CONNECTIONS: A Berkshire Cottage antithesis in Lenox
About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.
It is unexpected in The Berkshires. The art and the architecture are in striking contrast to everything close around it. Unlike the nineteenth century Berkshire Cottages or the eighteenth century saltboxes, the building is stridently modern. Unlike this area once called Arcadia, the art acknowledges industrialization. The art and the architecture of the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, on Hawthorne Street in Lenox, celebrate the owners and what they treasured.
Artist, art critic, and collector George L. K. Morris built his studio in 1930. With Yale classmate and architect George Sanderson, Morris recreated the LeCorbusier studio in Paris where he studied. The double-pitched roof and the angularity made the studio thoroughly modern, and it was declared the first modern structure built in New England followed by the Avery wing of Wadsworth Athenaeum (1934) and Gropius House (1938).
Eleven years later, Morris built the house with his wife Suzy Frelinghuysen. The clean straight lines clad in bright white stucco made the house look more like the architecture of Southwest than the Northeast. Built in 1941, it was attached to the studio and designed by local architect John Butler Swann. The attention to light and lighting; the commitment to airiness, openness, and simplicity; the eschewing of architectural embellishment are all very different from the elaborate Berkshire Cottages.
Perhaps the building contrasts with its external surroundings, but in itself, it is a complete thought: form following function. Every line of the building, every shape selected and executed, every source of light enhances the art collection. The collection includes Picasso, Miro, Gris, Leger, Mattisse, Braque, Helion, and of course, Frelinghuysen and Morris. If the distinct architectural style is the first reason why finding this house in this place is surprising, the nature of the collection is the second. A Cubist art collection is as unexpected as the architecture.
Cubism was one of the most influential art movements of the twentieth century. Its reach went beyond the visual arts and impacted literature, music, and design. Think Pablo Picasso; think Paris in the early twentieth century; think “Woman with a Mandolin”; think a mirror shattered and her image all there but reflected in disconnected parts.
To understand that image, place it in historic context. There was an Industrial Revolution and the concomitant shift from an agriculturally based economy to a manufacturing economy. Inventions were changing everything. The most overwhelming changes were in light and movement. What people saw changed as the light changed from the soft diffuse illumination of a candle to the harsh steady brightness of the electric bulb. How the world looked changed when how it was traversed changed. From the horse to the iron horse to the horseless carriage to the airplane, speed blurred the image; movement became part of what had to be captured. Finally, photography changed expectations.
To recreate the new reality; the image appeared, well, unreal. Here is what they were trying to do: capture light and movement. Look again at “Woman with Mandolin.” Her body parts appear out of place or do they appear to be changing places? Look again, can you see her turn right and then left and then face you?
Is a machine-made line straighter than a handmade line? If so, how do you represent that in art? Did the light bulb make the image clearer? Then what should the artist do? Did speed become part of daily experience? Then how does the artist represent it? Cubism was an attempt. They abandoned the single viewpoint of earlier paintings – they represented a single object from different viewpoints and the result appears fragmented. They represented on canvas what they believed was real even when it was not natural.
For many reasons it is surprising to find this collection in the Berkshires. First, Cubism was a European art movement. Second it sought to acknowledge — even represent — industrialization. This collection in Berkshire is like the machine in the garden.
All the foregoing makes the location of this museum very unusual. One thing makes its fit perfectly: the people who built it. Frelinghuysen and Morris were two of the most influential proponents of modern art, and The Berkshires was home to the Frelinghuysen and Morris families for more than a generation. A Frelinghuysen Cottage was built in Lenox in 1881. Designed by the architectural firm of Rotch and Tilden, it was the summer home of Frederick Frelinghuysen. Today, it is the Kemble Inn.
Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio were built next door to Tanglewood on the grounds of Brookhurst. From 1908 when it was built until the 1970s, Brookhurst was the Berkshire Cottage of the Morris family. Brookhurst was first designed by Ogden Codman but the work was completed by Hoppin and Koen. (The same team used by cousin, Edith Wharton, at The Mount).
There are tours on the hour from 10 – 3 Thursdays – Sundays and tours by appointment. Museum Director, foundation trustee, and artist in his own right, Kinney Frelinghuysen believes modern or abstract art may make the viewer uncomfortable. Recognition is not immediate; the result may be perplexity. What are we suppose to see? His aim is to slow the process, to allow the visitor to absorb, consider and reconsider the images. As the process is slowed, questions can be asked, and the result is a deeper connection with the art.
Frelinghuysen says, “What you can see in an instant may take a lifetime to understand.”
Therefore, instead of “not one guy talking to ten people as in most tours,” Frelinghuysen wants “to get ten people talking to one guy.” If that one guy is Kinney Frelinghuysen the visitor may develop what he calls a “visual vocabulary” and bring to the surface and articulate what they are seeing. He wants no painting rejected out of hand. A visitor will like some and reject others, but if Frelinghuysen is your guide, you will know more about art than what you like or dislike; you will leave the museum knowing why.