Art Review: Saint Louis Art Museum a Superb Venue

The Verdict of the People, 1854–55, by George Caleb Bingham. Oil on canvas. (Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Bank of America 45:2001)

Clang, clang, clang, ding, ding, ding for the city’s superb museum


visited the Saint Louis Art Museum this week, my first time in the city, which is entirely my fault since both the city and the museum are warm, welcoming hubs of high culture. Saint Louis started as a fur-trapping market town in the 1760s and wasn’t much more when the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 nearly doubled the size of the country at the attractive price of $18 a square mile.

A hundred and one years later, the city was a metropolis, so much so that it hosted the 1904 World’s Fair, nominally in honor of the Louisiana Purchase’s centennial, and later sired the movie-musical Meet Me in Saint Louis, itself a claim to fame. This week, I’ll profile the museum, a jewel in America’s string of encyclopedic civic art galleries. Set outside Chicago, New York, and the nation’s capital, they’re icons of local pride and holders of the finest in world art. St. Louis Art Museum — it goes by SLAM, which is hip, so I tend not to like it — is a center for scholarship, too. Next week, I’ll review its solid show on Jean-Francois Millet.

I spent most of the day at the museum, which reopened with dispatch in mid-June. It’s new hygiene protocols are reasonable, easy to design and implement, and unobtrusive. For many reasons, service to the public is in St. Louis’s bones, so I’m not surprised it opened as soon as it could. In a normal year, the museum gets around 600,000 visitors. It was happily populated with art lovers when I was there.

Detail of Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers, 12th century, by Liu Chai. Handscroll: ink and color on silk. (Saint Louis Art Museum, William K. Bixby Trust for Asian Art 97:1926.1)

I saw beauty after beauty, but for the subtlest cinematic magic nothing beats its Liu Cai silk scroll Fish Swimming and Falling Flowers, from around the late eleventh century. Liu is the Giotto of Chinese scroll painting. Running about eight feet, the rare colored ink scroll depicts pink flower petals drifting onto a transparent pool in which a cornucopia of fish swim. It’s both ethereal and documentary, with the precision of, let’s say, Audubon but the refinement and delicacy of angels. It’s the star of a fine collection of Asian art.

Charing Cross Bridge, 1903, by Claude Monet. Oil on canvas. (Saint Louis Art Museum, Museum Purchase 22:1915)

There’s something sublime in every room. It could be a jaw-dropper like Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, from 1903, with sweeps of mauve-colored fog, or a red and orange Rothko from 1962. There’s a commanding, massive Anselm Kieffer tribute to the Kabballah, twelve feet of lead, iron, glass, and copper. It’s a behemoth of complexity and austere beauty that left me speechless. Anchoring the American galleries are George Caleb Bingham’s three big election paintings from the mid-1850s, and they’re as majestic as you can get for American art. Bingham lived in Saint Louis at the time. I look at them as the answer key explaining antebellum American politics.

I could teach a thorough course on Ancient Greek and Roman art in the galleries with only a few visits to the classroom for slides of the Parthenon and the Roman Forum. The Old Masters are good, covering most of the basic schools from the Italian primitives to Tiepolo and Giaquinto in the 1750s. There’s a late Titian Ecce Homo veiled in sfumato and galleries dedicated to good, pre-1900 landscapes and portraits.

An Island in the Lagoon with a Gateway and a Church, 1743–44, by Canaletto (Giovanni Antonio Canal). Oil on canvas. (Saint Louis Art Museum, Friends Fund 12:1967)

I was smitten by perfect gems like Zurbaran’s minimalist, spooky, and compact St. Francis Contemplating a Skull, from 1635, and Canaletto’s Island in a Lagoon with a Gateway and a Church, from 1743. It’s a small painting, the kind of thing an English Grand Tourist would buy, but the scene is still and cryptic, the colors pure, and the buildings random and prosaic but the finish is so sharply focused that the look foretells surrealism. It’s hyperrealism through the Looking Glass but small and pretty enough to make me feel I was touched by a magic wand. The small, late Stairway at Auvers by Van Gogh, done just before he died, is gravely beautiful.

Like many of America’s civic museums, and as with any city’s main, cover-the-bases art museum, St. Louis started in 1879 as an art school and fine-arts gallery. The Victoria and Albert Museum inspired its founders, who envisioned a museum of the best applied arts — sculpture, furniture, ceramics, and metalwork as well as plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture, all intended to teach future professionals and to advance the cause of good taste.

