Alfred Barr's Insomnia—and the Awakening of Cézanne's Interest in Geology

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839–1906), L'Estaque (detail), 1879–83. Oil on canvas. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The William S. Paley Collection, 1959On the wall of the first gallery of Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings is a statement the artist made around 1897 to a Provençal friend, Joachim Gasquet: “In order to paint a landscape well, I first need to discover its geological foundations.” This was in the period when Cézanne was creating such canvases as Rocks and Branches at Bibémus (1900–1904), showing the exposed walls of the Bibémus Quarry, near his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. However, as explained in texts in the first gallery, and more fully in the catalogue of the exhibition, Cézanne’s interest in geology began some thirty years earlier, when he was in his mid-twenties, and was fueled by Antoine-Fortuné Marion, a member of his circle of friends in Aix. One of the very few canvases that Cézanne painted in Marion’s company, around 1866 at the nearby seaside village of L’Estaque (now in the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh), is displayed in this first gallery of the exhibition.

Paul Cézanne, Rocks and Branches at Bibémus, 1900–1904. Oil on canvas, 61 × 50.5 cm. Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris, FranceMarion, more than seven years younger than Cézanne, was both a painter and a precocious scholar of geology and paleontology, who delivered his first professional paper on these subjects at the age of twenty. Early Cézanne specialists knew about Marion—and hence of Cézanne’s geological interest—largely from secondhand accounts in Gasquet’s 1921 memoir of the artist, and later from letters between the artist and Émile Zola published in 1937 by the art historian John Rewald. The most critical source of information about the Cézanne-Marion relationship, however, is the eyewitness account offered by Marion’s letters to their common friend, the musician Heinrich Morstatt. These letters remained unknown until they were published, also in 1937, by Alfred H. Barr Jr., the Princeton University graduate (Class of 1922) who had given up his postgraduate work at Harvard in August 1929 to become, at age twenty-seven, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art.

While consulting these letters in the course of working on the present exhibition, I found myself wondering: How was it that Barr was the one who came to publish them? They refer to a then little-known period of Cézanne’s art, which neither Barr—nor hardly anyone else—had previously studied. And Barr had been extremely busy, producing two ambitious exhibitions in 1936: the pioneering Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism; in 1937 he was already deeply involved in preparations for what would become the groundbreaking 1939 exhibition Picasso: Forty Years of His Art. It was not until shortly before the current Cézanne exhibition opened that I found the answer.

Paul Cézanne, Rocks at the Shore, L'Estaque, ca. 1866. Oil on canvas, 22.9 × 33 cm. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. Gift of Sam SalzIt came in the form of a young scholar, Hugh Eakin, who contacted me because he was working on a book comprising a cultural history of Barrʼs Picasso show and thought I might have advice for him. As it turned out, I was the one who learned from him. Barr’s wife, Margaret Scolari, known as Marga, had kept a chronicle of the years 1930–44, published as a special issue of the New Criterion in 1987. It contained the following amazing story:

After just three years as MoMA’s director, Barr developed severe insomnia—unquestionably caused by the stress of the job—and persuaded the trustees to give him a sabbatical. Late in 1932, he and Marga, who was Italian, went first to Rome for Christmas and then to a ski resort she knew at Saint Anton am Arlberg, in Austria. There Barr met a Frau Jacob, to whom he told the reason for his sabbatical. She said, “I’ve got just the man for you,” a Dr. Otto Garthe, who lived in Stuttgart and had cured a violinist of the stage fright that prevented her from performing. In late January of 1933 the Barrs arrived in Stuttgart. “Dr. Garthe is charming and inspires confidence,” Marga recalled. “He recommends the boardinghouse of Frau Hedwig Haag on Hölderlinstrasse. She is a distinguished and cultivated woman.” So that is where they went and, on entering the house, had a surprise:

Antoine-Fortuné Marion (French, 1846–1900), Rocks and the Sea, ca. 1865–66. Oil on canvas. Present location unknown. Image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. John Rewald Archives"There are some pictures on the drawing room walls and among them a seascape roughly painted with a palette knife. A[lfred] asks, 'Who is it by?' and [Frau Haag] replies; 'Well—it’s by Cézanne.' Frau Haag’s father, [Heinrich] Morstatt, as the representative of a German firm, had resided for a while in Marseilles and made friends with Fortuné Marion, a member of Cézanne’s group of friends."

