Sunday, December 02, 2007

Art Deco Beauty: A Lonely Saturday Night

Since I teach in rural South Carolina, I often escape to the closest Barnes & Noble (and nearby Starbucks) about 45 minutes away in Greenville's urban sprawl. Last night was one of those Saturday escapades where Barnes & Nobles offers an intense sense of cosmopolitanism: you will not believe the people out on the prow between shelves, especially near golf and Christian inspiration. Such evenings spent in a joyful anonymous crowd are great for the urban soul, even if they take place around the sterile corporate props of the mall bookstore. Browsing through the magazine rack, my eyes fell on a treasure (left), an image that suddenly displaced me into the most cosmopolitan space of1920s Athens, Paris, New York, the world of Joan and Eugene Vanderpool. (Laura Claridge, "Temptuous Talent," Art and Antiques, Collector's Sourcebook 2007, pp. 48-57)

One of my greatest intellectual pleasures at the American School at Athens this summer was to sit next to Ben Millis on a cigarette break from work at the Blegen Library and the Archives. In particular, I wanted to brainstorm with Ben on the history of the Corinth excavations because he has gone through endless notebooks in preparation for his updating of the
Corinth Guide (see Akoue , Winter 2004, pp. 4, 16). Discussing the connections between 1920s ASCSA members and modernist art, Ben remembered that he had seen some reference to Joan Vanderpool's time in Paris and a famous portrait that had recently gone on sale. The next day, Ben provided all the necessary documentation. Indeed, a young 19-year old Joan Jeffery found herself in Paris with her fiancé, Rufus Bush. This was a relationship of industrial magnitude between the granddaughter of Thomas B. Jefferey, creator of the Rambler automobile company and the son of Irving T. Bush, the industrial magnate of the Bush Terminal Company and builder of the Bush Terminal in Brooklyn (1902), the Bush Tower in New York (1918), and the Bush House in London (1925). In Paris, the couple met the Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka and commissioned Joan's portrait that was completed in 1929. After a short-lived marriage, the couple divorced and Joan Jefferey Bush left for Greece and put her portrait in storage where it staid hidden for 60 years. "The Portrait of Mrs. Bush" was sold at Christie's on May 4, 2004, for $4.59 million (see, Souren Melikian, "Art: Impressionists Blaze at Christie's," International Herald Tribune, May 6, 2004). Better known to American archaeologists is the marriage between Joan and Eugene Vanderpool, which lead into an incredible life in Greece. The 1934 Agora staff photo below shows Joan sitting in the middle and "EV" standing at the right corner (scanned from, Craig A. Mauzy, Agora Excavations, 1931-2006: A Pictorial History, Princeton, 2006, p. 110, fig. 240)

Thanks to Catherine Vanderpool's obituary (in
Akoue, Summer 2003, p. 18), I was fascinated to learn that Joan Jeffery Vanderpool studied with Alexander Archipenko in Paris and was friends with Paul Manship, whose most famous sculpture we regularly see on television, the Prometheus (1934) in front of Rockefeller Center. Mrs. Vanderpool was involved in the Delphic Games, organized by her Bryn Mawr friend Eva Palmer and Angelos Sikelianos. While reading through Alison Frantz's archive, I realized how close the Greek and American avant-garde came together through the friendship between the Sikelianos and the Vanderpool families. I regret that I missed all these connections in my article "Byzantium and the Avant-Garde: Excavations at Corinth, 1920s–1930s," Hesperia 76 (2007) pp. 391-442. I've also missed another most amazing discovery related to Carpenter's Folly, the house museum of Byzantine sculpture in Ancient Corinth. The Vanderpools went a whole extra step in the re-use of medieval/post-medieval buildings. In 1956, Eugene Vanderpool renovated an abandoned 17th-century monastery and converted it into a home. The house of Pikermi was an incredible example of re-inhabitation, heralded in the contemporary Greek architectural press, see "A 400-year-old house in Attica is adopted by an American family," Architektonike 7 (1958), pp. 16-21. Demetris Philippides, the modern architectural historian, discusses the house (and includes a plan) in a fascinating new book, Athens Suburbs and Countryside in the 1930s (Athens, 2006), p. 92.

Clearly, the Vanderpools were collectively one of the strongest links between aesthetics and archaeology, and I look forward into researching the connections further. But first, we must pause and take a moment of pure aesthetic indulgence. We must simply fall in love with a 19-year-old Mrs. Vanderpool, clothed in a silky red coat over a dark green dress, shockingly short for its time, declaring autonomy and liberation. Limpicka situates her subject in its appropriate New York context and the skyscraper cult, which Bush's father assisted in creating. Bush Tower in New York is a Gothicizing Deco skyscraper on West 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. Parenthetically, Limpicka had infamous and scandalous social life (including an affair with the Fascist poet Gabriele D'Annunzio). In 1929, she came to the United States to do the Bush portrait but also for a show of her works at the Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh. In her daughter's memoir, we read how Bush approached the painter: "Please, Madame de Lempicka, I'm from America, and I have been over here attending Oxford University. I am going home to be married. I would like you to come to America and do a portrait of my fiancée" (Kizette de Lempicka-Foxhall,
Passion by Design: The Art and Times of Tamara de Lempicka, New York, 1987, p. 99). A study for the portrait was included in the 2004 retrospective at the Royal Institute of Art, Tamara de Lempicki: Art Deco Icon (London, 2004), p. 132. Interestingly enough, Lempicka also did a portrait of Queen Elizabeth of Greece, the Romanian wife of King George II (married in 1921, divorced in 1935), a painting that I have not yet seen.

Although Mrs. Vanderpool may have wanted this masterpiece concealed, for the obvious personal reasons (regarding Rufus Bush), we can rejoice in being able to see it again and marvel not only at the subject, but also at the aesthetic complexities that surround the scholars of the 1920s. Much more for them than for us (sadly perhaps), the scientific study of Greek culture was clothed in a red overcoat, a commitment to art as life. How wonderful and unexpected to spend an otherwise lonely caffeinated evening with Mrs. Vanderpool at Greenville's Barnes and Noble.


Anonymous said...

this may seem a bit random, but this woman pictured is my biological great-grandmother. it was quite interesting to read about her life here. where could i look to find out more?

Anonymous said...

also, what are some reasons, or the main reasons you think her portrait sold for so much money?

loukia said...

hi, anonymous. who are you? i am the great-granddaughter of joanne... are we related? my name is loukia. please reply asap.


I am a historian, studying American expats and archaeologists in Greece during the 1930s.

Anonymous said...

Incredible portrait. Have never read a blog nor responded but have to say this was great.

Tris D

Tris Dammin said...

Incredible painting! Never had read a blog but glad I was sent this one.

tris D

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States