Cass Gilbert-designed Main Building (Photo: Saint Louis Art Museum)

The 1904 World’s Fair centered in Forest Park, purpose-built grounds away from the city’s commercial and industrial center. At the heart of the fair, on a hill, Cass Gilbert’s big Beaux-Arts pile was built as both the main pavilion and, after the fair, the museum’s future home. It’s an impressive, even unctuous, insistently handsome palace-style building with a courtyard lobby inspired by the Baths of Caracalla. It’s of the time and mood of the old Penn Station. As showy as the Gilbert building seems, it’s not big, and the collection soon felt cramped there.

David Chipperfield-designed East Building (Photo: Alise O’Brien)

An addition, designed by David Chipperfield, opened in 2013. It’s lovely. It’s deferential to the Gilbert building — the pile’s the original home so best not even to try to upstage it. It’s sleek and clear, too, content with its glass transparency and simplicity in contrast to the Gilbert building’s opacity overlain with decorative razzle-dazzle. The natural light, subtly filtered, is serenely gorgeous. The addition’s dark gray concrete walls glow, with a touch of sparkle from speckles of Mississippi River rock.

The contemporary art galleries are spacious, classically proportioned boxes, but they don’t evoke Imperial Rome. They’re about the art. It was a $130 million project with needed amenities including a new auditorium. It’s not an egotistical building. It’s smart and smoothly elegant.

The complex isn’t finished. At some point, the west wing of the Gilbert building will get an overhaul. It displays the decorative arts and the American art. At some point, this wing was chopped into small spaces with low ceilings. Given the splendor of the east wing, this space, though filled with wonderful work, has a fizzle that doesn’t deaden the art — it’s too good — but doesn’t help. This is a future capital campaign.

Like almost all American museums, St. Louis is built on the collecting interests of many people, mostly local, and we can’t call these collectors and, ultimately, donors “building blocks” because that’s trite, and, in any event, the term implies uniformity. St. Louis is unique because it had donors who danced to the beat of their own drummers, and none more so than Morton May (1914–1983). May was the hands-on boss of the May Department Store chain, headquartered in St. Louis. About a fifth of the museum’s 34,000 objects come from him.

The grandest gallery in the museum is in the Gilbert building and dedicated to Max Beckmann (1884–1950), a pillar of European modernism and the greatest German artist since, oh, I would climb on a limb and say Dürer. They’re May gifts. I wrote a story about the Beckmann retrospective at the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid a couple of years ago. Because he’s German, and because his career is bookended by the two world wars, his is angst art.

Gallery view of Max Beckmann’s Acrobats (1937-39, oil on canvas) at the Saint Louis Museum of Art. (Photo: Saint Louis Art Museum)

Most museums have a grand gallery, the place’s most spacious, and it’s almost always hung with Old Masters. Here, it’s all Beckmann and looks fabulous. For his avant-garde qualities — his abstraction and jaggedness — Beckmann has a touch of the Old Masters, not the smooth, fleshy, golden Italians but the masters of medieval stained glass, limewood sculpture, and Renaissance woodcuts. It’s striking, dramatic, and unusual but feels right.

These are big, salon-style paintings, from his Sinking of the Titanic, from 1913, to Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery, from 1917, to the triptych The Acrobats, from 1938, when Beckmann, called a “cultural Bolshevik” by the Nazis, was living in hiding in Amsterdam, to Fisherwomen, from 1948.

His is a tough aesthetic. Beckmann’s scenes of Berlin in the teens, mostly allegorical, show a historically refined culture in wartime collapse, greed jostling with poverty and despair. His style is slashing, with big, asymmetrical geometric shapes and a wild Fauve palette. Sometimes he shows frank atrocities, but his acrobats and carnival characters suggest that things are so bad, only the make-believe and gaudy, contrived entertainment can do them justice.

Beckmann was a refugee when he came to America after the Second World War. He was already famous and came to St. Louis at the invitation of the museum’s director to teach at Washington University, replacing Philip Guston. St. Louis was a magnet for German immigrants since its founding — Germans poured into America after the failed 1848 revolution in Europe — so he felt comfortable there, but it was really a fortuitous match of a great artist’s immediate need for a job and a director’s good sense and nose for opportunity.

May was instantly attracted to Beckmann’s uncompromising and decidedly unbeautiful approach. He was an eccentric enthusiast to the point that when he did jump in the pool, checkbook in hand, he made a big splash.

I wish I knew May. His opinions were as pungent as mine. On second thought, I’m relieved I didn’t need to manage him as a donor, precisely because his opinions were as pungent as mine. May educated himself on art and had phases. Beckmann was one. He bought great Mesoamerican and Oceanic art, too. He was countercultural in a canny, un-hippie way. He famously said that museum taste throughout American — what museums bought and displayed — was conformist and set by the taste of the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I don’t know whether he was a natural contrarian. I doubt it since he ran a big, complex family business. As a department-store owner, he was savvy about fads and marketing, so much so that he understood that the established art-history canon, with its hierarchies and staple of stars, is, in part, composed of artists who managed to get good PR and works loaded with a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approvals. Less blessed artists might be as good or better, but left in the dust of high fashion’s high horse, they easily get overlooked.

