Connections: The de Menils and the Andes

Paul R. Davis

The formation of the museum’s collection of Andean visual culture and archaeological material is, understandably so, a reflection of John and Dominique de Menil’s interests and intellectual pursuits. The de Menils acquired the majority of works from the Andes during two decades in the mid-20th century, and the museum has not actively collected in this area since opening in 1987. Arguably one of John and Dominique de Menil’s first encounters with the power of visual culture in the Andes was from the accounts of French photographer and ethnologist Pierre Verger (1902–1996). Discussed in another section of this publication, Verger met the de Menils in 1941, shortly after the photographer’s first visit to the Andes 1939. At the time, the de Menils were living in Caracas, Venezuela, in order to improve flagging operations of Schlumberger Surenco, their family’s international petroleum service company in South America and the Caribbean. The more than 150 photographs of Andean festivals by Verger in the museum’s collection were among the de Menils’ first representations of Andean visual culture.

Retracing the formation of the museum’s collection of Andean objects and photographs highlights the de Menils’ support of and prominent roles in American museums and universities at the time, but also the lasting contributions of the many individuals involved, especially Jermayne MacAgy. The de Menils forged relationships with a number of leading figures in the world of art, some of whom were experts in the history and archaeology of the Andes. This survey retraces many of these connections and events, such as exhibitions of Andean material in U.S. museums, that were concurrent with the de Menils’ growth as collectors and, in general, the rather swift development of their collection of art from the ancient Andes between the late 1950s and the 1970s.

Jermayne MacAgy, the de Menils, and the Andes

A scholar and collector of American folk art as well as an innovative arts professional with a special acumen for exhibition design, Jermayne MacAgy played a pivotal role in the development of the museum’s permanent collection of Andean objects. When, during the late 1950s, John and Dominique de Menil helped to recruit MacAgy to be the director of the Contemporary Art Association in Houston, she had been a curator at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco since the early 1940s. MacAgy had an early academic and curatorial interest in the Andes. In 1951 she curated Ancient American Arts at the Legion of Honor. Surveying the art from Central and South America in private and museum collections in California, the exhibition included textiles, ceramic vessels, and funerary figures from the Nazca, Chimú, and Chancay cultures. This exploratory exhibition, which MacAgy emphasized in an essay was not comprehensive and “simply an exhibition to enjoy,” seems to have introduced her to the range of work from the ancient Americas as preparatory groundwork for Ancient Art of the Andes, a much larger exhibition project.(1)

Ancient Art of the Andes was the first major survey of Andean material in the United States. It opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1953 and then traveled to Legion of Honor and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Unlike MacAgy’s earlier exhibition, Ancient Art of the Andes was an extensive presentation of more than 400 objects embodying the early civilizations of Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama, and Costa Rica. It was the first time many of the objects had ever been displayed in a North American museum. René d’Harnoncourt (1901–1968), the visionary exhibition-maker who became director of MoMA (1949–67), reportedly worked for a decade carefully selecting works from private collections and museums all over the world.(2) He and anthropologist Wendell C. Bennett (1905–53) authored the publication that accompanied the exhibition.(3) The heavily illustrated book included a number of Pierre Verger’s photographs of Inca archeological sites, such as the wall of Sacsayhuamán and a view from the interior of the so-called Royal Tomb of Machu Picchu.

MoMA’s publication for Ancient Arts of the Andes was at the time a defining presentation of the archaeological and historical picture of the complex early societies of South America, but excavations and ongoing studies continue to alter the historical record. For example, Ancient Arts of the Andes presented the Wari culture as Peruvian Tiahuanaco, a horizon style believed to be subordinate to a “principal center” in Bolivia.(4) This understanding has changed considerably as a result of work by archaeologists Julio C. Tello’s (1880–1947), John Howland Rowe (1918–2004), Dorothy Menzel (b. 1923), Francis A. Riddell (1921–2002), and others.(5) Today, scholarly consensus holds that Wari civilization was a major imperial force with its capitol in Wari (also spelled Huari) and throughout the region of the Ayacucho Valley in Peru.

MacAgy, who would soon move to Houston, served as the in-house curator for Ancient Arts of the Andes installation when it went to the Legion of Honor in July 1954.(6) The San Francisco Chronicle’s art and music critic Alfred Frankenstein repeatedly praised MacAgy in his exhibition coverage: “Jermayne MacAgy of the Legion staff has made a fine art out of the exhibition of fine arts, and this installation may well be her masterpiece to date.”(7) Ancient Arts of the Andes was a significant success for the Legion of Honor. The exhibition reportedly cost five million dollars, but drew more visitors to the Legion “than any other exhibition that museum has had in the last 15 years.”(8) Beyond these reports, there is very little to make concrete conclusions about her role in the West Coast presentation of Ancient Arts of the Andes.

