Title page and personalized drawing and inscription “For Jean” in The Hole in the Wall an illustrated children’s book by René d’Harnoncourt (all images courtesy the Museum of Modern Art)

Rene d’Harnoncourt is not what he might seem from today’s vantage. His influence and reputation belie his own biography and the intimate study he brought to each artwork he exhibited. In a book recently published by MoMA and compiled by Michelle Elligott, the museum’s Chief of Archives, Library, and Research Collections, Rene d’Harnoncourt: and the Art of Installation, brings his life and approach to exhibition-making to light.

Born a count in Vienna in 1901 to an aristocratic family of French descent, d’Harnoncourt had an upbringing and early education with all the expected attendant privileges. However, upon the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1924, his life took a dramatic turn. Having lost his fortune, he chose to move to North America to “be a poor man in a new land, rather than in familiar territory.” He endeavored to enter the United States, but the restrictions imposed by the Immigration Act of 1924 barred him, so instead he hoped to use his formal training as a chemist and his knowledge of art to find work in Mexico. Speaking neither Spanish nor English, however, did not make work as a scientist easy to come by. Instead, after meeting some influential Americans and recognized their interest in Mexican colonial art, taking advantage of his aristocratic panache, he sold art, textiles, and artifacts. He also affiliated himself with a group of important modern artists of Mexico, including Tina Modotti and Diego Rivera (Manuel Alvarez Bravo took an idiosyncratic portrait of d’Harnoncourt during this period). Further, he illustrated a few children’s books and while he did not consider himself an artist he did have a solo show of drawings at Weyhe Gallery in 1932.

Installation view of the exhibition, Timeless Aspects of Modern Art November 16, 1948–January 23, 1949; photographic archive, the Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

It is his eye for details and his abilities as a draftsman that makes his other work organizing and installing exhibitions note worthy. By the 1940s he had married Sara Carr, a cracker heiress from Chicago, moved to New York City following various academic posts, served as chairman of the Indian Arts and Crafts board for the US Department of the Interior, and produced a number of projects affiliated with MoMA. He joined the museum’s staff in 1944. By 1949, he was appointed director of the Museum — a meteoric rise by any standards — and then continued to organize exhibitions throughout his tenure.

Among his papers, which are held in the MoMA archives, there are hundreds of d’Harnoncourt’s drawings, of both specific artworks as well as installation plans, complex doodles, and hand-drawn floor plans — some of which show arrows indicating anticipated traffic flows. He drew in graphite and colored pencil, taking pleasure in rendering specific objects. It is clear from these how important drawing the objects he might exhibit was to his process. His studies of single objects carry a specificity of detail that is quasi-photographic; some even capture the wood grain of carved sculpture.

Hand-drawn circulation plan of the exhibition, Timeless Aspects of Modern Art, René d’Harnoncourt Papers, IX.A.60, the Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

As a non-specialist d’Harnoncourt had a rare ability to engage deeply with objects across time, cultural specificity, and form. As a result, his exhibitions ranged in their content from Mexican and Indigenous art of the Americas to modernist painting and sculpture. Each show was handled with care and overt attention to the individual object, sometimes creating theatrical moments with deep wall colors and pinspot-lit objects highlighted in darkened galleries. Of particular interest is d’Harnoncourt’s inclusion of Indigenous art into MoMA’s exhibition program. While his shows were widely applauded, Arts of the South Seas, his first MoMA exhibition organized as a member of the staff, met with some very specific criticism. Robert M. Coates writing for the New Yorker, intensely disliked d’Harnoncourt’s exhibition in the context of this temple to modernism. He said that the museum was “careening off after folk art and anthropology, as if determined to beat the Museum of Natural History on its own ground … with Arts of the South Seas, it has veered off again, and your guess about its next tack is as good as mine.”

Installation view of the exhibition Arts of the South Seas January 29, 1946–May 19, 1946; René d’Harnoncourt Papers, IX.A 40. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

This type of criticism is not surprising given the era, and while I am certain that some elements of presentation seen through a contemporary lens were likely essentializing and cringe-worthy, it is significant that d’Harnoncourt insisted on presenting Indigenous work, whether from South America, Mexico, or the South Seas, in largely the same manner as he did modernist paintings and objects. While today we might want to better understand the interconnection between these objects and life within an art context, it was and remains important to see these particular objects as art and not “merely” as anthropological remnants of culture. Indeed, they were and are produced by cultures in the present tense.

Looking at the ways in which d’Harnoncourt imagined the exhibitions he organized, and seeing his drawings of his conceptualized installations side by side installation photos of the eventual displays, reveals both formal and conceptual relationships between the works and his storytelling. He used walls and pedestals to direct the public through the galleries intentionally, and his use of color and spot lighting created specific moods and intimacies. While the legacies of the modernist museum are clearly present throughout, there is a loving attention to the objects and paintings themselves that attempts to break down the cool touch of the museum. His 1949 exhibition Modern Art in Your Life for example, joined modernist fine art with applied arts and furniture. It attempts to connect art and life in a visceral way by linking the influence of modernist art on industrial design, typography, and advertising. Indeed, any visit to West Elm or Crate and Barrel today reflects the ongoing embeddedness of these aesthetics in the public imaginary.

Preparatory hand-drawn “vista” of the exhibition, Elie Nadelman (1948) René d’Harnoncourt Papers, IX.A.56. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

Installation view of the exhibition, Elie Nadelman October 5, 1948–November 28, 1948 Photographic Archive, the Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York

Elligott’s book gives ample space to d’Harnoncourt’s renderings, and she does a fantastic service by exposing his methodologies. Of his 1963 Rodin exhibition, scholar Albert Elsen commented:

D’Harnoncourt, who installed the exhibition, made no attempt at an art historical or didactic arrangement. On the basis of deep feeling for each piece and its visual rightness in combination with others, as well as a desire to let each work receive full attention, he created a superb installation that avoided the temptations of distracting dramatic effects.

I suspect d’Harnoncourt would have been pleased with Elsen’s statement. Indeed, his most salient and compelling organizing principle may have been his enjoyment of and devotion to the object.

Rene d’Harnoncourt and the Art of Installation by Michelle Elligott is available from MoMA and other online retailers.

Laura Raicovich is a New York-based writer and curator. Most recently, she co-curated Mel Chin: All Over the Place, a multi-borough survey of the artist's work, and served as the director of the Queens...