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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dahesh Museum of Art

Saleem Moussa Ashi--Dr. Dahesh
There's a new museum in New York. Actually, new being a relative term, it's really about fifteen years old now. The collection isn't actually in the city but permanently on tour with merely a recently opened gift shop and offices in New York's SoHo district (just south of Central Park) marking its physical presence in the city. The museum collection numbers some two thousand works of art so it would have to be considered a major player in the New York Museum world. Originally, the museum opened right in the heart of mid-town Manhattan at 601 Fifth Avenue at 48th Street then moved to 580 Madison Avenue at 56th Street. And the chances are you've never heard of it. It's called the Dahesh Museum of Art. And, except for a minor little civil war in Lebanon, it might now be in Beirut rather than New York City. The core of the museum's collection is made up of the art amassed by the writer and philosopher, Saleem Moussa Ashi who took the name Dr. Dahesh. And the reason you might never have heard of the Dahesh Museum, aside from the fact it opened its doors as recently as 1995 then took to the road in 2008, is that it has as its stated goal, the preservation and promotion of 18th and 19th century Academic New York, yet...not exactly a hotbed of Academicism.

Gallic Soldier and His Daughter Imprisoned in Rome,
1847, Felix-Joseph Barrias, is typical of the Dahesh
Museum collection.
The self-proclaimed Dr. Dahesh is something of the proverbial "mystery wrapped in an enigma." Born in 1909, during the 1930s he began the establishment of a mystical cult today known as Daheshism. The Dahesh Museum takes pains to distance themselves from this group, though they appear to be funded by the same Saudi Arabian family, the Zahids. Dr. Dahesh began collecting Academic Art from the Zahid mansion in Beirut during the late 1950s up through the mid-1970s. European Academic art at the time was being sold in the Middle East for what amounted to garage sale prices. He bought everything he could lay his hands on including a surprising amount of Orientalism (European art inspired by Oriental art). The collection grew to over two thousand pieces, ranging from near trash to near priceless. How he funded his purchases, even at rock-bottom prices, is something of a mystery too, though it's assumed he used monies contributed by his religious followers. Then came the Lebanese Civil War. With the help of the Zahid family, he managed to move the art, the furniture, and all his half-million book library, bag and baggage to New York (he'd made quite a number of political enemies in Beirut).

The Birth of Venus, 1863, Alexandre Cabanal,
is probably the Dahesh collection's most famous  and valuable work.
In New York, he continued collecting, though by this time, he was not alone in his appreciation of things Academic. Names such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Malcolm Forbes were starting similar collections. Dr. Dahesh died in 1984. The Zahibs first sought a home for his collection in Rockefeller center but were turned down. The museum instead moved into an office building next door to a business called "The Fine Art of Hair Replacement." The Guggenheim it's not. But its influence brought to the Guggenheim a show called "1900: Art at the Crossroads," which explored much the same territory the Dahesh has in displaying the work of early twentieth century art pariahs such as Cabanel, Adolphe-William Bouguereau, Jean-Leon Gérôme, and Rosa Bonheur. The Zahids continue to search for a permanent New York home for the museum, but in the rarefied air of the Manhattan real estate market, it may take a while.

Odalisque, 1857, Eugene Delacroix,
is typical of the Dahesh Orientalist works.
Though the Dahesh Museum collection is now a "museum without walls," it may have sparked renewed interest in Academic art among a new breed of collectors, celebrities such as Jack Nicholson, Madonna, and Sylvester Stallone. Sotheby's sold a large Bouguereau belonging to Stallone for $2.6 million, a record price for the artist. The Guggenheim show raised eyebrows in lumping Academic work as well as Impressionist paintings into the single classification, "Nineteenth Century Pictures," pointing out that the separatism proclaimed over the last hundred years may well have been more a marketing ploy rather than a scholarly reading of the era. Its Crossroads show displayed these in a seminal context out of which grew work by Picasso, Matisse, Miro, and others which were also featured in the show. You won't find any Picassos in the Dahesh collection, nor Mirós either; but what you will find is a second look, a glance backward to a time and a type of art long vilified as stultified, beneath contempt, and practically valueless. The Dashesh Museum collection displays none of this.
Jaffa, Recruiting of Turkish Soldiers in Palestine, 1888, Gustav Bauernfeind,
was voted by Dahesh Museum visitors as their favorite work.

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