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ARTFUL TOM, A MEMOIR
by Thomas Hoving
Kindle Users: Click here for plain text copy

11. "DAMN THE ORIGINALS"

As my tour of duty wound down I began to question whether art history was what I really wanted to do in life. I got one romantic and tempting career offer, which was to buy with a low U. S. government loan a truly giant bulldozer and an eighteen-wheel trailer truck to transport the equipment to Brazil, where the Brazilian government would give me a huge property. There, Nancy and I would set up house in the Amazon jungle -- with plenty of servants -- and I’d become a lumber mogul, ripping the guts out of the rain forest. I was tempted, for I had become an ace at the bulldozer and the profits, at least as spelled out in the business plan, were mind-boggling.

A couple of days researching in the library revealed, however, a few minor problems -- the need to bribe every mile of the way from California down into Brazil, the need to bring an arsenal of weapons to fight off the thieves lurking every mile en route and enough spare parts to build a whole Dozer and a spare eighteen-wheeler as well.

So, I decided to follow the accepted route and to apply to art history graduate school either at Princeton or the New York University School of Fine Arts. I called my father to tell him I was being mustered out and he told me what I had to do. "To run Hoving Inc. with me, I think you’ll have to sign up for the ‘B’ school -- either Wharton or Harvard. In my time business school wasn’t necessary, but I suppose it is now to learn proper management and financial skills."

"Father, I’m not joining you in the business," I said. "I could never work for you; you would consume me. I’ve decided to go back to art and archaeology graduate school."

"Well, get over that silly idea in a year and then go to the ‘B’ school," he said without hesitation. When I did what I wanted, he didn’t speak to me very much for years.

I stripped the back seat out of our stalwart little car, adding it to our household goods that the Corps would send east. I filled the front boot with a pile of luggage and the back seat as well, making a large bed with blankets for the animals to rest on. Our route back East was direct to Las Vegas, then south to Raton and Albuquerque to see the Ostertags again, then on towards Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and into New York. At the first desert gas station we came to, we bought a handy air-conditioning unit consisting of a tube filled with a couple of blocks of dry ice to stick in the side window. The air from the slipstream came through the canister and cooled off the interior amazingly. To my annoyance Whiskey refused to lie down and stood all the way across the country. She perched between our heads and every time an eighteen-wheeler would roar by, she’d snap at it. At first she’d nip my right ear, so I got proficient in timing the passage of the truck by quickly slanting my head to the left.

In Vegas I decided to do some serious gambling to raise my stake from the four hundred dollars mustering out pay. I was wiped out in ten minutes and never gambled again without establishing a firm number I could afford to lose.

We passed through the worst town in America in New Mexico called Grants, and then stumbled into what we called the "the best town in Missouri," the enchanting Lees Summit in the Lake of the Ozarks. Out of the desiccated hell we’d been driving through, we found ourselves in lush greenery, abundant forests, cool lakes and friendly people.

We’ll never forget the joy of swimming in that pristine lake. Whiskey, who I’d never seen enter the water, took one glance at the still surface and leapt in to her utter surprise and pleasure. When we’d arrived in the placid town the car’s engine began to grind ominously. I limped to the local station and the mechanic looked into the hood and said, "Here’s your trouble -- no engine." That was a joke. He soon diagnosed the problem -- a busted accelerator crank -- made a new part from scratch and we were on our slow way.

We made it with no difficulty to Quaker Hill where we would settle in until I got my graduate schools sorted out. I was leaning in favor of Princeton, not just because I had been asked to come back by Professor Baldwin Smith but also because I’d be granted a fancy fellowship worth two thousand dollars a year for two years. I had a friendly interview with the patrician head of the art history graduate school, Rensselaer Lee, an Edgartown summer resident. Lee’s measured description of what Princeton had to offer was persuasive.

Nancy and I had lengthy discussions about my windfall from the Trust and concluded that I had to tell the Princeton fellowship committee of my "wealth" from the trust. I received an amusing reply to my letter of disclosure; in effect the money is yours kiddo, so join up and spend it.

To be sure of where to go I made an appointment to be interviewed at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts by the head of the place, Professor Craig Hugh Smythe. The school was housed in the white marble mansion at 78th and Fifth Avenue built by the father of billionaire Doris Duke and the place did impress me. I was guided to the second floor up a palatial staircase populated by scruffy students poring through various tomes to a waiting room the size of our whole San Diego flat. I waited over an hour.

At last Smythe, a pale, puffy-faced guy in his early thirties (not Marine Corps material) asked me to take a seat. I spotted three or four Brooks Brothers boxes on a table near the window with suits loosely thrown inside. The guy had been seeing if the Brooks tailors had done the job right while he made me cool my heels. It was downhill from then on. He hardly listened to my questions and all he would say was that at "’The School’, we tend to graduate doctoral students in five years or more." I excused myself and signed up at Princeton.

Nancy and I were placed in married graduate student housing, a bunch of Quonset huts which had been erected at the start of WW II on the former Polo field. Ours was 219C Eisenhower Street and consisted of a tiny rectangular living room, two tinier bedrooms (one of which I took over for my study) and a miniscule kitchen. A kerosene heater supplied the heat. It was just like the hut at Officers’ Training School and we cringed. We soon turned the place into a comfy home when our goods arrived, so perfectly packed that the movers had wrapped up one ashtray with three snuffed-out cigarette butts but missing half the cups from our china pattern. We bought a TV and placed it in a closet at the foot of our California king-sized bed, which filled the entire room and watched our acquaintance Ed Murrow and the new rage, Steve Allen, until our eyelids dropped.

