ART: INSIDE STORY FROM AN OUTGOING REDHEAD
The effervescent redhead, once touted as the “most delectable addition to the art world since Alice B. Toklas’ hash brownies,” took center stage once again Tuesday night with a vibrance worthy of her reputation.
Smiling like a regal, ready hostess, art lecturer Rosamond Bernier plunged into a non-stop monologue on “Art and the Book” at the County Museum of Art. Gesturing with an easy elegance toward a slide show behind her, Bernier led listeners through eight centuries of illuminated manuscripts and literary illustrations with charm, wit and informative innuendo.
“In the beginning was the book,” began Bernier (who will also lecture Sunday and Tuesday at the museum). “Well, perhaps not in the very beginning. Adam and Eve didn’t have any books and we all know what happened to them.”
Tall and gracious in her Oscar de la Renta gown, the Philadelphia-born, mostly London-bred speaker continued for an hour with a typical talk, “an unsystemic ramble,” chock-full of art, artists, amusing anecdotes and more than 100 slides.
Since her first stint as lecturer in Hartford, Conn., in 1970 (a career come upon by accident), Bernier has spoken around the world (annually to sold-out crowds at New York’s Metropolitan Museum) on topics ranging from the art collection of Catherine the Great of Russia, to writers’ effect on art, to memoirs of close friends Picasso, Matisse, Ernst, Miro and more.
How she acquired her artistic knowledge and collected the famous coterie is a tale that starts with a culture-filled adolescence and spirals in Paris with a job as European feature editor for Vogue magazine in the late ‘40s. In 1955, she founded L’Oeil with her ex-husband Georges Bernier, and ran the highly regarded art journal until she left for America 14 years later.
“Never! Good god no, I never expected to earn a living as a lecturer,” Bernier said the other day from her Westwood hotel suite. “I never spoke in public, never made a toast, never acted in amateur theatricals. It’s the same as if someone said to me, ‘You’ll be walking a tightrope in the circus.’ ”
Her lectures are often called performances; however, Bernier puts as much work into perfecting her craft as might an aerial entertainer.
“It’s a very arduous process to do a new lecture,” she said. “It takes me weeks and weeks.” Bernier begins the work in museums and libraries--researching and gathering images, from which she makes hundreds of slides. Always projecting two slides in tandem, she formulates a connecting theme for each pair and structures her entire speech by viewing the slides side by side on illuminated racks.
“I think a good lecture, like anything else, has to have a form,” she said. “It has to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it has to have variety--changes of pace and rhythm. There’s content too. It’s very important not just to give a lot of froth and anecdotes. And it must flow evenly, without reading notes,” which she does only for lengthy quotes.
For Sunday’s oration, “Art and the Dance” (Tuesday it’s “Art and the Jewel”), Bernier said she’ll trace the development of dance from the ballet of the 16th- and 17th-Century French and Italian courts to the contemporary scene, including choreographer Jerome Robbins, for instance, whom she’s “known forever.”
Slides of dancers from the 19th-Century’s Marie Taglioni, to Nijinsky, Pavlova and today’s Merce Cunningham will appear in the 3:30 p.m. talk, and she’ll show and tell “how some artists worked directly with dance,” such as Picasso, Rauschenberg or Hockney--doubling as scenic or costume designers--and how others “were haunted by the theme,” including Matisse and “of course, Degas.”
“It’s curious, you know, ballet hit a new low during Degas’ time,” said Bernier, ready with bits of unusual information offered authoritatively. “It was a glorified girlie show to which rich admirers came to pick up undemanding new mistresses.”
In 1977 Bernier and her husband, John Russell, the New York Times art critic, won a Peabody award for broadcast journalism for two programs on the Pompidou Cultural Center in Paris. She has also been editor-at-large for House and Garden magazine since 1983. “I’m probably a journalist at heart,” she smiled, yet fully enjoys sending her message via lectures.
“I like communicating, and I like feeling I can get people involved in things I think are worthwhile. With a general audience, there’s no point in giving a strictly pedantic lecture--I think people would be bored. So I give a lively, stimulating talk, whereby I might actually entice someone into an interest in art.”