Ancient Arts of the Andes was not the end of MacAgy’s interest in the Andes, however. After a period at the Contemporary Arts Association, in 1959 MacAgy was named chair of a new art department at the University of St. Thomas. In August 1962 she visited Peru and Ecuador with the reported intention of “locating some pre-Inca or Inca textile fragments.”(9) During her trip, she met with Yoshitaro Amano (1898–1982), a Japanese businessman who had made Lima his permanent home and was in the process of building a museum to house his extensive collection of ancient Andean textiles and ceramics. She also enjoyed pisco sours while visiting the distinguished collection of colonial paintings at the home of Peruvian philanthropist Pedro de Osma Gildemeister (1901–1967). A majority of the Andean works MacAgy collected during her life—several textile fragments, folk art, a knitted waq’olllo mask worn during Andean festivals, and a large painted Virgin of Bethlehem (Virgen de Belén) that Ana Girard discusses in this publication—ultimately became part of the Menil’s permanent collection.

During the early 1960s the de Menils added significantly to their collection of Andean material, presumably as part of their efforts to build a teaching collection for the newly established art department they had founded at St. Thomas University.(10) Still, very little more can be stated with any precision about how their trusted adviser MacAgy’s experiences working on exhibitions about the Andes and her traveling there may have impacted the de Menils’ collecting. She left almost no archive indicating how, why, or when she collected the ancient and colonial works from the Andes that are now part of the museum’s collection. Her sudden and untimely death in 1964 was a significant shock to all those who admired her work and especially to the de Menils.

John de Menil and the Museum of Primitive Art

The growth in this area of their collecting also coincided with John de Menil becoming a board member of the Museum of Primitive Art in New York City beginning in 1960. His position significantly enhanced the de Menils’ exposure to the arts and culture of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. Founded by Nelson A. Rockefeller, the Museum of Primitive Art (MPA) opened in 1957 in a townhouse on 54th Street. Under the direction of Robert Goldwater (1907–1993) and with René d’Harnoncourt serving as vice president of the board, the museum’s exhibition and publication program dedicated to what was then considered “primitive art” was unique in the United States. It was incredibly influential for the de Menils’ during their most active decade of collecting.

Art of Ancient Peru, one of the MPA’s exhibitions in 1958, presented ceramic and textile fragments from the Nazca, Wari, Chimú, and Inca, as well as a gold Lambayeque (Sicán) funerary mask. The museum dedicated a special gallery to the display of sixteen Wari feathered panels, which have become iconic references to the ancient Andes. In her contribution to this publication, Heidi King discusses how in 1943 local residents uncovered 96 of these panels, which quickly circulated through the regional and international art market. By 1957, museums and private collectors in Europe, the United States, and Peru—reportedly even shops and restaurants in Lima—had acquired more than 80 of the 96 panels.(11) By 1963, the MPA had amassed 24 examples. The de Menils purchased one in 1966 from the Henri Kamer Gallery in New York. Their daughter, Adelaide de Menil, and her husband Edmund Carpenter acquired two panels in 1973 and 1976 from the galleries of Andre Emmerich (New York) and Hélène Kamer (Paris), respectively. Similarly focused MPA exhibitions and publications in the period of John de Menil’s tenure, such as Chavin Art: An Inquiry into its Form and Meaning (1962), Gods with Fangs: The Chavin Civilization of Peru (1962), Tiahuanaco Tapestry Design (1963), and Art of Empire: The Inca of Peru (1963–64), further exposed the couple to ancient objects from the Andes and, also, the most recent archaeological and historical scholarship on the region.

Owing to the number of such exhibitions at the MPA during the late 1950s and 1960s, the de Menils had access to many of the leading scholars on ceramic and textiles from Peru. Archaeologist Junius B. Bird (1907–1982) and dealer John Wise (1902–1981) are notable since they are associated with the de Menils’ most historically significant acquisition from the ancient Andes, a two-panel fragment of the 13th-century “Prisoner Textile” from the Late Intermediate Chimú civilization, which Susan E. Bergh and Kari Dodson’s essays in this publication examines.

Since 1934, Junius Bird had been curator of South American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. By the 1940s, he had established himself as a distinguished expert on ancient Andean textiles. He had assisted René d’Harnoncourt with the development of the 1953 Ancient Arts of the Andes exhibition and later, when the MPA opened, Bird was appointed to one of the museum’s three consulting fellow positions.(12) Throughout the 1960s, many of his projects overlapped with the de Menils. As Bergh elaborates, he was among the first scholars to study the different panels of the Chimú textile, access to which he likely secured from John Wise.

Prelude and Presto for Ancient American Instruments, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, 1957. Glanville-Hicks was commissioned by New York gallerist André Emmerich to compose this work for Andean instruments recovered from ancient sites for a gallery exhibition in 1957. A copy of the record produced for the occasion is among the material on the Andes in MacAgy’s papers in the Menil Archives.

