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Memories of Anne D'Harnoncourt from Sue Compton

03 December 2008   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Janine Catalano
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Some Memories of Anne d’Harnoncourt         
by Susan Compton (BA 1968, PhD 1983)


When Anne was studying for her M.A. in Art History at the Courtauld Institute (1965-7) she often came to our home in Notting Hill Gate. As a mature student I was on the same course and she was the most intelligent student I ever met: she had already received a degree from Radcliffe College (now subsumed into Harvard University) and had a far wider and deeper intellectual background than the rest of us. Anne came from an artistic family and was devoted to her father, René d’Harnoncourt, who was director of MOMA (1949-68) and an authority on American Indian and Mexican arts and crafts, with an exemplary personal collection at their home in Long Island. Sadly he was killed in a car accident there shortly after he retired in 1968. Somewhat surprisingly considering her later concentration on 20th century art she wrote her M.A. thesis on moral subject matter in Pre-Raphaelite and British 19th-century painting and she worked briefly at the Tate Gallery.


During the shorter vacations at Christmas and Easter she usually stayed with her Austrian Aunt in Graz, where family gatherings included much music. Anne would modestly speak of the family singing Mozart opera, with everyone joining in - including her cousin. We soon realised that he was none other than Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who with his wife Alice had founded the Concentus Musicus ensemble, because their wonderful recordings of Baroque music played on period instruments were just then becoming available in London. Looking now at this cousin’s biography I learnt that Anne belonged to a very distinguished family related to the French and Austrian aristocracies, but despite her regal bearing and charismatic presence, her thoroughly American background and above all her sense of fun saved her from European snobbery!


At the Courtauld she became stressed about forthcoming exams and asked if she could draw on the white walls of our daughter Ann’s bedroom. Ann was delighted as a series of cartoon cats in coloured felt pens began to appear in her room: the cats got up to all sorts of antics as the weeks passed and Anne added more feline musicians, acrobats and café scenes until they covered a wall. It was a very positive way of relaxing! When exams were over and she was to leave London, we offered to host a party for her friends. She insisted that there should be only one huge dish ‘to save clearing up’ and bought the ingredients for chilli con carne, including, of course, fresh chillies. She remembered she’d seen Mexicans eating raw chillies dipped in salt, so she tried it herself with dire results. Almost at once her lips swelled up and she could hardly speak; fortunately by applying ice and resting she recovered before the evening gathering. She discovered later that Mexicans swallow chillies whole instead of biting them!


Returning to the US, her first posts were at the Philadelphia Museum and then the Art Institute of Chicago (where she met and married Joseph Rishel) and when I next resumed close ties with her at the end of 1983 she was the director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She heard that I was invited to make a Chagall retrospective for the Royal Academy and told me she had wanted to curate one herself, so Philadelphia would be the joint exhibition organiser. She became a tough critic when I was writing the catalogue but also a brilliant help, for she carried great weight with major American museums and was able to engineer important loans for London as well as for her own museum. Furthermore, as her father was at MOMA at the time of its exhibition ‘Marc Chagall’ in 1946, the artist was so impressed by René’s   daughter when we visited him at St Paul de Vence to ask for his blessing, that he readily agreed to the show. In 1984-5 I often stayed with Anne and Joe and it was lovely to discover that she was a very good neighbour to locals as well as such a distinguished Museum Director. When it came to the ‘Chagall’ opening, Anne fixed up for me to move to a hotel suite with my American Aunt who came from Washington for the occasion: such a surprise was typical of her generosity.


Latterly we saw Anne and Joe only rarely on their fleeting visits to London, often when they were on their way to the Greek island of Hydra where they often spent summer holidays, relaxing with friends in the sunshine, and hiring a little boat to take them to peaceful bays for swimming and picnics. Yet for myself and my husband, Michael, her memory lives on vividly and it was both moving and immeasurably sad to hear her wise voice captured in a 1987 interview about Marcel Duchamp re-broadcast after her untimely death. The interview can be heard on the following website and it gives a real experience of Anne as a person and as a creative exponent of art; the address to copy into a browser is:




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