Arts / Museums

Epic Book on the Art Couple That Forever Changed Houston to be Released After 10 Years

Events Heralding the Long-Anticipated Menil Opus Will Take Place Throughout Texas

BY // 02.01.18

Who were Dominique and John de Menil, and how and why did this French couple, whose wealth flowed from the Schlumberger energy business, transform the American art world?

That is the question that William Middleton poses, then brilliantly answers with depth and aplomb in his decade-in-the-making volume that is among the most anticipated events of the spring literary and art scene — Double Vision, The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil.

Just in: Tuesday, March 27 is the date for the debut of Double Vision from its esteemed publisher, Alfred A. Knopf.

Fittingly, the big reveal takes place in Houston, the city the Menils made their principal home, and indelibly shaped, since they relocated here during World War II. The venue for the book’s first public event is mindfully selected — the Rothko Chapel, the monument to modern art, human rights, and spirituality founded by the late de Menils and opened in 1971.

The evening — set for Tuesday, March 27, at 7 pm and co-organized by The Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel — will feature an author reading and book signing, followed by a reception for registered guests at the Byzantine Fresco Chapel.

But Dallas audiences won’t have to wait long to get into the act. The very next day, Wednesday, March 28, Middleton takes his book tour on the road, with a reading and signing at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Muscular and authoritative, yet sensitive, this book — the first even devoted to the art and activist couple whose discerning eye created The Menil Collection — promises to impact Texas’ and especially Houston’s standing in the international art world. It weighs in at a monumental 750 pages; 32 of those are dedicated to photos with 120 additional images appearing throughout the text, including many rare images published for the first time, and used by special permission from the de Menil family archive.

The biography’s author lived in Houston for more than a decade to shepherd his magnum opus to completion. Middleton is a respected journalist, editor, and former Paris bureau chief for the Fairchild publishing empire, with a well known byline that has appeared everywhere from The New York Times to Vogue and the International Herald Tribune.

Double Vision bears 65 pages of footnotes reflective of Middleton’s meticulous trans-Atlantic research. The resulting book delves deeply into the shared lives of the 20th century’s consummate, but most private, art patrons.

The Menils’ Courage

If the art world were the sole topic of Double Vision, it would be laudatory, but this book is so much more. It reveals the courage of a couple who stood up to provincialism and prejudice. They were the staunchest supporters of the late U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland — and helped ensure his victory to get to D.C. and serve on Capitol Hill.

Read insider tales about this biographer’s heroic research and writing process, including the unique challenges behind this book, here.

Without giving away too much of the story (PaperCity received an early advance galley from the publisher), suffice to say, Middleton has traversed riveting subjects — and centuries — in chapters that can each stand alone.

Never before known tales of the de Menil and Schlumberger family history, interwoven into the turbulent times of the French Revolution and World War I, are vividly told, including introducing the illustrious Schlumberger ancestor, 19th century statesman François Guizot. A prime minister under the last king of France, this figure, almost forgotten outside of his country, was one of the most powerful statesmen in Europe during the reign of Louis Philippe (1830 – 1848). He was Dominique de Menil’s great-great-grandfather.

Houstonians such as the seminal Jermayne MacAgy and the eccentrically brilliant Walter Hopps, founding director of The Menil Collection also come to life. The former, was so revered by the de Menils that she is buried in their plot at Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in Houston.

MacAgy is best remembered for one of the most remarkable exhibitions ever mounted in Texas or at the mid-century — “Totems Not Taboo,” presented at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new Cullinan Hall in 1959. Middleton highlights the exhibition too as a “daring gesture” in the segregated South, with its emphasis on African art.

A Designer Couple

Design disciples will also find fascinating the glimpse into the de Menils’ interiors, including Middleton’s research on French architect Pierre Barbe, and his restrained aesthetic, which is traced from the couple’s first apartment in Paris to its apogee in their Houston house (architecture Philip Johnson, interiors Charles James) — then ultimately their museum.

