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Grandma’s Bridge

A work of art connects a family's past and future.

by Allan M. Jalon

August 2, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Grandma (Anna Mary Robertson) Moses,  a self-taught artist noted for her country scenes, first took up painting at the age of 76 and created more than 1,000 paintings. Photo courtesy of Archive Photos

Grandma (Anna Mary Robertson) Moses, a self-taught artist noted for her country scenes, first took up painting at the age of 76 and created more than 1,000 paintings. Photo courtesy of Archive Photos

The Grandma Moses retrospective traveling around America these days doesn't tell a story I know about this particular Moses. Nowhere does the story appear in the more than 60 pictures of apple picking, maple sugaring and other pleasant rural scenes by a "primitive" artist whom leading critics are reassessing as an American Brueghel.

New York Observer critic Hilton Kramer says it's a "scandal" that the show, at the San Diego Museum of Art through Aug. 26, hasn't found a venue in New York. He's right, I think. Not only for artistic reasons, but also because Grandma Moses got her start from a bold Viennese dealer who fled to New York from Hitler's Europe. She then became, in the words of cultural historian Anthony Heilbut (in his book on German-speaking emigrants, "Exiled in Paradise," 1983) an "entrepreneur of images" who taught others how to feel more American just by looking.

I know about this because one of her paintings, titled "Hoosick Bridge," hangs in the house where I grew up in Westchester County, N.Y. Showing a gentle scene of a girl herding cows toward an old covered bridge, its summer daylight glows softly against the pale wall of that plain, colonial-style house just north of Manhattan. It's a world away from the night of Jewish exile to which Grandma Moses owed her career and to which my parents belonged when they bought the painting after being married in the depths of World War II.

Although Anna Mary Robertson Moses had become a wizened icon by the time she died in 1961, at age 101, The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl wrote recently that the sobriquet "Grandma" demeans a serious artist. Perhaps, but it suits my familial sense of her. Beneath "Hoosick Bridge" -- it hangs above the plaster mantel of a stone fireplace -- my parents, my brother and I mingled at parties and exchanged birthday gifts. We lived the cycle of Jewish holidays, the ritual games of Passover, the anbeissen, as my German-speaking parents called the breaking of the Yom Kippur fast. Through it all, "Hoosick Bridge" stood as a bridge between Europe and America, the past and the present, over dark waters on which my parents escaped the Nazis.

People I talk to seem surprised that an artist born in upstate New York, whose family could be traced back to the Mayflower (her married last name follows the New England tradition of using Old Testament names) could have a personal significance to my family. But my parents' attraction to her makes sense: She painted a soothing, ordinary-looking New England paradise far from both the swastikas they feared and the foreign city where they were starting over.

They were young refugees -- she was 18, he 22 -- who separately managed departures that eluded relatives who would vanish in Hitler's concentration camps. My mother, Elena Arnstein, reached New York on the elegant Normandie in May 1939. My father, Cyril Jalon, landed at a pier in Brooklyn on a freighter from Barcelona in June 1941. They met here, got married in 1942 and showed up at the Galerie St. Etienne on West 57th Street on a winter day in 1944 with $300, a wedding gift from my mother's Uncle Hans.

They didn't pick the St. Etienne by accident. Refugees leaned on old connections in the New World. A famous émigré dealer from Vienna named Otto Kallir had founded the gallery. That was all I knew about the painting's past. Seeking more information recently, I was stunned when the woman who answered the phone at the St. Etienne -- Hildegard Bachert was the name she gave --declared that she had been working there for so long that she could remember the day my parents came to the gallery. "There is some kind of relationship between your family and Otto Kallir," she said in a firm voice, businesslike and soulful. "Ask your mother."

My mother told me that, yes, her uncle Fritz shared a passion for airplanes with the young Kallir and his two brothers, all of whom met in the attic of Fritz's childhood home in the Viennese district of Dobling. Fritz went on to become a professional pianist (he spent the war years in an Australian camp with other European Jews deported there by the British), and Kallir became an art dealer specializing in Expressionist painters labeled degenerate by the Nazis: Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimpt, Oskar Kokoschka and Paula Modersohn-Becker. Then, he "made" Grandma Moses -- though it was a Hungarian named Louis Caldor who discovered her.

Caldor, who worked as an engineer for the City of New York, had found Moses' work in a drugstore in the upstate New York town of Hoosick Falls. John Kallir, Otto's 78-year-old son, hadn't heard of Caldor apparently. In fact, he feared he might be a Nazi agent, stalking émigrés who, as Kallir did, visibly opposed the Nazis and aided refugees. John Kallir recently told me how, one afternoon when he was in high school, he was summoned by a nervous phone call to join his father on a journey to the Bronx. "It was weird, in the late afternoon, to take the subway to look at some paintings, "he recalled. Father and son left the Broadway local at 138th Street and met the stranger.

"Caldor said, 'Now we have to walk a bit,' and he led us up these steep stairs to his car. By this time, it was dark. Caldor handed my father a flashlight and opened the trunk. Inside were the first paintings by Grandma Moses that we saw." The Museum of Modern Art included her in a private group show in 1939 that gave her limited exposure, but Kallir's new gallery gave Moses her first public one-woman show in October 1940.

It may seem strange that a dealer who represented Expressionists such as Schiele and Kokoschka, dramatists of vibrant inner intensities, should tie his future to the quiet folk art of Grandma Moses. But Otto Kallir "always collected folk artists and what became known as 'outsider art,'" his son told me. There was not much of a market for Austrian Expressionist art at that time, but Moses quickly ignited interest in émigrés and others. When my mother purchased "Hoosick Bridge," she mirrored in microcosm the attraction this very American artist held for Kallir, other refugee dealers and their clients. "We were not collectors," she said, "but we had this chance to give a fine gift to ourselves." My mother was pregnant at the time, and Kallir personally guided her around his gallery. "I remember how enthusiastic he was about this lady from Hoosick Falls, this lady of 80-something, very old, who painted," my mother said.

One of the paintings on Kallir's walls was "Hoosick Bridge." Moses had painted it just months before, some time in 1943. "I liked it. Period," recalled my mother, herself a painter, frequently of landscapes. "To me, this was New England," my mother said. "The first time that we went away from New York, 1939, we saw those beautiful covered bridges. There was nothing like it in Europe."

I asked my mother: "Did you consciously feel when you chose "Hoosick Bridge" that you were buying a kind of bridge to America?"

"Yes," she said, emphatically. "Absolutely."

Having made her choice, she called my father at his office, and he soon appeared ("I was never as crazy about it as she was," he said) and helped her select a frame. In the following weeks, while they waited for the painting to be readied for their new apartment, my brother Stephan was born. On March 18, gallery records confirm, my parents walked into the Galerie St. Etienne and took "Hoosick Bridge" home in a cab.

After leaving San Diego, "Grandma Moses in the 21st Century" will travel to Orlando, Fla.; Huntsville, Ala; Tulsa, Okla.; Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Ore. Otto's granddaughter, Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne and co-curator of the current show, said that efforts are under way to find the show a site in New York.

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