When Ronald S. Lauder was thirteen, he made his first purchase of an Austrian modernist work, a drawing by the tragically short-lived Egon Schiele. It’s easy to understand why one of Schiele’s stylized, emotionally supercharged images would appeal to a young teenager. (I lusted after a Schiele drawing myself, at about the same age, but my meager savings were insufficient to my wishes and my mother refused a loan for the balance.) Lauder’s precocious attraction to the drawing that he acquired had profound effects. It gave rise to a lifelong passion for the work of early twentieth-century Austrian artists and their German counterparts and led to a thirty-year friendship with the art dealer and curator Serge Sabarsky (1912–96), a deeply knowledgeable specialist in the field. Together, the two men planned a museum focusing on the artists they admired—Schiele, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and their colleagues. Late in 2001, their ambition was realized with the founding of the Neue Galerie in a Beaux-Arts mansion at Eighty-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue. (Café Sabarsky, in the former ballroom, with its excellent goulash soup and spectacular Viennese pastry, is named in the cofounder’s honor.) This past November, to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the Neue Galerie opened “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection,” a showcase of works that the co-originator of the museum lives with, combined with others often (and sometimes permanently) on view in the museum.1

It’s an astonishing assortment. In his introduction to Lauder’s collection of Italian paintings in the twentieth-anniversary
catalogue—one of many scholarly, informative essays—Keith Christiansen, a curator emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, writes of what he calls “the idiosyncrasies that define the collection”:

To visit Ronald S. Lauder’s residence is to encounter the visual record of his many and widespread interests. . . . His discriminating eye is readily apparent, yet it is anything but conventional. The overall effect is of a capacious imagination in which an ever-shifting curiosity is accompanied by an exigent appreciation of quality and a sense of order.

Austrian and German paintings and drawings may have been Lauder’s first infatuation, but over the sixty-five or so years that he has been collecting, his interests have expanded to include antique sculpture, arms and armor, early Renaissance devotional works, Old Master painting, and much, much more. A wealth of surprising inclusions supplements and complements the often stellar paintings and drawings by Austrian and German expressionists, artists affiliated with the New Objectivity, the artisans of the Wiener Werkstätte, and their contemporaries that form the core of the museum’s collection. It’s not the first time that Lauder has given the public a taste of his private world. In 2011, a similar exhibition was organized to celebrate the Neue Galerie’s tenth anniversary. It’s fascinating to compare the two shows. The titles of their hefty, copiously illustrated catalogues tell the story. In 2011, the Neue Galerie, Museum for German and Austrian Art, published The Ronald S. Lauder Collection: Selections from the 3rd century B.C. to the 20th century, Germany, Austria, and France. The current catalogue, published by the renamed Ronald S. Lauder Neue Galerie, Museum for German and Austrian Art, is dedicated to The Ronald S. Lauder Collection: Selections of Greek and Roman Antiquities, Medieval Art, Arms and Armor, Italian Gold-Ground and Old Master Paintings, Austrian and German Art and Design.

Lauder’s interests beyond German and Austrian modernism were already clear in the 2011 iteration of the show. Medieval art and objects—devotional, secular, and military, including sculpture, tapestries, enameled reliquaries, aquamaniles (vessels in the shape of animals for handwashing), manuscript illuminations, the occasional ivory, and above all armor, plus a few Renaissance paintings—provided ample evidence both of the catholicity of his taste and the high quality of his selections. But the main focus of the installation was on modernist paintings and drawings. There’s a fair amount of overlap in the present installation, especially with some of the most spectacular paintings and objects, but also many striking differences. The remarkable collection of armor and weapons seems to be even more remarkable—more suavely patterned armor, more painted shields, perhaps even more individualized helmets (although I remember the one with the startlingly lifelike nose from the previous show). A nearly life-size fifteenth-century Burgundian sculpture of St. John the Baptist, clad in a long, rhythmically carved sheepskin robe, once again ushers us into the gallery devoted to arms and armor, now joined by a smaller early sixteenth-century wooden female saint, with heavy braids and crisply articulated drapery, from the workshop of the celebrated German sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. But the 2011 exhibition’s works by Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Constantin Brancusi, among other modern masters, and by such contemporary German artists as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Anselm Kiefer are conspicuously absent.