A bonus from knowing Barbe was meeting Max Ernst, one of the talents who is a touchstone of The Menil Collection and its startling Surrealist galleries. The reader learns how the future patrons’ understanding of modern art grew and developed, from being shocked by Ernst to embracing his unsettling imagery. Equally revealing is Middleton’s research that the now iconic Ernst Portrait of Dominique (circa 1932) was once relegated, for 15 years, to the top of an armoire in their Parisian attic.

Other little known players emerge, such as the Alexandre Iolas, art dealer extraordinaire who closely involved himself with artists in a way few gallerists then or now do. From Iolas, the collecting couple would purchase more than 42 works by Ernst, as well as seminal creations by Magritte, de Chirico, Picasso, Braque, and Léger.

Double Vision is an apt book for our troubled times. Cinematic, with a love story at its heart about the couple who surmounted different religions (his Catholic, hers Protestant) in the decade leading up to World War II, it offers a captivating portrait of the little understood lives they created prior to 1941, when they first emigrated to Houston.

The de Menils’ three years spent residing in Caracas, Venezuela, during World War II — due to John overseeing Schlumberger operations there, before returning to Houston — is another installment in this volume that underscores the wide world they knew.

Chapters detail John de Menil’s valor in Romania for the Resistance movement (that resulted in a Croix de Guerre from the French government), and a dramatic 4:30 am retreat made by pregnant Dominique from the Schlumberger family home, Val-Richer, to avoid invading Nazi forces.

The pair of future patrons settled during a stimulating, often controversial era in a boomtown city where they subsequently brought in luminaries — Andy Warhol, Rosamond Bernier, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Norman Mailer, and René Magritte — who interacted with the locals and changed and enlarged the Texas cultural and humanitarian landscape forever.

The de Menil thread to the founding of Dia, and its support of artistic forces such as Donald Judd and his burgeoning Chinati Foundation in Marfa, is convincingly outlined. Middleton also tells the story of the 45-minute meeting that led to the hiring of Renzo Piano for his first building in America, and details why Dominique de Menil was the architect’s ideal client.

 

Via @wfmiddletonauthor: Before the guests arrived at The Menil Collection for the opening night gala, Dominique de Menil, who, along with her team had spent more than six months building out the galleries and meticulously installing every work of art, made some last minute adjustments. Here, she works on a splendid Gothic sculpture, Head of a Bearded Man, France, ca. 1290-1300. (Photo Adelaide de Menil, courtesy of Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston)

As for the author who is heading to the finish line following a decade of determination and tenacity in the face of complex, daunting research, and exquisite diplomacy required to earn the de Menil family’s trust, Middleton tells PaperCity via email:

“How do I feel right now? Well, it is astounding to me that the book is actually finished and is going out into the world in less than two months. It has been a very long, fascinating journey.”

“Once the book is published, I hope everyone will find the lives of Dominique and John de Menil to be as intriguing and as inspiring as I have.”

For more on Double Vision, read our exclusive excerpt in PaperCity magazine’s April issue. And follow the author on Instagram — wfmiddletonauthor — samplings of his photo wonders appear on the slide show above this story.

Finally, to reserve your seat for a reading, and be one of the first to acquire this richly textured biography, a list of signings in Texas follows:

Tuesday, March 27: Event at the Rothko Chapel in partnership with The Menil Collection

http://rothkochapel.org/experience/events/register/1353

 

Wednesday, March 28: Dallas Museum of Art

https://www.dma.org/programs/event/william-middleton

 

Thursday, March 29: BookPeople in Austin

http://www.bookpeople.com/event/william-middleton-double-vision

 

Tuesday, April 3: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (details to be posted soon)

https://www.mfah.org/calendar/conversations-with-the-director-gary-tinterow-william-middleton/201804030630PM

 

Thursday, April 5: Brazos Bookstore in Houston

http://www.brazosbookstore.com/event/william-middleton-double-vision

 

Tuesday, April 24: The Houston Seminar

https://www.houstonseminar.org/index.php/courses/pastcourses/behind-the-pages-a-conversation-with-william-middleton/2018/Spring

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