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Sacred Modern

Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection

By Pamela G. Smart

Publication Year: 2010

Renowned as one of the most significant museums built by private collectors, the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, seeks to engage viewers in an acutely aesthetic, rather than pedagogical, experience of works of art. The Menil’s emphasis on being moved by art, rather than being taught art history, comes from its founders’ conviction that art offers a way to reintegrate the sacred and the secular worlds. Inspired by the French Catholic revivalism of the interwar years that recast Catholic tradition as the avant-garde, Dominique and John de Menil shared with other Catholic intellectuals a desire to reorder a world in crisis by imbuing modern cultural forms with religious faith, binding the sacred with the modern. Sacred Modern explores how the Menil Collection gives expression to the religious and political convictions of its founders and how “the Menil way” is being both perpetuated and contested as the Museum makes the transition from operating under the personal direction of Dominique de Menil to the stewardship of career professionals. Taking an ethnographic approach, Pamela G. Smart analyzes the character of the Menil aesthetic, the processes by which it is produced, and the sensibilities that it is meant to generate in those who engage with the collection. She also offers insight into the extraordinary impact Dominique and John de Menil had on the emergence of Houston as a major cultural center.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

Dominique de Menil took a considerable leap of faith in granting me access to the facilities of the Menil Collection, consenting to a series of conversations, and inviting me to observe her in the practice of the art of installation. Given the extraordinary care that the Menil Collection has taken in crafting the manner in which it is presented and understood, I am acutely aware of the generosity that was extended to me in enabling me to proceed with my project. ...

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1. Seven Layers of Blue

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pp. 1-20

The small windowless East Temporary Gallery was drenched in blue. Before an empty expanse of wall sat Dominique de Menil, framed by Paul Winkler, then the director of the Menil Collection, standing at one shoulder and Susan Davidson, then associate curator, at the other. A pair of preparators held Paul Klee’s Blick der Stille (Gaze of Silence), adjusting it slightly, half an inch this way and that, repeatedly measuring the distance from the floor and the corners of the wall. ...

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2. Faith

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pp. 21-45

...In the summer of 1952 we visited with Father Couturier, another Dominican, the church where L

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3. New World

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pp. 46-66

In his essay “New York in 1941,” Claude Lévi-Strauss characterized the sense of possibility that this New World city presented: “New York (and this is the source of its charm and peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. ...

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4. Collecting as a Vocation

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pp. 67-86

The catalogue The Menil Collection: A Selection from the Paleolithic to the Modern Era (1987) reproduces in pride of place on its frontispiece Max Ernst’s Portrait of Dominique, commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil in 1934. Th is was the painting they had left behind, wrapped in brown paper, on top of an armoire when they left Paris during the war, not liking it sufficiently to ship it to their new home in Houston or to leave it in the care of friends. ...

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5. “Without Servitude to the Past, nor Recklessness”

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pp. 87-106

In 1976, Dominique de Menil wrote a memo to board members of the Menil Foundation a memo; in 1989, she circulated it again to board members, with a note explaining that she had happened upon the original, “which appears to me a bit naïve. . . . Yet, the ideas expressed remain pertinent"...

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6. Toward a Museum

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pp. 107-124

The proposed Menil Collection was not the first time that John and Dominique seriously pursued the idea of a freestanding museum. In 1972, they had approached Louis Kahn to produce plans, not for a museum exactly, but for “a gallery with open storage, a concept more reminiscent of the open stacks of a library than a traditional museum” (Loud 1989, 245). ...

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7. Intimacies of Possession

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pp. 125-147

On the page facing Dominique de Menil’s foreword to the Menil Collection catalogue is a painting by Domenico Veneziano, St. John in the Desert (ca. 1445). It is not as a particular jewel of the Menil Collection that this work is reproduced in such a prominent position. It is not only not held by the Collection, but never will be. Once belonging to Bernard Berenson, it is now in the Kress Collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. ...

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8. Care

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pp. 148-174

Like most museums, the Menil Collection shows only a small proportion of its collection at one time, but Dominique de Menil, as we have seen, was concerned to make the art in storage available for viewing. By the time the museum was completed, it has to be said, the imagined audience for the works in storage tended more toward the scholarly than to the broader audience that had been talked of in the conceptualization of the Kahn plan...

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9. Institutionalization of an Aesthetic

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pp. 175-215

When I met with Louisa Sarofim just a week after Dominique de Menil’s death, she explained that as the new president of the Menil Foundation, she saw an urgent need to make the museum “more accessible,” to foster a larger, broader audience. The Menil Collection, she averred, needed “to engage the public and educate the public.” There are a number of questions raised by this perfectly orthodox expression of perhaps the defining contemporary imperative under which art museums operate...

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10. For Aesthetics

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pp. 216-225

...In this event can be read the range and scope of John and Dominique de Menil’s commitments. His body was prepared by Ross Mortuary, a black funeral home in the Fifth Ward, and he lay in state in his bedroom wrapped only in a white sheet, in traditional French peasant fashion. From there he was transported in a plain pine coffin with rope handles to an early evening mass at St. Anne’s, where he and his wife regularly worshipped. ...


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pp. 227-250

Reference List

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pp. 251-267


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pp. 269-280

E-ISBN-13: 9780292784628
E-ISBN-10: 0292784627
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292723337
Print-ISBN-10: 0292723334

Page Count: 294
Illustrations: 35 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2010

OCLC Number: 704289611
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Sacred Modern

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Art and religion -- Texas -- Houston.
  • Visual anthropology -- Texas -- Houston.
  • Menil, Dominique de -- Religion.
  • Menil, Dominique de -- Art collections.
  • Menil Collection (Houston, Tex.).
  • Art and anthropology -- Texas -- Houston.
  • Menil, John de -- Art collections.
  • Menil, John de -- Religion.
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