The real Menil

A lifetime’s propensity to some forms of nervous exhaustion, made much worse by mercury poisoning in 1851, resulted in Pugin’s decline into madness. He was admitted first to a private mental hospital, and then, when he showed but little improvement, to Bethlem Royal Hospital in London in June 1852. His wife took him home to Ramsgate on the Isle of Thanet in East Kent in early September, and he died there on September 14. He was buried in the church he had designed next to his house in 1844, Saint Augustine’s Abbey, in a tomb ornamented with sculptures of members of his family.

But what of Pugin as an architect, not least of many Catholic churches, Saint Giles’ among them? Between 1832 and 1834 he made several trips abroad to study medieval buildings. Beginning in 1835 he collaborated with Sir Charles Barry (1795–1860) on designs for Barry’s best-known commission, the New Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), where Pugin was responsible for nearly all the lavish interior decoration.1 Soon after, he wrote the first of many books, Gothic Furniture in the Style of the Fifteenth Century, which was published in 1835. Pugin subsequently wrote on subjects as varied as designs for gold and silver, and iron and brass. His book Contrasts, or A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, which he self-published in 1836, made his reputation and heralded the revival of the Catholic style of the Middle Ages.

With the authority and confidence of those born to wealth, the incorruptible Menil rejected the commercialism that has spread from the art market and infected once-sacrosanct institutions like a plague. She disdained the trendy and superficial, championed the arcane and challenging, considered philanthropy used for self-promotion to be not merely vulgar but immoral, and felt that museums that stooped to anything to attract ever-larger audiences betrayed a sacred trust. “Art is what lifts us above daily life,” she wrote, in the most succinct summary of her aesthetic philosophy. “It makes us more open, more human, more refined, and even more intelligent.”*

If Menil had one contemporary rival as America’s premier postwar Maecenas, it was her fellow connoisseur-collector and museum builder Paul Mellon (1907–1999). Both these formidable figures possessed an uncanny “eye” and instinct for the best, though each had quite different tastes (his aristocratic and Anglophile, hers austere and global) and diametric temperaments (she spiritual and religious, he psychoanalytical and secular).

Last year, the hundredth anniversary of Mellon’s birth was celebrated by commemorative exhibitions at the several museums and galleries he founded and enriched. There will be no such formal observances in honor of Menil, which is wholly appropriate because she seemed to exist outside normal notions of time. Those who knew her invariably describe her as otherworldly. On the few occasions Menil and I met, she was gracious and comme il faut to a fault, but gave the distinct impression of being somewhere else, as if listening to Gregorian chants only she could hear. Nonetheless, she was more acutely attuned to the creative forces of her times than almost anyone.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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