The Magazine

Miró on the Wall

The art of performance in 20th-century art.

Dec 5, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 12 • By AMY HENDERSON
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After her divorce in France, Bernier searched for a new life, and her career as a “professional talker” happened by accident. She was sunbathing with an art professor-friend on the Lido in Venice when he asked her to explain first Cubism, then Surrealism (to an academic, this seems to constitute small talk). Afterwards, he told her that “if you can talk like that off the top of your head, you should be lecturing,” and she was soon launched on a lecture circuit that took her to major museums and “rural ones tucked away” across the United States. But it was her lectures for the Metropolitan Museum of Art that made her reputation, lectures that were performance pieces in themselves. She always wore fabulous gowns because “[t]hrough the clothes, you could tell the story of the people, the times, of what was going on in theater, and the music being played.” Speaking without notes, she would float onstage and hold audiences enthralled. For one reviewer, Bernier revolutionized  “the art of the art lecture. .  .  . Her glittering speaking style, the immediacy of her delivery and the fact that she had known many of the famous artists in Paris in the ’40s turned her lectures into the hottest ticket in New York.”

She also found happiness in these years, marrying the art critic John Russell in 1975. Their wedding was true to form: Staged in Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut, it was orchestrated by Johnson, with Aaron Copland giving the bride away, Leonard Bernstein standing up for the groom, and Pierre Matisse (Henri’s art-dealer son) serving as best man. “John [Russell] used to say,” she says, “that you can make the history of art into the history of everything, and that you should just amuse yourself.”

Amy Henderson is a cultural historian and curator in Washington.