Eleanor Munro, Author


Eleanor Munro’s childhood was bound to produce something fascinating. Her father was Thomas Munro, brilliant art educator and modernist intellectual; her mother, pianist Lucile Nadler, was vividly described (by Joyce Johnson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair) as “an amber-haired bohemian” from Alabama “who played the piano and planted gardens with fierce concentration.”

In 1931, Eleanor’s father accepted a prestigious joint appointment at Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the family moved to Cleveland. With anti-semitic sentiment on the rise in America, her mother’s Jewish heritage was concealed from the neighbors. Is it any wonder that young Eleanor, born in 1928, found refuge “in the boughs of the apple tree”?

“There,” she would write in her 1988 Memoir of a Modernist’s Daughter, “I lived my secret life.”

At the age of 27, having led what she describes as the life of a dutiful daughter (despite her rebellious urges), Eleanor married Alfred Frankfurter, the editor of ArtNews and a man old enough to be her father. A graduate of Smith College with a major in art history, she studied in Paris on a Fulbright-French Government fellowship, and then earned a master’s in comparative literature at Columbia University. While at Columbia, she worked for the American Federation of Arts in Washington, D.C. She also worked as a staff writer and reviewer for ArtNews (1953-59), and eventually became managing editor of ArtNews Annual.

Although she had followed somewhat in her father’s illustrious footsteps—studying art in Paris, and compiling an illustrated Encyclopedia of Art (published in 1961 by Golden Press)—Eleanor was anxious to stake out her own territory. Following Frankfurter’s death in 1965, she authored an impressive monograph on Tang Dynasty arts and culture, Through the Vermillion Gates (Pantheon, 1971). But it was not until she began work on a memoir of her own that she saw the unique contribution she could make to the field of art history.

She conducted interviews with a number of women who were acknowledged giants in the U.S. art world such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Louise Bourgeois, Jennifer Bartlett, Helen Frankenthaler and Louise Nevelson—40 artists in all—which she assembled in a provocative book titled Originals: American Women Artists (1979). The book serves as an illustration of an original idea of her own: that the “narrative memory” these artists had constructed for themselves was an important “generative source” of their creativity. Named one of the Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times, Originals was reissued in 2000 by Da Capo Press with additional essay-interviews representing a new generation, including such important figures as Maya Lin, Kiki Smith, Julie Taymor and Janet Saad-Cook.

But it was Munro’s next book, On Glory Roads: a Pilgrim’s Book about Pilgrimage (1988), also a Times Notable Book, that cemented her stature. Inspired by a trip to the Hebrides, where her father’s ancestors came from, she found herself drawn to various places around the world that exerted a strange pull on many people—places of stimulating art and architecture and energy—in hopes of finding out what it is that impels people to take such iconographic journeys.

The death in 1993 of her son Alexander, a talented theater artist and photographer diagnosed with schizophrenia, led to a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between mental illness and creativity, “Postmodern Art and Schizophrenia” (New York Times, 2002) and Readings for Remembrance, a collection of readings for funerals and memorial services. Loss is “the fundamental human experience,” a defining aspect of the human condition that is “universally shared,” Munro writes in her poignant and eloquent introduction, “and collectively survived generation after generation" (italics added). For the same reasons, it is one of the great subjects of literature, music and art.

In the years to follow, she continued to write about significant women artists, including several associated with the Provincetown, Massachusetts, art colony,

—Dennis Dooley

For more on this author,
visit www.eleanormunro.com




Metaphor as a Way to Hold a Mystery

The sense of disorientation [that is part of modern consciousness] . . . sends the mind out looking for permanent attachments, as it sent the minds of the builders of stone circles out along their trajectories toward the ever-stable stars and planets. Something of that ancient urgency may be behind the popularizing of space exploration by some politicians today. But let the mental veil that hides infinity dissolve, and the picture is not so enchanting. To contemplate the frigidity and violent collisions of space without the old supporting structures [of our myths and constellations] is not to be enchanted. So much the blacker is the night with which one has felt no connection. It is in our consciousness of the frailty of life and its apparent rarity in the universe that we find ourselves allied, today, to our most remote ancestors, who questioned the sky for the very coordinates of being, and concluded that it ended at the limit of what they could see.

Even to find expression for our actual loneness-in-emptiness may not be possible now. By default, it has become the style to deliver such thoughts in a humor called black. “The universe gives me the creeps,” Willem de Kooning, the surviving Abstract-Expressionist painter, has said. And nihilism has its own pilgrimage center now, the Rothko Chapel in Texas, where huge black-violet canvases hang on cold gray walls, cut off from all sight lines to the world, soaking in what weak light filters through hidden apertures. For me, at least, the place is a crypt of unredeemed death.

The human mind, it seems, needs an embracing form within which to orient itself, and within that form a Polestar or ‘controlling destination' by which to plot the life. A thoughtful mind reaffirms its commitment to that destination or guiding principle many times in a lifetime, in metaphors of transformation.

—On Glory Roads: A Pilgrim’s Book about Pilgrimage (Thames & Hudson, 1988)


Women's Own Life Stories as Clues to their Art

I found it fascinating across the board to learn how directly these women have worked with the content of their lives and how open they were, and knowledgeable, about the fact. I almost had the impression that some were asking for the right to have their work seen from this point of view, as if having in most cases banished figurative subject matter from their paintings, sculpture or whatever, they wished even more to have the transformed elements of a projected self-portrait seen in the abstract forms. [Italics added.] Not the conventional art-critical theory of an artist’s relationship to subject, but one I heard distinctly. I suggest there is meaning in the formidable forms of contemporary art that might, if explored, join human beings on both sides of the object: the creator, and the audience. What the audience hungrily but mutely—because the impulse is discredited today—seeks in the visual arts, the artist, I found, is not so unwilling to provide as doctrinaire explicators would have us think. . . .

My point is that the visual arts, at least, have assumed this appearance in part because some critics have failed to explicate them in other ways and some artists, bemused by hieroglyphic compliments, have gone on reiterating and building new self-serving theories on the opaque explanations.

By contrast, it became progressively more remarkable to me to find almost every conversation I had with these artists sooner or later bearing out Albert Camus’ insight: “the work is nothing else than the long journeying through the labyrinth of art to find again the two or three simple and great images upon which the heart first opened.” . . .

Just so, in her Surreal and abstract sculpture, Louise Bourgeois again traverses the dangerous night garden. Minimalist Anne Truitt stands again at the end of a lawn looking to where the violets grow. . . . Just so, I suggest, the darkness of Lee Bontecou’s steel-and-canvas wall pieces has some connection with the perilous mud flats and the fearful blackness of roots of trees torn out by a storm.

Originals: American Women Artists (Simon & Schuster, 1979; expanded edition, Da Capo Press, 2000)

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