Posts Tagged ‘Jewish Museum’

The intimidating art of condolence letters

May 23, 2011

I spent a wonderful few days in New York earlier this month for my dad’s 87th birthday. While I was there, Sam called and told me that the fathers of two friends of ours had died.

I of course felt more fortunate than ever to be having this happy time with my dad. But it also got me thinking about condolence letters — how, even as a professional writer, I find myself tongue-tied and stumbling.

Woman Writing a Letter, by Gerard ter Borch (Amsterdam, 1655)

I’m not talking about deaths where I knew the deceased really well — this is more about cases where I barely knew the person who died, and sometimes don’t know the bereaved all that well either. But I still want to share my sympathy.

Okay. I start out: Dear xxxx, I was saddened to hear of the loss of your xxxxx.

All fine so far.

But then my pen wants to start writing all sorts of horrible things. I feel a pressing compulsion to make the mourner feel better. “At least he is no longer suffering.” “At least you had 30 good years with him.” “He is in a better place now.”

Which is complete b.s., because I don’t believe in a heaven, and wouldn’t it be better to have 40 years rather than 30, and who the hell am I to suggest that their loved is better off dead than suffering?

So then I feel a secondary urge to say that I know how they feel. Which I really don’t.

Or I feel compelled to spout something that sounds profound, like “No one can ever take the place of a parent.”  More b.s.! Maybe this person hated his father. Maybe this person has been in therapy for the past 20 years because of his father. Who am I to know?

In any case, I find myself at a loss for words — words with integrity — when confronted with death.

I suspect this is not just me: It is an outgrowth of how our society tries to ignore death as much as possible. We don’t get much practice talking about death. So then when we do have to talk about it, we feel uncomfortable and try to apply Band-aids or make it go away.

During that recent visit with my dad, I stopped by an exhibit at the Jewish Museum about the Cone sisters of Baltimore. They were big collectors of modern art, and when Claribel Cone died, Henri Matisse wrote a condolence letter to her sister Etta.

That letter was on display at the museum:

“My Dear Mademoiselle, I know that words lose meaning in the face of great emotion but allow me to tell you of my sad surprise in learning by letter from my family of your sorrow. I think of your great sadness knowing your attachment to Dr. Cone and imagine how much her rich and distinguished character enhanced your days. Believe me that I share your grief, my dear mademoiselle, and want you to accept the expression of my affectionate and devoted feelings.”

The Cones were major patrons of Matisse, so it’s possible this note had elements of marketing as well as friendship. But still, I found it eloquent and authentic. I wished my condolences letters sounded like that.

What makes for a good condolence letter?

I usually try to put myself in the shoes of the bereaved and think, What would I want a friend to say if I had just lost somebody? I guess I’d want them to acknowledge my loss, share a memory or two of the person (if they knew him), and offer their support. Beyond that, I’m not really sure.

What do you think?

I’m sad to say that this is a question that’s likely to come up more and more. At 53, I have lots of friends with parents in their 80s or even 90s.

There are going to be plenty of opportunities to work on my condolence notes over the next few years.

Cones, Steins and emerging modern art

May 16, 2011

Two American Jewish families with amazing modern art collections. Three strong-minded, independent women who were way ahead of their time.

And now… two simultaneous art exhibits on two coasts.

A Matisse, Gauguin and Picasso from the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, currently on display at the Jewish Museum

While visiting New York over the weekend for my dad’s 87th birthday, I stopped by an exhibit at the Jewish Museum on the Cone sisters of Baltimore — two unmarried women who were some of the earliest patrons of Picasso and Matisse, and who left a huge collection of works by those two artists as well as Gauguin, Cezanne, and Van Gogh to the Baltimore Museum of Art.

Claribel and Etta Cone were raised in the Victorian era, and dressed in Victorian collars and skirts to the end of their lives. But under that conservative garb were souls who broke rules. Claribel became a doctor at a time when few women did so. Etta developed an intimate relationship for a while with Gertrude Stein that the exhibit suggests may have included sexual/romantic love.

Claribel Cone (left) , Gertrude Stein (center) and Etta Cone in 1903 / The Baltimore Museum of Art: Cone Archives

And as they shopped for shoes and clothes in Paris, the sisters collected works of avant-garde art that would have been seen by most Americans as garish, even scandalous. (One of their Matisses sparked a riot by art students when it went on tour.)

The Cones came from a German-Jewish family, with Cone the Anglicized version of Kahn (Cohen). Their art collecting was funded by family textile mills run by their brothers. And — here’s a piece of obscure Ilana-trivia that wasn’t in the exhibit — they were graduates of Baltimore’s Western High School, one of only two 19th century public girls’ schools in the U.S. that remains in operation as a single-sex school today.

It was a terrific exhibit. First of all, the paintings were great — colorful, bold, evocative. Those women had good  taste! But the staging was also great. The rooms were separated by transparent panels embossed with giant black-and-white photos of the Cones’ cluttered apartment so you had a feeling of being in their home.

Alongside their paintings were samples of the African and Middle Eastern textiles and jewelry that the women collected, as well as objects from their collecting life, such as a handwritten condolence note from Matisse to Etta upon Claribel’s death.

Front room of Etta Cone's apartment / The Baltimore Museum of Art, Cone Papers

As I meandered through the exhibit, I wondered about the working conditions in those textile factories that allowed the sisters the luxury of their European travel, shopping, and art patronage.

And what about the second exhibit I mentioned? I arrived home to  a Leah Garchik column in the Chronicle describing a new show at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art on Gertrude Stein, her brothers, and their art collection — The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. It’s accompanied by a biographical exhibit at the nearby Contemporary Jewish Museum called Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories, which runs until Sept. 6.

Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, 1906 / Metropolitan Museum of Art

I haven’t seen the SFMOMA Stein exhibition yet: It opens on May 21 and runs until Sept. 6, after which it will travel to Paris and New York.

But I highly recommend the Cone show at the Jewish Museum, which also runs until September.

Gertrude Stein wrote a story, Two Sisters, about the Cones. Their lives intertwined both in Baltimore and Paris. Stein introduced the Cones to Picasso, Matisse and others, and the Cones helped support Stein through their purchases. Both the Steins and the Cones built impressive collections that today are worth millions but at the time were edgy and controversial.

I love that women from these two families — who shared a Jewish heritage, offbeat independence, and visionary love of modern art — are now the subject of major museum exhibits at the same time.