Galerie.”

The bulk of the collection comes from the early decades of the 20th century, and some of its most exciting pieces were created during that time. The large and colorful oils of Gustav Klimt seize the imagination, as do such decorative objects as Josef Hoffmann’s hanging lamp and armoire for a little girl’s room, and his gem-studded jewelry.

Of course any museum focusing on Germanic culture cannot escape its impact on World War II. The “new objectivity” of German artists of the mid-1920s points up the artists’ socially critical and cynical view of post-World War I German society. The stark bodies and gaunt faces in the canvases of George Grosz, Otto Dix, and Max Beckmann presage their concerns about what is to come.

And while most of the German and Austrian artists of the time—whose work was later labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis—were not Jewish by birth, many of their original patrons were, a fact which magnified the hatred directed at artists and supporters alike in the 1930s.

The creation of a museum celebrating German and Austrian art comes as the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation has spread to 15 countries, attempting to revive dormant Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The foundation funds Jewish day schools, restoration of historical sites, and the selection of rabbis for synagogues in cities where Jewish life was nearly obliterated by the Nazis.

Some 100,000 people have visited the museum since its opening in November—a time when New York tourism was considerably down.

“As the first cultural institution to open after September 11,” says Lauder, “we’ve been told by visitors how much the Neue Galerie has brightened the New York scene. Part of our success has certainly been timing, when people wanted something fresh and different.”

Margot Freedman Horwitz CW’58 ASC’62 has published three books for Grolier/ Scholastic and is now working on a mystery novel. She spends as much time as possible checking out the New York and Philadelphia art scenes.

 




Left: Neue Gallery, 1048 Fifth Avenue; armchair by Koloman Moser, ca.1903; brooch by Josef Hoffmann, 1904.
Above: Self-Portrait in Brown Coat by Egon Schiele, 1910. Below (from left): Self-Portrait in Front of Red Curtain by Max Beckmann, 1923; The Dancer by Gustav Klimt, ca. 1916-18.


 

 

 
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