Two Remarkable Men: Konrad Oberhuber and Nicholas Hlobeczy

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Last month two remarkable men died, Konrad Oberhuber on September 12 and Nicholas Hlobeczy on the 14th.

Konrad Oberhuber

Konrad Oberhuber

Nicholas Hlobeczy

Nicholas Hlobeczy

Since they both exercised a similar beneficent influence on the world through art—and on me personally, I think it fitting to honor them together. They were on the surface quite different. One was a prominent curator and art historian, a specialist in the Italian Renaissance and in the art of drawing; the other was a photographer and poet, vividly familiar and loved by those who knew him and his work.

Both spent a good part of their lives working in museums, Nick in the obscurity of the photo studio and darkroom, Konrad in the social, if not especially luminous world of graphics study rooms and galleries. Neither was entirely comfortable in the hierarchical, bureaucratic world of the museum. Sometimes Nick seemed to vanish into the gloom of his photographic cave, and Konrad seemed to walk through walls, pushing convention aside with his incessantly seeking mind and challenging Gemütlichkeit. Both were relieved to retire from that world, Konrad teaching in Japan and reaching his gifted hand into exhibitions and conferences around the world, and Nick focusing his energies on the practice and teaching of photography, above all on the rugged coast of Oregon. Both men were inspiring teachers.

Neither man knew the other, but both were closer to art than most people who work in museums. In fact art was central to both. Nick had direct access through his photography, while Konrad made an art of art history and the teaching of it. Since art was as much a part of them as their own hearts and lungs, they found themselves guided into spiritual paths in which art held a high, almost supreme place. Nick, through his study with Minor White, took up the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, while Konrad, for much of his life, studied the work of Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophy. Later he became absorbed in other aspects of Christianity.

While in pre-war Oxford or Cambridge these transcendental world-views might have been taken as harmless whigmaleeries of an over-sharpened intelligence, today have a way of making colleagues uncomfortable, above all in America, where academics, lacking the social status they might enjoy elsewhere, feel especially insecure. As a discipline, morever, art history is something of a late-comer. Although a home-grown Anglo-Saxon version of the discipline existed earlier, American art history lacked the propriety of true Wissenschaft (as John Finley liked to call it) enjoyed by older disciplines until the wave of German émigrés of the 1930’s. In fact anything that exudes an odor of belief is irksome to the rationalistic tendencies of academia and the world of Bildung outside the ivory tower. Around 1980, when I moved into Fine Arts (as it used to be called at Harvard) from the Classics, I was struck by this eagerness of art historians to acquire methodological respectability. Marxism came to the art history department just as it was waning in philosophy and history. Post-structuralism and deconstruction also arrived late, but when they did, they took hold with a grip exceeded only by rigor mortis. Looking back from a distance, it puzzles me why the system of the old scholar of Goethe and Hegel should appear less valid than those French inanities.

Nick never had to face this, since he was never an academic, and the Gurdjieff teachings are known to have served artists like Paul Caponigro, Minor White, and Peter Brook rather well, just as Anthroposophy and Theosophy have served Morgenstern, Schoenberg, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Saul Bellow, and David Tudor. Konrad, on the other hand, as kindly as he was, loved to ruffle people’s feathers, and épater les bourgeois was a potent weapon in his didactic arsenal, not that it never backfired on him. What’s more, he never understood why anyone should be bored, even at Harvard, and he found shock tactics an effective way to shatter people’s assumptions. This often led him to confront students and colleagues unprepared with Steiner’s most challenging concepts.

In fact Konrad’s art historical methods emerged from the Viennese environment in which he studied, where Otto Pächt was among his teachers. Here works of art were studied in a temporal and geographical context, proceeding from the general to the particular, from broad to more specific categories, that is, if one is confronted with an unidentified work, one proceeds from, say, Northern European to Flemish or German, from late sixteenth century Mannerist to last quarter of the sixteenth century School of Prague, to the 1590’s, to, let’s say, a study by Bartolomäus Spranger (on whom Konrad wrote his doctoral dissertation) for his Allegory of the Emperor Rudolf II of 1592. But before that connection of knowledge occurs (Let’s say Rudolf’s face is unrecognizable!) the art historian or connoisseur goes through this reductive process, observing global features of the work’s construction and execution, the organization of space and the function of line and wash above all. Once one has made the fundamental philological identification of the work, the method invites one to follow one’s steps backwards along the path one has taken and to reintegrate one’s new discovery in the overarching body of understanding.

Now if one’s thinking is informed by a Platonic view of reality, one will eventually seek out the causes behind the material phenomena. In Steiner’s thought each time, place, people, and individual is inhabited by a hierarchical entity, who makes it what it is, as one interacts with another in the flow of history. This also manifests itself within the individual, in his origin and training, and in the evolution of his mind and work. Expressed generally like this, the Anthroposophist can see the workings of the larger forces in a fundamentally unified cosmos, and art historians can see the building blocks of traditional art history, i.e. the individual, his personality, and his devlopment, style, local and national schools, etc.—concepts fashionably negated today in favor of a nihilistic agnosticism towards the creative individual.