Wise was one of the foremost dealers of art from Central and South America in the United States. He too had assisted d’Harnoncourt with the selection of works for Ancient Arts of the Andes and he was involved with the placement of at least four of the ten known fragments of the so-called Chimú Prisoner Textile with private collectors and museums.(13) The de Menils purchased a one fragment along with a group of related Wari textile fragments in the form of a tunic (unku in Quechua) and two wood keros in May 1962 from John Wise’s New York gallery.(14) Both textiles were purchased as examples of “Late Tiahuanaco,” reflecting then-current understanding of Andean archaeology, but the timing of the de Menils’ acquisition is suggestive of the ways their collecting in particular areas was concurrent with or presaged exhibitions and educational projects, such as the exhibition Other Voices that MacAgy curated in October 1962 at the University of St. Thomas. MacAgy had just returned from her trip to Peru and Ecuador, and the exhibition featured textiles and ceramic vessels from the Nazca, Chancay, and other ancient Andean civilizations, some of which were from her collection.(15) Although loans from the de Menils and private collectors were also included, Other Voices surprisingly did not present the Chimú and Wari objects recently acquired by the de Menils from Wise.

If the early 1960s witnessed a surge of collecting objects from the Andes, along with a number of exhibitions, the energy driving the de Menils’ activities mostly dissipated over the next decade. MacAgy’s death and the tragic passing of John de Menil in 1973 were certainly factors, as both were major forces in adding to this area of the collection. Although less frequently, Dominique de Menil did acquire works from the region, such as an embroidered cape, or esclavina, from the Huancayo region of Peru. It depicts a group of Black Peruvians surrounding President Ramón Castilla (1797–1867), who is credited with abolishing slavery in 1854; it appears in this publication in Amy Groleau’s article on dance capes. It also is among works depicting Africans or people of the African diaspora aligned with collecting objectives of Image of the Black in Western Art project, which the de Menils had started in 1960.

Although punctuated, the acquisition of Andean works by John and Dominique de Menil during the mid-20th century connected them to their intellectual and cultural center in American universities and museums. Consequently, today, the museum’s collection and archives are valuable resources for the study of visual histories, glimpses of stories, of the Andes.

  1. Jermayne MacAgy, “Introduction to Ancient American Arts,” California Palace of the Legion of Honor Bulletin 9, nos. 4–5 (August and September, 1951): unpaginated.
  2. Clifford Evans and Junius B. Bird, “Review: Ancient Arts of the Andes by Wendell C. Bennett,” American Antiquity 21, no. 4 (April 1956): 438–39.
  3. Evans and Bird, “Review: Ancient Arts of the Andes,” 439. Wendell C. Bennett suddenly died of a heart attack before finishing the manuscript for the publication. In their review, Evans and Bird underline the challenges of completing the publication after the death of Wendell C. Bennett.
  4. Wendell C. Bennett, Ancient Arts of the Andes, with an introduction by René d’Harnoncourt (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1954): 67.
  5. Susan E. Bergh, Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes (Cleveland Museum of Art: Cleveland, OH; New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012), 8–15.
  6. In the 1940s, owing to the war, MacAgy was at times also the acting director or assistant director; Ancient Arts of the Andes is listed as one of the many exhibitions she curated for the Legion of Honor in Jermayne MacAgy: A Life Illustrated by an Exhibition (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968).
  7. Alfred Frankenstein, “The Andean Art Exhibit,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 1954, 10, 15; and Alfred Frankenstein, “Legion of Honor Shows Early American Sculptures,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 19, 1954, 13.
  8. Frankenstein, “Legion of Honor Shows Early American Sculptures”; and Lady Teazle, “Art Benefits Art at Museum Preview,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 24, 1954, 8.
  9. Letter from Edward C. Borrego to Marie Lajoye, August 1, 1962. Jermayne MacAgy Curatorial Papers, Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston.
  10. Walter Widrig, “Introduction,” A Young Teaching Collection (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968), 8–9; Middleton, Double Vision, 398–99.
  11. Undated photocopies of Arts of Ancient Peru: Selected Works from the Collection (1958) with handwritten annotations, possibly by Junius B. Bird, and correspondence with Dorothy Menzel (1963), Menil Registrar Object File 1966-38 DJ.
  12. The other two fellows were Gordon F. Ekholm (1909–1987), an anthropologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History, and William B. Fagg (1914–1992), a British anthropologist and keeper at the British Museum. In 1962, the year the de Menils exhibited their collection of art from Africa, Oceania, the Americas, and ancient world at the MPA, Bird curated the exhibition “Art and Life in Old Peru” at the American Museum of Natural History.
  13. Henry Reichlen, “Dos telas pintadas del norte del Perú,” Revisita Peruana de Cultura 5 (April 1965): 5–16; Henri Lehmann, “Le linceul péruvien de Pucuche,” Marco Polo 15 (1956): 40–43; and Andrew James Hamilton, “New Horizons in Andean Art History,” Record of the Princeton University Art Museum 75–76 (2016–17): 43–159.
  14. Letter and invoice from John Wise to John de Menil, May 8, 1962, Menil Registrar Object File X 2037 and X 2038.
  15. Other Voices: An Exhibition of Artifacts of Religious and Supernatural Beliefs of Other Cultures, October 25 –December 16 (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1962).