Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Brady's legacy became a treasure

Frida just returned from Beijing!  She's once again in residence at Robert Brady's home on Netzahualcoyotl Street in Cuernavaca.  

No, that's not a fictional statement.  Last week I drove to Mexico City with Sally Sloan, Director of the Brady Museum; she told me as much, as she spoke about Frida's famous Self Portrait with Monkey as if it were Frida herself.  She also told me that in Beijing more people saw Frida in one day than in a whole year in the Brady Museum.  

Museo Brady is one of Cuernavaca's gems.  I like to think of it as like a Russian Babushka nesting doll.  From the street the building itself is impressive.  It is adjacent to the Cathedral -- formerly part of the bishop's residence. You walk through massive doors; go up a flight of stairs to enter a beautiful garden.  From the garden you see the façade of the home itself, another treasure.  Inside are multiple rooms, each one of them distinct and memorable.  You can visit each and every room -- even the kitchen and the bathrooms, all exactly as left by Robert Brady himself.  In fact, that was one of the conditions of Brady’s will when he left his home and all its possessions in trust to the Brady Foundation.  

Wherever you are in the museum there is another treasure to be admired.  Each room has a different theme -- laminated cards name each of the items on display; wonderfully knowledgeable guides are also available to answer questions.  

And you will have plenty of questions. After a few moments in the museum you will not only want to know about the artwork but about Brady’s intriguing life and those with whom he shared it.  There are tantalizing clues everywhere you look.  Brady was a personal friend of many famous artists whose work is on display; among them, Miguel Covarrubias, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo.  In addition he had lifelong influential relationships with heiress Peggy Guggenheim and world-renowned singer dancer Josephine Baker.  They both are featured prominently in the museum. 
If familiar with the Barnes Foundation one will immediately notice that influence as well.

Wonderfully eccentric New York heiress Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) was his neighbor in Venice during the five years he lived there after completing his studies at the Barnes.  It is probably thanks to her that Robert Brady created the Brady Foundation and chose to leave his home as a museum.  Like her he is buried in the garden of his home side by side with his beloved dogs.  Their gravesites are almost identical.

Brady met and befriended Josephine Baker (1906-75) while she was traveling and touring in the U.S.  Ms. Baker was born in St. Louis to a single mother.  A desperately poor childhood led her to street corner dancing for tips.  She was discovered, became a hit in the Harlem Renaissance and ultimately moved to Paris, married a Frenchman and renounced U.S. citizenship.  Ms. Baker was married and divorced four times; no longer interested in romantic love she craved platonic companionship. In Acapulco, September 1973, she exchanged private marriage vows with flamboyantly homosexual Robert Brady.  She and Brady maintained their close relationship for the rest of her life.  Josephine Baker is renowned not only for her talent but for her courageous work in the Civil Rights Movement.  African-American, she refused to perform in any theater that was not fully integrated.

Robert Brady (1928-1986) was born into a wealthy Iowa trucking family.  His mother encouraged him in his love of art and he studied at The Chicago Art Institute, Temple University and, finally, The Barnes Foundation.  

Albert Barnes (1872–1951), founder of the Barnes Foundation, self-made multi-millionaire, developed Argyrol, an early treatment for gonorrhea and related blindness.  He made a timely sale of his pharmaceutical company in 1929, immediately before the depression and thus had millions to spend on art during a time when people were trying to unload art in order to keep a roof over their heads.  Like Brady, Barnes too left his home and art collection in an irrevocable trust that it be maintained as it was during his lifetime.  Sadly, Barnes' trust has not been honored as documented in the 2009 award-winning film, The Art of the Steal.

Brady was heavily influenced by Albert Barnes and his Foundation. In turn, Barnes was heavily influenced by beloved educational philosopher John Dewey.  In 1934 Barnes and Dewey collaborated on Art as Experience; a book theorizing that art is something natural to all human beings and should not be overly explained before being experienced. 

Barnes tried to limit admission to his collection and its associated art school to the underprivileged.  Famously, he even refused admission to author James Michener who ultimately gained access to the collection by posing as an illiterate steelworker.  Brady applied to the school and gained admission as a “trucker” not mentioning that, in fact, his family owned the trucking business. 

Brady’s study at the Barnes profoundly influenced his own collecting and its display.  Albert Barnes displayed his vast collection to show relationships between paintings and objects.  Paintings were placed near furniture and objects intended to complement one another.  Cuernavaca's Museo Brady is the only museum in the world established by a student of the Barnes Foundation that has adopted this pleasing philosophy.  But perhaps I should allow you to form your own opinion when you visit Frida at her home in Cuernavaca.

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