However much of this Konrad’s students allowed themselves absorb, they were given the opportunity of sharpening their awareness of the coherence and integrity of an artist’s personality as it developed from stage to stage, or of a local school from period to period. C. S. Lewis had endless disagreements with his Anthroposophical friend, Owen Barfield, but he did admit that he developed a keen sense of past mentalities, and one can see this everywhere in Studies in Words, The Discarded Image, and his history of 16th century English literature.

Konrad understood how even older and wiser colleagues might respond to Steinerian arcana, which emerged ultimately from Indian thought (e.g. the Bhagavad Gita), the Christianity of the earlier Middle Ages, Goethe, Novalis, and Hegel. I have heard Konrad referred to as “the last Hegelian,” as if Hegel’s thought were a decrepit Locomobile one could admire in the privacy of one’s garage, but never take on the road.

Konrad’s personal warmth, not merely socially conditioned Gemütlichkeit, but a genuine respect for other individuals, was famous. As his student, establishing mysefl in the great European study rooms, I’ll never forget how easily doors were opened by the good will he had left behind wherever he went. When I first came to his proseminar on the connoisseurship of drawings, I was bemused to be handed photocopies from The Mustard-Seed Garden Manual of Painting and Barfield’s What Coleridge Thought. Over in the land of classical philology, which is often seen as encompassing large desert areas—with only partial injustice—I’d never found anything like this. In studying these mutilated scraps of paper in the less than brilliant light filtering through to window of Konrad’s office on the third floor of the Fogg, I witnessed a element of emotional education, which at that time I had forgotten existed. Part of this was Konrad’s openness, and part came from the drawings themselves, which in fact had educated Konrad. Emerging directly from the hand of the artist without the intermediary of assistants or the burden of final presentation in more elaborate materials, one could in a way look into the soul of the artist as if they were his eyes. (At Harvard, of course, we don’t talk about the soul, except in a class which makes it absolutely necessary, like religion or pre-modern philosophy.)

I noticed other things about drawings. Collectors came around to consult with Konrad, most of whom seemed to put drawings pretty much ahead of anything. I met Ian Woodner, an extremely wealthy developer of real estate in New York and Washington, who lived in the same Manhattan apartment he had as a student. The study, lined with cheap vinyl faux bois panelling (Was that Woodner’s impresa?) and furnished with a worn and ripped Naugahyde folding bed, was full of drawings of the most magnificent and intriguing sort, even if they weren’t all correct. Only Konrad could get away with telling Woodner that a sheet was less than he thought, or even a downright fake. I remember Konrad’s penetrating twang carrying over from the sitting room, exerting a calming influence among the other curators and the touchy collector, as the other students, conservators, and I made notes on the drawings. (To be accurate Woodner spent freely not only on the drawings, but on anything connected with them, which included lavish parties, exhibition expenses, travel, and my salary. Much more could be said about this, but here is not the place.)

I also remember celebrating Konrad’s birthday on a slope outside Assisi, looking out over the valley, as his children scampered over the rocks and brush. I remember him playing the gadfly at a seminar of the Bibliotheca Hertziana, in which the excitement of discussing papal tombs in front of the works themselves frequently became bogged down in dry academicism. Somewhat to the professor’s irritation, he asked probing questions of the presenting students—which taught me, that if a conversation becomes boring, there is always something creative one can do about it, if one has the courage to destabilize the status quo. I remember the populous birthday parties in the Oberhubers’ funky house off the vast no-man’s land called a park near Fresh Pond and its extensive dance floor, created for his first wife Marianne’s eurythmy performances. I can remember heading back to our workplaces in the Fogg after lunch on a beautiful spring day, when Konrad said, “It’s such a beautiful, fresh afternoon. I don’t feel like working, do you? Let’s sit on these steps and continue our conversation.” I don’t believe anyone has every said that to me since, or I to another. For Anthroposophists conversation is as much of an art as it was for Castiglione, and Wissenschaft should always make way for art, not that our conversation was on that level. Catalogue entries languished while we relaxed in the gentle spring sunshine and talked. I don’t remember what about.

Konrad left behind catalogues, books and essays on Raphael, Parmigianino, Titian, and drawings in general, over fifty in all. Some projects were never finished, because of his generosity to his family and students. He also left his initials inside hundreds of mats. It is customary for scholars to mark their attributions of particular sheets inside the mats, followed by their initials, often resulting in a lively dialogue which the public never sees. One of the most frequently seen is “KO,” usually followed by “no.” After he left the Fogg to take up the directorship of the Albertina, Konrad turned to contemporary artists and to music, the special field of his second wife, Victoria Martino. He and Thomas Krens brought an exhibition of masterpieces from the Albertina collection to the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue of all places, populating the spiral ramp with Pisanello, Raphael, and Dürer. As a supplement, they organized a lecture-concert with a superb period instrument musicians who played together as the Albertina Soloists, in which Konrad extended his theories about regional styles to music. He also left a significant and lasting legacy here in the Berkshires, since the Clark has acquired 30 drawings for the collection of John and Alice Steiner, who were advised by Konrad at the height of their collecting activity. I remember several visits by our classes to the Steiner house outside New York, Alice’s sharp mind, and her Viennese cakes.

