The Discerning Eye

Reviewed By

Rosamond Bernier’s new memoir, Some of My Lives, opens up her intriguing life as a friend and critic of renowed artists of the 20th century.

Rosamond Bernier has led a remarkable life. She is best known for founding L’Œil (The Eye), a French-language art magazine which provided consistently perceptive coverage of modern art during Bernier’s reign (1955-1970). The painter Georges Braque was an early supporter, as was the sculptor Henry Moore. Pijohcasso allowed L’Œil to run images of never-before-seen work. In hindsight, the coup was even greater than it first seemed: the original pieces have never been seen since. Bernier has lectured widely on modern art, becoming a fixture at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and delivering more than two hundred lectures across the U.S. and abroad. We might judge her by the honors she has received, among them a 1999 induction to the International Fashion Hall of Fame, and her addition to the International Best Dressed List, for life. She is also, along with her late husband John Russell, a National Treasure, according to the Municipal Art Society of New York. Yet this fails to reveal much of what makes Bernier so worthy of our attention. “National Treasure” in particular is too staid and fusty to describe a woman of Bernier’s tastes and appeal.

Fortunately we now have Some of My Lives, Bernier’s long-overdue memoir and a welcome addition to her previous volume, Picasso, Matisse, Miró – As I Knew Them. Bernier’s enthusiasms are wide-ranging, and her taste is, not surprisingly, quite discriminating. Some of My Lives encompasses writers like Jane Bowles and Janet Flanner; composers Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland; too many renowned artists to name here, though Picasso, Matisse and Miró again figure prominently; and fashion icons such as Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld.

In fact, Bernier’s first prominent role was as fashion editor at Vogue, a post she recalls feeling singularly unqualified to fill. She told Vogue’s then-editor-in-chief Edna Chase that she had “been on a beach for the past five years and knew absolutely nothing about fashion.” Chase, unmoved, answered, “My child, I know a fashion editor when I see one.” Bernier filled the role with some aplomb, despite the fact that a fashion editor’s responsibilities were more substantial then, shortly after World War II. “No makeup artists or hairdressers lingered. The editors,” she recalls, “were expected to wreak transformations on the compliant models.” The arrangement eventually soured. Bernier arranged to photograph and report on work Picasso was doing at Antibes in the early 1950s, work which was then unknown to the art world. Vogue ran the piece, a massive coup, without a proper byline for Bernier. Naturally she was stung. She was not, we learn, the type of person to swallow her objections and allow such treatment to be repeated. Within two years, she had put together the first issue of L’Œil, a venture which provided a true measure of her talents.

Bernier’s contacts in the art world, particularly during her years at L’Œil, are responsible for some of the most striking portraits in Some of My Lives. She traces the early days of the magazine, crediting a French partner (her second husband) and cooperative Swiss printers with key roles in making her vision of an affordable, high-quality art magazine in French a reality. Her knack for winning the trust and esteem of the artists she featured in L’Œil surely counted just as much. When she titles a chapter, “My Friend Miró,” it quickly becomes apparent that this is neither exaggeration nor idle boast. She offers specifics on his work habits, extensive recreations of his thoughts on Klee, Kandinsky and Picasso, among others, but more than that, she demonstrates a long and genuine fondness between herself and the great Catalan artist. One of the book’s finest moments comes when Miró “heard that through a personal upheaval, I had lost many of my books.” He asks specifically about Jacques Dupin’s book on his work. Bernier confirms that this, too, is gone. Miró excuses himself and returns a half-hour later with his own copy of the book, complete with “a full-page vibrant color drawing with a touching inscription.” She also shows us Henry Moore’s “ideas bank” in a few deft strokes: “It was a tiny space, more hut than studio, extremely uncomfortable. There was a small, hard wooden chair, an electric stove as big as a postcard, and the sort of table that wouldn’t even make it to the thrift store. For more than forty years, he sat there and waited to see what would come of it.” She gives us not Matisse the painter but the great man arranging works by Mallarmé and Montherlant, and designing the Sainte Marie du Rosaire chapel, “a crowning achievement,” he concludes. More winningly still, we see Picasso’s handling of a collection of poems by Tristan Tzara, a volume Matisse had illustrated in black and white. “Picasso had colored in all the illustrations,” Bernier writes. “Sometimes the color accompanied the drawing. Sometimes it destroyed it, riding across the lines, creating a completely new entity. He knew that I knew Matisse. He shot me a glance: ‘Matisse doesn’t know about this.’”

The book is billed as a scrapbook memoir, fitting given Bernier’s life in art, and the visual side of the volume is rewarding in its own right. We see the faces of the great, unguarded – Matisse, propped in bed, dressed in a coat and tie; Henry Moore, diving headlong through the surf. And there are, of course, numerous photos of Bernier with John Russell, the great English art critic and, it seems safe to say, the great love of her life.

Despite the fact that Some of My Lives is a memoir, Bernier spends much of the time with her eye trained on the prominent figures around her. As a result, we see Dylan Thomas, sitting “patiently by my side as I typed out my report,” in defiance of his legend, and Malcolm Lowry, who she finds unknowable until years later, after the publication of Under the Volcano. But while Bernier can seem elusive about the particulars of her own life, the “personal upheavals” of one sort or another, it is difficult not to admire the control with which she renders her triumphs and disappointments. Relationships come and go, punctuated with a note of regret but never recrimination. She betrays genuine uncertainty about taking on new tasks, from her first position at Vogue to the prospect of a lecture tour to the idea of marrying John Russell. Reticence aside, it is perfectly clear who and what matter most to Rosamond Bernier.

In 1956, Bernier asked John Russell to contribute writings to L’Œil. Russell agreed, and a fruitful relationship was born, on professional terms. Both were married to other people, Bernier notes, and “it took fourteen years to disentangle this situation.” She writes of Russell not in a breathless reverie but almost shyly at times. It is particularly touching when she writes that, “Some years later – we are in the early 1970s – the brilliant English art critic John Russell had come to New York to join The New York Times and me.” There is a sense that, besides having loved him, she admired his talent and is proud to have known him, to have meant so much to a man of such impeccable taste.

Bernier shows great wit and charm in Some of My Lives. She is gossipy but with no apparent ill intent, and wryly funny. Perhaps the surest sign that Bernier has succeeded with this memoir is the wish the reader is left with to fill her glass and ply her with questions. In the absence of that chance, Some of My Lives is a fine consolation.

John McIntyre is the editor of Memorable Days: The Selected Letters of James Salter and Robert Phelps (Counterpoint Press, 2010). His work has appeared in the American Scholar, and he has forthcoming in the LA Review of Books, as well as others in The Millions and Bookforum. More from this author →