It is in fact more likely that it was a painting by Marion than one by Cézanne. While the few canvases they painted together at L’Estaque do resemble each other, none by Cézanne have that provenance, while all of Marion’s appear to have been lost. Within days of the Barrs’ arrival, events transpired that are probably the reason for the eventual disappearance of the canvas on Frau Haag’s drawing room wall: On January 30, 1933, Marga Barr noted, “Adolf Hitler is named Chancellor of the Reich.” On February 27, the Reichstag building in Berlin went up in flames. In March, the Barrs visited an exhibition of the work of Oskar Schlemmer. Returning two weeks later, all the paintings were gone, the beginning of the Nazi process of proscribing modern art.

Heinrich Morstatt had kept letters from Marion, and Frau Haag showed them to the Barrs, presumably in 1933. It is likely that they were transcribed then by Marga Barr (Alfred’s grasp of the French language was minimal) since the art historian Gerstle Mack thanks Barr for showing them to him in his 1935 book on Cézanne. However, Mack was focused on how Morstatt, a musician as well as a representative of a German firm, introduced Cézanne to the composer Richard Wagner; and he missed the geological aspect of the correspondence. That would not be revealed—and slowly began to enter discussion about Cézanne’s work—until the Marion-Morstatt letters were finally published by Barr in January 1937. They appeared in French in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, with an English-language translation “by Margaret Scolari with notes by Alfred H. Barr, Jr.” appearing in the Magazine of Art the following year.

Paul Cézanne, Rocks at Fontainebleau, 1895–1900. Oil on canvas, 73.3 × 92.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929Why the delay? I can think of two reasons why the Barrs finally shared these letters with the scholarly community in what were very busy years for them: First, they knew that Rewald was preparing the Cézanne-Zola correspondence for imminent publication. Second, they must have seen in 1936 the first-ever publication and exhibition of one of Cézanne’s early L’Estaque landscapes—the canvas from Pittsburgh in the present exhibition—in Lionello Venturi’s pioneering catalogue raisonné of almost 1,600 of the artist’s works, and in a Cézanne exhibition at the Bignou Gallery, New York. Did they then recall the painting they had noticed on one of Frau Hedwig Haag’s drawing room walls—and decide to publish the Marion-Morstatt correspondence?

In any event, we may reasonably assume the correspondence would never have been known if Alfred Barr had not found MoMA unbearably stressful, had not in consequence found himself unable to sleep, had not gone to Saint Anton am Arlberg and met Frau Jacob, had not followed her advice to go Stuttgart to see Dr. Otto Garthe, and had not taken Dr. Garthe’s recommendation to stay at Frau Hedwig Haag’s boardinghouse. Art historical discoveries come in many forms, but this is surely one of the most unusual, and I wonder whether my colleagues and I would have embarked on an exhibition devoted to Cézanne’s rock and quarry paintings without this unpredictable chain of events having led, in the language of the geologist, to such important finds.

There are at least two parts of the chain itself that are still to be found. First, we know from Marga Barr’s chronology that she and her husband were back in Stuttgart visiting Frau Haag in 1938: Barr gave her the fee he had received from Gazette des Beaux-Arts for the publication of the Marion-Morstatt letters; and he offered to contact Lionello Venturi to see if he would authenticate and sell the “Cézanne” still on her drawing room wall. It will require research in the Venturi papers to see if there is any record of this. Second, we know that before the “charming” Dr. Garthe established his practice in Stuttgart, he had, in at least the first half of the 1920s, been the school doctor and biology teacher at the Free School Community Wickersdorf in the Thuringian Forest, founded on the principles of Jugendkultur (youth culture) and pädagogischer Eros (pedagogic eros), erotic attraction between teacher and pupil. (Although focused on same-sex relationships, the idea could be applied to heterosexuality.)

While Garthe taught there, its founder, Gustav Wyneken, had been forced to resign and then convicted for his own practical espousal of the erotic principle, but no impropriety is known to have attached to Garthe, who succeeded him as a director for a year. We do know that the school had a musical focus, which may have accounted for him having cured a violinist of stage fright. But this small opening onto the background of the man who, we presume, cured Barr’s insomnia is yet another reminder of how little we know of the lives lived by those about whom we historians write.

John Elderfield
Inaugural Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Distinguished Curator and Lecturer
Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Cézanne: The Rock and Quarry Paintings is made possible by lead support from the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Curatorial Leadership Fund. Generous support is also provided by Barbara and Gerald Essig; the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation; the Judith and Anthony B. Evnin, Class of 1962, Exhibitions Fund; and an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Additional supporters include the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, a partner agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Partners of the Princeton University Art Museum. The accompanying publication is made possible in part by support from the Barr Ferree Foundation Fund for Publications, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University; Annette Merle-Smith; and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fund.