People in the art world, as I have mentioned, do not always behave impeccably. I was always impressed with Konrad’s equanimity and good will in the face of the intrigue or malice, which arises in the course of most collaborative enterprises. As a person with an early inclination towards cynicism, I especially admired this rare quality in him. He tended to keep his eye on a higher goal, which was often not visible to the rest of us, and refused to let himself be distracted by the interventions of outside parties, even if it meant the sacrifice of lesser, but still worthwhile objectives. Konrad also had a gift for combining different aspects of a project, so that they would further each other towards a happy outcome, which sometimes came to fruition and sometimes not.

Nick lacked Konrad’s ability to suffer fools gladly. In fact, I occasionally envied his license to growl at pests, a pleasure one had to forego, if one wore a tie to work. I looked forward to our monthly photography sessions, in which I would babysit prints and drawings, as he made black and white negatives and Ektachrome transparencies of them. As Nick adjusted the camera and lights, we discussed photography, philosophy and art, and groaned about declining standards in the museum. Nick occasionally told me about the courses he taught during his time off from the museum. He had another life outside. Living constantly five days a week with great works of art (there I go, using an outmoded term!) does things to people. It can raise one’s spirits, if one allows it, or it can make a person mean, if one has a financial interest, or if one’s lower ego is at work. Either way, anyone who is alive to art needs an escape, a safety valve, and we had many: outrageous humor in the galleries, reading the viler tabloids, drinks after work at the Club Illusion, Gallery X (an alternative museum set up in the depths of the building, a far more sophisticated but little-known precursor of The Museum of Bad Art in Boston)…Nick enjoyed some of these, but it was his life outside the museum, his art, and his study of Gurdjieff that kept him centered.

One day Nick brought his prints and offered them for sale in our study room. While one curator walked by, pretending to ignore the proceedings, others, including me, bought up his resonant 16 x 20 prints of the Oregon coast. At the time Nick was experimenting with solarization, a process I could not always relate to, and I bought the print in which it was least in evidence. It hangs on our living room wall, always admired by guests. Nick was indeed a fine worker.

In the museum photography was hard to ignore at the time. The mentality which had enabled the high standards of the Cleveland collection under Milliken and Lee were not open to photography photography as art, except for a token collection of works by the famous Clevelander Margaret Bourke-White. One could see it in the snobbery of the board, who thought photography was for the Speed or the Ackland, but never for Cleveland. The director at that time, Evan Turner, made photography part of his agenda, tolerated by the board only because it didn’t claim much of the annual acquisitions budget. There was also a steady stream of important exhibitions, and Evan commisssioned a portrait of the city from the distinguished architectural photographer, Cervin Robinson, as he had done earlier in Philadelphia. The photography curator, Tom Hinson, and I were given the job of hanging drawings and photographs together in our small 19th and 20th century galleries, a surprisingly difficult and stimulating task, which we tended to postpone as long as we could. All this activity drew me into photography, while it made Nick an observer, if only within the confines of the museum.

He was delighted to retire to the Oregon coast and to pursue his artistic and spiritual interests full time. We lost touch until last year, when I learned that he was back in Cleveland, had published a book of texts and photographs, and had a Web site with his recent work and a chapter from his book, a profound one, I thought, which came directly to grips with the question of the artist’s individuality and its engagement in the creative process through photography. In photography the mechanically formed “objective” record, and the impression of an individual eye, or I, has been linked since the beginning. (Who has seen Niépce’s ghostly view of the rooftops of Le Gras without being haunted by it, whatever he intended?) I decided to assign the chapter in an art history course I was teaching at the time. The students liked Nick’s photos and the essay, but one of them was deeply impressed by it. This led to an exchange of e-mails between them, which made a fundamental difference for the student’s life, since he is another one of those people with a visceral and unavoidable connection to art. This student, mind you, is not a denizen of the corridors of the Fogg or a disciple of Minor White, but an avid attender of Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, a place neither Nick nor I have ever been, but where Konrad might well have gone with curiosity, enthusiasm, and an open mind, if he’d driven up there from San Diego, where he spent his last years. And if Nick and Konrad never met in this life, they may well on the other side. I’ve done my best to make the introduction.

As I final offering to both, I can’t think of anything more appropriate to offer than the twenty-ninth of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which Nick quoted in his essay:

Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen, fühle,
wie dein Atem noch den Raum vermehrt.
Im Gebälk der finstern Glockenstühle
laß dich läuten. Das, was an dir zehrt,

wird ein Starkes über dieser Nahrung.
Geh in der Verwandlung aus und ein.
Was ist deine leidendste Erfahrung?
Ist dir Trinken bitter, werde Wein.

Sei in dieser Nacht aus Übermaß
Zauberkraft am Kreuzweg deiner Sinne,
ihrer seltsamen Begegnung Sinn.

Und wenn dich das Irdische vergaß,
zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne.Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich: Ich bin.

Silent friend of many distances, feel
How your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your face
grows mightily from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer know your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.

(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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