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The paper investigates the figure of René d’Harnoncourt as an illustrator of books dealing with Mexican culture (The Painted Pig and Mexicana. A Book of Pictures), prior the appointment as second Director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To better understand this particular activity, the author will outline his network during d’Harnoncourt mexican stay, followed by an analysis of both style and content of the books.


1. The illustrator who became Museum Director*

Count René d’Harnoncourt (Vienna 1901-Long Island 1968), diplomatic cultural mediator and insightful exhibition curator, is usually studied in his capacity of second Director of Museum of Modern Art in New York, therefore his activity as a book illustrator remains mostly unknown. This paper examines two books he illustrated between 1930 and 1931, in order to analyze and highlight this particular skill he maintained throughout his life. Indeed, even during his busy MoMA years, d’Harnoncourt continued sketching installation devices and views of installation devices for museum shows. Drawing was not a secondary activity, but rather the basis of his conception and practice of visualizing (and understanding) spatial and cultural phenomena.

D’Harnoncourt officially held the position of museum director, from 1949 to 1968, under the Rockfellers patronage. In fact he acted as close collaborator and counselor for the collection of so-called “primitive” art assembled by Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller (1908-1979). This collection represents the foundational core of the Museum of Primitive Art (1954-1974), which was then transferred to a proper wing at the Metropolitan Museum, and finally opened to the public in 1982.

The prolific exchange between the director and the collector has been recently traced thanks to a major show entitled The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of the Best Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (October 8, 2013-October 5, 2014), which included a section devoted to the exhibition of d’Harnoncourt notebooks. In their structure, divided into Catalog and Desiderata, enriched with sketches, photographs, maps, and bibliography, these documents outline the development of the canon of primitive art in the US, and help to reconstruct the collecting interest in the City during the 1950s.

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