We made a bunch of new friends who were delighted with our last-minute parties with groaning dinners served usually at 10 p.m. after a "few" drinks of my ever-lethal "Brownskin Gals," Babancourt rum and mashed-up bananas. One was Fred Licht, a tall Swiss instructor with coal-black hair who specialized in the 18th century. Licht urged the two of us to collect art and we visited New York galleries searching for inexpensive works. Two we purchased from the lending gallery at the Museum of Modern Art. The arrangement was that you could borrow a work -- like a library book -- and if you decided to own the painting you could apply the accumulated rent to the purchase. We bought a view of Washington Square Park by Herman Rose with a legendary oak tree planted on the sidewalk through the MoMA lending-purchase program. Years later when I became Commissioner of Parks of the city I had occasion to "save" that favorite tree of mine.

James Holderbaum was another instructor with whom we were close. Jim was still working on his doctorate on Florentine sculpture of the 16th and 17th centuries after seven years and everyone knew once it was complete, it would be published instantly.

Nancy kept herself busy by auditing graduate school courses on English and American legal history. She was thinking about perhaps taking up the study of law. I did everything I could to encourage her, for I could sense that she was getting antsy about not having a venture of her own. She tried to enter Columbia law school but failed the tests. She was never much of a tester so didn’t resent the failure. For a time she commuted to New York and worked for a broker and economist, Hans Heinemann.

My seminars that first year were Roman Topography given by Erik Sjoqvist, Medieval Manuscript Recensions with Kurt Weitzman, the man who had "saved" me as a sophomore, Baroque Painting presented by John Ruppert Martin, the Essence of Leonardo da Vinci by Frances de Tolnay and Questions in Iconology by the world’s leading art historian, Erwin Panofsky, who came over from the nearby distinguished Institute for Advanced Studies (or Advanced Salaries as our faculty acidly put it).

My performance on the seminar papers surprised me -- highest grades possible. I prepared one on the French 17th-century painter Georges de la Tour, who was a follower of the landmark Italian "tenebrist," Michelangelo Caravaggio. De la Tour had been identified from documents only since 1935 and the accepted thinking was that he must have made a trip to Italy to soak up Caravaggio’s style of stark human realism and his use of emphatic lights and shades.

I shattered that theory. For, after reading the year-to-year records of de la Tour’s life, assembled by the French scholar who had "found" de la Tour, I calculated that since de La Tour had nineteen children during the span of his creative life, he hadn’t time to make the long journey to Rome and back.

For Weitzman’s medieval course I was assigned the "problem" of whether or not there had once existed a "bible" with illustrations showing the various rites in the Mithraic religion. One of Weitzman’s principal theories was that early manuscripts had formed the model for the sculptures and mosaics in early Christian churches. That is, medieval artists didn’t travel with wagon trains filled with stone sculptures and mosaic panels to be installed in each church; more logically, they carried scrolls or manuscripts containing hundreds of illustrations and then used the illustrations to make sculptures and mosaics on the site.

Mithraism had been a serious competitor to Christianity. In the two centuries after Christ’s birth its adherents had built hundreds of underground "chapels" throughout the western world. Each one had a carved altar with a representation of Mithra slaying the bull in the center and then, in numerous side panels, other sculptures illustrating scenes of the cult -- none of which anybody could identify because the written Mithraic "bible" hadn’t made it through the Christian persecution of competing cults.

I was able to prove to Weitzman that there must have been several recensions of richly illustrated Mithra manuscripts used by the cult’s artists. Finding proof was a breeze, I simply made a list of every different Mithraic scene that had survived. For example, in one relief there was the standard scene of Mithra stabbing the Bull and, in smaller flanking reliefs, six episodes of unknown subjects. In another relief I’d find the same Bull scene, three small scenes identical to those in the first sculpture, but two additional that were different from those in the first sculpture. And in another relief four different scenes along with three already found. Eventually I had tallied up more than fifty or so different illustrated episodes in the life of Mithra and thereby convinced Weitzman that at least two great Mithraic lavishly illustrated "bibles" had to have existed. I rocked him by the ease of what I had come up with -- hell, it was essentially clerical work and common sense. He wanted me to publish the first-year graduate seminar report, but after finding the information, I was bored with it.

Despite my successes, I found that first year to be exceedingly boring and unfulfilling. I was especially annoyed that all I ever looked at were photographs of originals. No one suggested field trips to the great museums in New York or Philadelphia. And I was particularly vexed with a stray comment the ruling star of art history had muttered in a seminar. The star was Erwin Panofsky, perhaps the most renowned art historian in the world when it came to the Northern Renaissance and the secrets of iconology. The seminar that day was on iconology in the engravings of the Renaissance artist, Marc Antonio Raimondi. "Pan" had hefted into the seminar room what was called an "Elephant Folio," a rare book over three-and-a-half-feet tall, with original Raimondo engravings.

Towards the end of the session, "Pan" slammed shut the pages of the priceless folio and turned away. I smelled something burning and noticed that the cigarette formerly in the professor’s mouth was gone. I opened the rare folio and extracted a glowing cigarette stub and said nothing about the charred section of the priceless engraving.

It was at the same seminar that Panofsky gave his opinion about original art that so vexed me, "Damn the originals. You can learn so much more about iconography from black and white photographs."


This is chapter 11 of Artful Tom, A Memoir, which is being posted in full in Artnet Magazine. For the complete book to date, click here.


THOMAS HOVING is author of Master Pieces: The Curator’s Game (2005). He is former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He can be reached at Send Email