Salonières at the Jewish Museum Strike Up a Conversation on Culture

little bit of this, a little bit of that—it’s all very interesting, but you need weeks to go through it all.” That opinion, frustrated but not unappreciative, was voiced by a matronly visitor to The Power of
Conversation: Jewish Women and Their Salons
, an exhibition at the Jewish Museum. You couldn’t ask for a better capsule review.

topic of benefactors encouraging and, at times, shaping culture can encompass a myriad of fascinating and often knotty tangents. Chief among them for this exhibition are, as the title makes plain, ethnicity, religion and gender:
Throughout the years examined here (roughly from the late 18th to the early 20th century), Jewish women were, almost by definition, doubly disenfranchised.
Politics—whether predicated upon the Enlightenment, National Socialism or Bohemia—is also a component of the mix. Art, in all of its variety, is in there, too. Combine all of that with a geographical purview that zips from Berlin to London to Milan to Paris to Manhattan, and you have a show that has bitten off a lot to chew.

well it chews is another matter. History can be clarified with startling effectiveness by a museum exhibition, but the rat-a-tat-tat cadence of The Power of Conversation will leave visitors hankering for a sense of bearing. How does a survey provide for personalities as audacious as Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Auguste Rodin and Margherita Sarfatti—an art critic who was Mussolini’s mistress and a co-architect of Fascism—or artists as significant as Thomas Mann, Gustav Klimt, Medardo Rosso and Walter Sickert? By glancing upon them with efficient haste, that’s how.

there’s an assortment of medals, letters, rare books, manuscripts, fabrics, photographs and films: a lot of stuff, artfully over-arranged. The installation will not go down in history as a model of underkill.

main impetus for my attending The Power of Conversation was the promise of paintings by Florine Stettheimer (1871-1944). In that respect, the Jewish Museum delivers. Stettheimer, a cult favorite whose stylish, cartoon-like paintings are an acerbic form of autobiography, was a grand, big-city eccentric. Along with sisters Ettie and Carrie, Stettheimer hosted salons in her West 76th Street home, where the likes of the great American sculptor Elie Nadelman, the great American art critic Henry McBride and the great trans-Atlantic gadfly Marcel Duchamp hobbed and nobbed.

the 11 Stettheimer paintings on view, you’ll find one of her worst, Self-Portrait (1915-16); one of her wittiest, Soirée (1917-19); and Portrait of My Sister Ettie Stettheimer (1923), a picture in which intensity is inseparable from ridiculousness.

knew that a Christmas tree could simultaneously appear as an agent of the Apocalypse and an emblem of self-involvement? Stettheimer did, and it’s to her credit that she makes its power felt either way. The Stettheimer room alone makes a visit worthwhile.

the exhibition feels like an addendum to its accompanying catalog. There, you get a better sense of how the social gatherings put into motion by the various Jewish women made for milieus heady with artistic ferment. The audio guide, with its recordings of actors interpreting texts by participants in the various salons, provides some amusing bits of useless information. (Did you know that Picasso had a “whinnying laugh”?) Even so, the narrator’s voice is the audio guide’s biggest selling point: It’s the only chance most of us will get at having Isabella Rossellini whispering in our ear.

The Power of Conversation:
Jewish Women and Their Salons
at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, until July 10.


speaking, there’s little to be gained from direct experience with Maurice Sendak’s drawings, sketches and watercolors, as seen in the exhibition Wild Things: The Art of Maurice Sendak, also at the Jewish Museum. That’s not a condemnation. Mr. Sendak’s skills as an illustrator are justly celebrated; few artists bring to the imagination such lilt and heft. Rather, it’s a commendation on his knowing what is the proper—one wants to say exact—medium for his art.

popular artist in the best sense of the term, Mr. Sendak has a gift inherently geared to the age of mechanical reproduction. Storybooks like In the Night Kitchen, Zlateh the Goat or (my favorite) What Do You Do, Dear? gain not a little of their authority through mass production and, as its coefficient, democratic goodwill. The actual pictures, while masterful, are strangely nonexistent on the page; they never connect as material objects. Mr. Sendak’s touch operates under the assumption that magic begins on the drawing board but thrives out there.

assumption, in this case, is the truth. Go to the Jewish Museum and reacquaint yourself with Mr. Sendak’s rich and indelible cast of characters: enjoy romping with Max, making chicken soup with Rosie and hissing at Brundibar. Be diverted by the costumes and sets designed for the theater by the artist himself. But head to the local library if you want Mr. Sendak to really send you.

Wild Things: The Art of
Maurice Sendak
is at the
Jewish Museum until Aug. 14.

Salonières at the Jewish Museum Strike Up a Conversation on Culture