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Six degrees of separation (Part 1)


For a number of very personal reasons, I am fascinated by the idea of connectedness: the multiple, often overlapping ways that we are linked to one another, to the past and into the future. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that “six degrees of separation” is pessimistic: everything’s a lot closer than that.

Some time ago I acquired a 19th century architectural drawing, the kind of study in pencil, ink and watercolor washes that were typical of architectural education 100 years ago. This one was done at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the place for Americans to study architecture following the Civil War. Richard M. Hunt and H. H. Richardson pioneered the way and they were followed by dozens, if not hundreds, until the Great Depression. The drawing I bought was probably created about 1900 (because of the Art Nouveau lettering style used for the title) and the student draughtsman was someone named “J. Hébrard.” Not content to simply own a piece of the past (or have temporary possession), I set about discovering its origins.

Google.com is truly amazing if you know how to tweak it. I’ve become pretty adept. So, “J” could be Jacques, Jean, Joseph or Jules, among popular French boys names (I presumed it was a he). Within a matter of moments I had linked the drawing to Jean Hébrard and discovered he had been born in France circa 1878-1879, which would, in fact, put him at the École about 1900. But it gets even better.

Provenance is the art historian’s fetish for tracing any work of art or antiquity to its creator/origin–an unbroken line that only enhances the work’s value–the sort of research that would lead to some fairly predictable conclusions in this case and a quick dead end. But as the Red Queen observes to Alice, “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards”: the sort of connection that intrigues me is omni-directional.

Jean Hébrard, for example, proves to be enormously interesting. Yes, he did graduate and become a French architect. His Beaux-Arts education helped in that regard, but it also made him marketable beyond traditional architectural practice. American schools, for example, were anxious to emulate the École and hiring Beaux-Arts graduates as faculty was a natural way to do that. Hébrard got a faculty appointment at Cornell University in 1907 and stayed until about 1911. I lose track of him during the war years, but he shows up again on the University of Michigan faculty during the 1920s and 30s. And here’s where it gets seriously kinky: during the mid-20s, one of Hébrard’s students was the young Raoul Wallenberg, subsequently the Swedish diplomat credited with saving 15,000 Hungarian Jews from Nazi concentration camps. Until a few days ago I had no idea Wallenberg had trained to be an architect. Perhaps it’s best for everyone that he didn’t become one.

The years between Hébrard’s teaching gigs (Cornell and Michigan) weren’t wasted either. He returned to France and worked with his older brother Ernest, also an architect, on a major publishing venture. Ernest had become involved with Hendrik Christian Andersen in promoting the idea of a World Capitol–predating even the League of Nations proposals after WWI. Andersen the artist-theorist genuinely believed that art could change the direction of society and that a world-wide governmental system was both inevitable and necessary. The Hébrard boys provided graphic talent and probably some of the theoretical framework as well. The result was a 1913 limited-edition publication that seems to rear its head whenever scholars are writing about recurring proposals for super-governmental centers, not unlike what Brussels has become for the European Union.

H. C. Andersen (not to be confused with the one who wrote “The Little Mermaid”) is a curiosity in his own rite. Born in Norway, with a Danish spelling of the family name, the Andersen’s emigrated to Rhode Island when H. C. was a child. He became a naturalized American citizen, but lived most of his adult life in Rome, producing art there and promoting his “Centre for World Communication.” Eventually, Andersen died and was buried at Rome and left his home-studio to the Italian State; you can visit the museum today and encounter his vision in the creative environment he designed. Andersen maintained a large correspondence, including the great Henry James and may even have had a homo-erotic relationship with him–evidenced by their correspondence published under the title Beloved Boy. Is this great stuff or what!


The Andersen+Hébrard team did bear some more direct fruit. Ernest happened to be in Greece in 1917 when the city of Thessaloniki burned to the ground and he was immediately appointed to head the rebuilding effort. Take a look at Thessaloniki on google.earth and you’ll see the strangeness that resulted: the geometric order of a Parisian core imposed where there had once been a hybrid Greco-Roman/Medieval organicism. So at least some of Andersen’s ideas about urbanism saw more than the light of day. I’m not sure where brother Jean was during this time, but stay tuned.

Does any or all of this make my drawing more valuable? In monetary terms, probably not. But it did allow me to become a little less ignorant.

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