The Surreal World
Tilda Swinton mingles with the Max Ernsts at the Houston home and museum of legendary patrons Dominique and John de Menil.
In 1984, Dominique de Menil staged an enormous exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, offering art lovers, for the first time, an in-depth look at the vast collection she and her husband, John, had assembled. The more than 600 works on view ranged from a paleolithic bone carving dating from 22,000–15,000 BC to 20th-century masterpieces by Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and Georges Braque. But when it came time to choose an image to represent the show on the posters that would be plastered around the city, Dominique passed over the blue-chip names and dramatically ancient artifacts in favor of a piece by the virtually unknown 19th-century artist Joseph Sacco. Called Oeil de Jeune Femme, it’s a tiny painting of an eye, framed by a brass oval and dark crimson velvet, and placed in a rough leather box. A surreal object made decades before Surrealism, it elegantly summed up, for de Menil, the idea of perception—on the part of the artist, the collector, and the audience.
It is fitting, then, that precisely 30 years after the Grand Palais show, the miniature work is sitting in the gloved hand of the actress Tilda Swinton, a woman who has made a career out of playing with perception: transcending time and gender in Sally Potter’s 1992 film Orlando, passing as an octogenarian dowager in Wes Anderson’s 2014 The Grand Budapest Hotel, and becoming a buck-toothed villain in last year’s sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer. Today, Swinton has come to the Menil Collection, the museum Dominique de Menil founded in Houston, to create a portfolio for W with the photographer Tim Walker. “An object that had such a powerfully inspiring effect on Madame de Menil holds a special frisson,” she says as she stands in a bright white corridor examining the eye.
This shoot is the third collaboration between Swinton, Walker, the art director Jerry Stafford, and the stylist Jacob K. As a team, they have already traveled to Iceland (“Planet Tilda,” W, August 2011) and to Las Pozas, the Surrealist sculpture garden built by the British poet and art patron Edward James in a Mexican jungle (“Stranger Than Paradise,” W, May 2013). “The majority of my life as a photographer is about persuading people to do things on account of my imagination,” Walker says. “Working on these projects is much more of a creative commune—I’ve been led up pathways I wouldn’t necessarily have approached.” Stafford, who initiated the series, explains what attracted him to this latest subject: “The de Menils were true visionaries whose influence remains fascinating and far-reaching. There is one common goal and desire of this series: to challenge and seduce the eye.”
That’s just what Swinton is doing later that morning. Wearing a painted metal corset by the London designer Johanna O’Hagan, a pair of black boots by Versace, and little else, she is conjuring a key moment in the history of Surrealism. In 1923, Max Ernst painted a full-length female nude with a large white bird at her crotch, titled La Belle Jardinière. In 1937, the work was confiscated by the Nazis and featured in the notorious exhibition “Degenerate Art.” (There is a photograph of Adolf Hitler looking upon the painting disapprovingly.) The original was never seen again and is assumed to have been destroyed, but Ernst painted a second version in 1967 called Retour de la Belle Jardinière, which the de Menils, close friends of the artist and ardent collectors of his work, bought. “This is the special magic of these collaborations,” Swinton says as she poses as the gardener. “There is not just a vague referencing of de Menil but also an immersion into her world. We’re crossing into a no-man’s-land between history and imagination, in an attempt to evoke her spirit, and the spirit of the world she inhabited.”
And what a world it was. John de Menil was a 26-year-old Parisian investment banker when he met Dominique Schlumberger, a 22-year-old scion of a leading French industrialist family, at a ball at Versailles in 1930. They married the following year and, during that intoxicating time in Paris between the wars, took their first steps toward becoming collectors—importing from Moscow an early 16th-century Russian Orthodox icon of St. George slaying the dragon, commissioning a portrait of Dominique by Ernst, buying a painting of Othello by Christian Bérard, and acquiring a pair of painted bark cloths from New Guinea. But their real artistic education began in 1941 in New York, where they landed after fleeing occupied France. There, they met Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican priest who would go on to commission the Matisse Chapel in Vence, France, and Le Corbusier’s chapel in Ronchamp, France. He introduced the de Menils to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and to the leading galleries in Manhattan. Around that same time, the couple met Alexander Iolas, a ballet dancer–turned–art dealer, who helped them acquire some of their most important works; and the designer Charles James, who created an astonishing, pragmatic wardrobe for Dominique.