Instead, a gallery is devoted to Lauder’s increasing engagement with paintings from the more distant past. Among the most arresting of these works are a pair of predella panels by Giovanni di Paolo with scenes from the life of St. Claire (fifteenth century), one a rose-pink interior with the saint receiving the clothes of her order from her mentor, St. Francis, the other of the airborne Claire rescuing shipwrecked mariners from a weirdly regular stormy sea, with rounded waves like hillocks. An impressive gold-ground tondo, once part of an altarpiece, The Prophet Isaiah by Lorenzo Monaco (ca. 1410–15), gives us a close-up of the bearded, intense Old Testament figure, leaning forward and gazing sideways as he points to a scroll prefiguring the Annunciation. Other works, mostly portraits, spanning the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, include Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous as Electoral Prince (ca. 1528–30), most notable for the chubby-faced subject’s gorgeous red and white velvet-collared robe with its rows of rich embroidery and the chain of metal flowers on his red velvet hat. Cranach’s Lucretia (ca. 1509–10) is similarly richly dressed and bejeweled, but she opens her fur-lined robe and drops a shoulder of her fabulous shirt to bare a breast and prepare for her suicide. She seems bemused but relaxed, even as she aims the pointed dagger with which she will kill herself to absolve the shame of having been raped. A portrait of a stern, bald church dignitary identified as an abbot, holding an elaborate crook and with a jewel-encrusted miter behind him, was included in the tenth-anniversary show, attributed to Jan Gossaert; it is now identified only as Netherlandish, early sixteenth century. Many of the subjects are far from conventionally attractive. Witness the implacable black-clad matriarch and her two sullen daughters in a portrait by Carlo Ceresa, a seventeenth-century artist from Bergamo. That Lauder has an appetite for the tough Old Master image rather than the ingratiating seems perfectly in character. It’s the same sensibility that informs the selection of twentieth-century Austrian and German art, which, even in a more abbreviated form than in the tenth-anniversary show, is a highpoint of the exhibition.

The more or less permanent large Klimt gallery on the museum’s second floor remains intact, with works on loan from several collections and the Neue Galerie’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), with its usual crowd of worshipful viewers. But the drawing gallery adjacent to the Klimt room is now devoted to Austrian art more generally. The current installation is a feast for lovers of Egon Schiele’s tense, kinky works on paper: two rows of portraits and nudes, charged with adolescent angst, are installed as I remember seeing them for the first time, when I was an undergraduate, in Serge Sabarsky’s Upper West Side apartment. Vigorous drawings by Oskar Kokoschka, fluid sketches by Gustav Klimt, and enigmatic proto-surrealist ink-wash drawings by Alfred Kubin compete for our attention, overwhelming, to my eye, a few extremely mannered Schiele paintings.

One flight up, German modernism is celebrated (along with other interests). There’s a dazzling wall of German works on paper: bitter indictments of early twentieth-century society by George Grosz, deceptively casual collages by Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, urgent Max Beckmanns, and a knockout, smudgy 1921 self-portrait by Lovis Corinth, as well as arresting examples by some of their less-known colleagues. The paintings in this gallery are both textbook examples of the period and embodiments of Lauder’s personal enthusiasms. We learn that a radiant Fauvist-inflected Erich Heckel, Bathers in a Pond (1908), was an early acquisition that remains a favorite. Otto Dix is represented by a confrontational half-length nude ineffectively trying to conceal enormous breasts with a traditional Venus Pudica pose and by the strangely fierce and sympathetic Portrait of the Lawyer Dr. Fritz Glaser (1921), with his pallid complexion, impressive nose, and high collar, against a background of jagged architecture. An erotic Christian Schad depicting two uninhibited girls enlarges the representation of the New Objectivity, while a crowded, rather brutal Beckmann traps a mysterious cast of characters, one clutching a giant fish, waist-deep in a skylit pool; waving hands suggest drowning beneath a mutilated, upside-down nude suspended above. Works by Grosz, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Schlemmer, and the sculptor Georg Kolbe, among others, round out this capsule overview of the vanguard in Germany from 1908 to 1929, while our conceptions are expanded by a pair of heads by the less familiar Ludwig Meidner and Conrad Felixmüller, the former brushy and nervous, the latter sleek and sharp-edged. It’s exactly the kind of high-level, instructive selection we have learned to expect from the Neue Galerie. But I missed the Richard Gerstl paintings included in the tenth-anniversary show. A suicide at twenty-five because of a love affair with the composer Arnold Schoenberg’s wife that turned complicated, the promising young sometimes-expressionist left relatively few works, many of them still in Vienna and rarely seen here. The Neue Galerie organized the first American retrospective of Gerstl’s work in 2017, which may explain his absence from the present installation.