I think this explains his risk-taking and his catholic tastes. Beckmann, from a German rather than French track, went against the crowd. So, in the 1960s, would Grouping of Dancers and Musicians, a Colima-culture earthenware tomb sculpture made between 300 b.c. and a.d. 300 in ancient Mexico. It’s jazzy as well as divine. His Oceanic religious sculpture is very sexy indeed. May was a shopaholic. Not for nothing was his milieu a department store.

St. Louis had dozens of collectors and donors like May. This explains its many offbeat areas of high-quality depth. This isn’t surprising since Saint Louis is a rich, cultured place, but be prepared for the unexpected. Outside New York, people with taste tend, like May, to go where their own, cultivated taste takes them and not where a fad or the cult of impressing others goes.

It’s not an impulse of the past, either. There’s a riveting show now on view at the museum of abstract art by African-American artists. Saint Louis natives Ronald and Monique Ollie assembled a focused, amazing group of objects over many years and gave it to the museum in 2017. African-American art is thought to be mostly narrative and figural, but this work is neither. They wanted the art to go someplace where it would be used and honored, and they love their hometown.

Gallery view of Kehinde Wiley’s Charles I (2018, oil on canvas) at the Saint Louis Museum of Art. (Photo: Saint Louis Art Museum)

St. Louis is an artist-focused museum, which is unusual for a big-city place with a collection spanning 5,000 years. It’s “Currents” program is an artist-in-residency that ends with a focused exhibition. It’s had 116 iterations featuring many fine artists, mostly young and mid-career. An impressive visit by Kehinde Wiley led to a focused 2017 show from which the museum bought Charles I, Wiley’s riff on a 1633 portrait of Charles I by Daniel Martensz Mytens the Elder. Wiley came to Saint Louis to imbed himself in the community following nearby Ferguson’s police shooting debacle. A season of art-making occurred, courtesy of the museum.

There’s no single template for American museums. Almost all are privately owned and run with collections as diverse as the country, in all sizes, developed like St. Louis’s through the gifts of many. They can be wide-ranging or focused, single-collector museums. Most of us never think about it but, unlike big European museums, no American museum springs from a royal, aristocratic, or ecclesiastic collection. None has a lineage reaching to medieval times. St. Louis didn’t get its collecting and exhibiting legs until the 1904 World’s Fair. The Met is only 150 years old. As immense as our collections of art are, the American museum as a keeper of heritage is new.

St. Louis’s financing is itself an anomaly and not a bad one. Since 1907, the museum, the Saint Louis Zoo, and a handful of other cultural institutions in town have been supported by a special tax. It’s increased over the years and in 1971 went county-wide. Today, that revenue pays $23.5 million — more than half of the museum’s $33 million budget. Philanthropy covers most of the balance, to be sure, but the museum has a nice — and rare — financial base.

Brent Benjamin has been the director for the past 20 years. I’ve known and liked him since we were graduate students. He’s quietly effective, well-liked, and detail-oriented. There’s been no controversy or bad news on his watch. Rather, the place keeps accruing success after success with the confidence and sureness that a well-oiled machine confers. Its curatorial vision is top-notch.

Benjamin has assembled a responsive, collegial staff and has stewarded many young curators who later became directors. I was more of a backslapper as well as a publicity-focused and my-way-or-the-highway director. “Quietly effective” sums up Benjamin, and he’s the best diplomat I’ve seen in the ranks of museum directors.


The risk of having written hundreds of thousands of words is that some are poorly chosen. Sometimes, even a dour Vermonter like me goes hyperbolically rogue, swept by the moment to a realm of prose that’s too purple.

Friends of mine who are sheltering-in-place curators resent my broadly brushing them as lazy or seekers-after-leisure as the pandemic lockdowns continue. I was wrong to do this. Some surely are but I didn’t intend to infer that it’s universal. Personally, I can’t imagine occupying myself with productive work for months with no collection, library, files, or public.

That said, I factored out type-A personalities and proven, passionate achievers, and I don’t know what support curators are getting from their museum libraries or who is completely locked out of their museum offices and who can pop in, however stealthily. I suspect that even in normal times, curators at the high-power places like the Met, the National Gallery, and MoMA work all the time with good results.

Whatever work from home is happening will likely be for naught the longer we’re in this profound and reckless state of abnormality. Museum finances and morale, as far as I can tell, decline and crumble with each day. “Postponed” and “canceled” might fill more wish lists than we can imagine.

In any event, I’ll sift buckets of scorn less carelessly before I press “pour.”


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