Once the war ended, they settled in Houston, where the American headquarters of Schlumberger Ltd. were located. John eventually became chairman of the board. Finding themselves in a new city that had little cultural context, they set out to create one. In 1948, the de Menils hired Philip Johnson to design them a modernist home, giving the young architect one of his first commissions—and then made an even bolder decision by selecting James to finish the interior. Johnson had designed a straightforward 5,500-square-foot International Style house in brick, steel, and glass. Into this rigid frame, James injected a sense of history and voluptuousness. “Philip felt that we should have a Mies van der Rohe settee, a Mies van der Rohe square glass table, and two Mies van der Rohe chairs—on a little square musty-colored rug,” Dominique once explained. “We could see right away how we would get bored.” Instead, James brought in a “lips” sofa inspired by a Man Ray painting, a swooping chaise longue in wrought iron and gray raw silk, an 18th-century Venetian settee covered in bright green satin, and a rococo Louis XV desk. Johnson was incensed, but James’s interventions gave the house a layer of elegant complexity.
The de Menils spent decades assembling their art collection, curating scores of shows in Texas, and building ambitious showcases for the work. In 1971, they inaugurated the Rothko Chapel, a windowless octagonal structure filled with 14 monumental dark canvases they’d commissioned from Mark Rothko. From the chapel, it is just a short walk to the Menil Collection, through allées of enormous live oak trees, a small park, and blocks of bungalows all painted the same shade of soft gray. Opened in 1987, the museum—the first building in the United States designed by Renzo Piano—is a long, low structure of white steel, glass, and gray cypress siding. The light-filled interior, in keeping with the de Menil house, has glistening black floors and walls of windows that open onto lush tropical gardens. On display are Cycladic idols, Byzantine relics, and African and Oceanic totems, as well as modernist masterpieces from Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, René Magritte, Alexander Calder, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns. There is no admission fee; the bookstore has been banished to a bungalow across the street. It is one of the most universally praised art institutions of recent decades.
In addition to their Houston residence, the de Menils always kept a place in New York, an apartment in Paris, and a country house north of Paris. John was a trustee of MoMA, and Dominique played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Centre Pompidou. Yet the vast majority of their artistic activities, until John’s death in 1973 and hers in 1997, were in their adopted hometown. “Our first responsibility is in Houston, and that is where our efforts must be concentrated,” John de Menil wrote to Dorothy Miller, the legendary curator at MoMA. “Because here we are almost alone.”
Their commitment continues to bear fruit for the city and all who visit, including—if Swinton is any indication—Academy Award–winning actresses. “They presumed art to be good for human dignity,” Swinton says of the de Menils as she makes her way around the museum’s Oceanic galleries dressed in a full-length Delpozo coat. “There is a practical magic that shows itself in the exquisite simplicity of each installation; there is nothing to get in the way of a direct relationship between the viewer and a work of art.”
Before leaving the gallery, she takes the time to stand before some of the pieces on display: a 19th-century Melanesian club from the Solomon Islands; a towering slit drum from Vanuatu carved from the trunk of a breadfruit tree; and a 19th-century Polynesian club from the Cook Islands, more than eight feet high and crafted from exceptionally hard wood. She observes them individually, in silence, slowly and deliberately. Much like the de Menils, she is fully engaged with the art—and the world of artists—around her. It is an outlook well summed up Dominiquede Menil: “Art requires action. Passivity is fatal.”