Not that we are deprived of bounty in any way. Throughout, there’s wonderful early modernist furniture and decorative arts by such masters as Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, and Kolomon Moser, including silver tea and coffee services, imposing cabinets, flatware, and a dressing suite of impeccable refinement and restraint. An array of rare and curious objects—a Baroque ostrich-egg cup, clocks, micromosaic snuffboxes, a sixteenth-century covered cup in the form of a bear, a luxurious rock-crystal bowl and, much, much more—are installed as a Kunstkammer, requiring close attention. Our focus constantly shifts. The gold-ground Italian paintings and Old Master portraits immediately precede the gallery of German modernism, while Greek and Roman art follows. This aspect of Lauder’s collection seems not to have been represented in the tenth-anniversary show; oddly, that catalogue’s title specifies “Selections from the 3rd Century B.C.,” but no antiquities are listed or reproduced. There’s no such confusion about the current exhibition or its documentation. The selection ranges from a suave Hellenistic monumental head of a goddess (ca. mid-second century B.C.) to Roman portrait heads from the first through the third centuries A.D. Among the most compelling examples are a bronze Head of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (late second century A.D.), fragmentary but still vivid, and an idealized marble Monumental Head of Alexander the Great (The Marbury Hall Alexander) (late second–early third century A.D.). The installation is superb, with some sculptures in elegantly minimal vitrines, originally designed by Carlo Scarpa for the museum dedicated to the sculpture of Antonio Canova in Possagno, and others lined up like a rogue’s gallery, wittily punctuated by a gorgeous porphyry lion’s head (second century A.D.), the same size and proportion as his human companions. An enormous, rather bombastic desk, as imposing as a cargo ship, by the Italian architect Marcello Piacentini, an inventor of fascist neoclassicism, brings ancient Rome closer to the present.

Perhaps the most unexpected part of the twentieth-anniversary show is a small gallery devoted entirely to the classic film Casablanca, the wrenching story of the doomed meeting of the former lovers Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) in North Africa, which, we learn, Lauder has seen dozens of times. He has been so engaged by Casablanca that he has collected posters, lobby cards, and other ephemera, including the actual passports used by Ilsa and her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) in the intense last scene, when they flee Casablanca. Christiansen’s term “idiosyncrasy” immediately comes to mind. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Lauder is clearly an omnivore. Yet there is a common thread that connects the wide-ranging works on view. Whatever the category—painting, drawing, sculpture, armor, decorative arts, and apparently film memorabilia—and whatever the period from which they come, Lauder’s selections have been chosen, he tells us, according to his Oh My God formula. “Oh My,” he writes in his introduction to the catalogue, “means that it’s a good piece, just not one of the artist’s best works. But then there is the rare Oh My God, which is one of the artist’s truly great pieces.” One way to explore the Neue Galerie’s twentieth-anniversary celebration of its founder’s convictions is to track our own Oh My God moments. There are a lot of them.

  1.   “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection” opened at the Neue Galerie, New York, on November 11, 2022, and remains on view through March 20, 2023.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 6, on page 39
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