United Nations plaza, NYC.
The Architect’s Granddaughter
Eleonore Nitzschke, granddaughter of Oscar Nitzschké,
discusses her dream of archiving the legendary
architect’s drawings, papers & memorabilia
They were all artists working in different media. The writers with words, the artists with paint and canvas, clay, marble or found objects, musicians with their vibrations, architects with their buildings and all the math, materials, and geometry that go into them. Le Corbusier, Perret, Niemeyer, Picasso, Braque, Calder, Gorky, Cage, Cunningham, Elaine and Willem de Kooning. … and Oscar Nitzschké. The list goes on, the best of the best who came together in the first and middle parts of the 20th Century, built an aesthetic whose influences continue to this day, and whose names have become staples in the Modern lexicon of Western Arts and Culture.
Some time ago, Nikolai Buglaj loaned me a copy of a Cooper Union tribute to Oscar Nitzchké published in 1985 that coincided with an exhibition of the architect’s work. The book, an oversized
paperback containing an impressive and revealing collection of drawings and essays, some by Nitzchké himself, compiled and edited by George A. Dudley and his son Gus Dudley. Buglaj, who over his own career produced numerous architectural renderings for some of the most creative New York architectural firms, declared Nitzchké’s work especially profound in both style and consequence, and offered to introduce me to the master’s granddaughter, Eleonore (Lea Lee) Nitzschké. More than two years later, we finally connected.
The Cooper Union exhibition, to paraphrase the Dudleys, was an opportunity to recognize Nitzschké as the architect, artist, teacher and friend he was, a man who was encouraging to others, and motivated to explore and express himself in ways not seen before.
Eleonore is engaged in a long-term effort to further preserve the name, reputation, work and memory of her grandfather. She harbors a trove of memories in the form of photographs, letters, drawings and memorabilia, some of which she witnessed as they materialized, and others that are part of the historical narrative of 20th Century Arts and Architecture. While she has assumed the role of protector of her grandfather’s archives, she is also concerned about additional collections representative of his work and times held by others will be lost to neglect. One of the reasons, she says, she is slowly bringing to light and life the body of work she holds, with the intent to preserve and protect it for future generations to appreciate.
Oscar Nitzschké (who revised his name to Nitzchke during his years in the States), spent many years in New York, and Eleonore believes her collection is “totally tailored for the City of New York.” Or, for that matter, a gallery in Monmarte, where he also spent much of his life. She is careful to “not go too fast… a little bit at a time, to give oxygen to the affairs (of his estate), to keep the flame alive.” “He gave a lot, and he got a lot,” she says. This is her way of giving back.
With Mike Foldes
Founder, Managing Editor
Q) What is your first recollection of your grandfather and of his work?
A) When I first saw my grandfather draw at his architect table, (it is like a painter’s table, you stand up when you draw), he told me it was for a tapestry rug project. He also designed for furniture projects and when I got older, he gave me some of these drawings, and other precious materials, that I still have. They were very colorful drawings, probably in the pure tradition of the 1920-1930 style of that time, but also very “avant garde”, close to Vasarely style, and other kinetic artists from the Denise Rene’ Gallery group.
At that time, it was like “a Conte de fee’”, a fairy tale picture for me; of course i did not have the knowledge of art history, I was only 9 years old, with a kid’s pure soul, full of enthusiasm to discover art, any form of beauty, any skill, with a tremendous wish to create and with the energy of the entire cosmos in a little girl like me!
Q) Did he spend time with you drawing, or did he encourage you in other pursuits?
A) Yes, he did encourage me a lot; he showed me several great surrealist exhibit .When he went back in 1970 to live with us in Paris, my room was close to his atelier and he liked to show me how he draws his kinetic drawings, Also, he encouraged me with his good mood and his positive attitude, even when he was silent, and he always helped me to recognize how beautiful life is and how to appreciate it. He was a real gourmet and he had such great sense of humor. He taught me to love art, such as Calder, Duchamp, Man Ray, Tanguy, etc.. He taught me how to create my own dreams, he taught me how magic life can be, full of surprises and coincidences, and how to see beauty even in tiny details that just a few people can see..
Q) Did you spend much time with him, and around him with his circles of friends and acquaintances?
A) I was born on 1961 and he visited us often in Paris during the sixties, as we often came to New York. Then definitely when he came back to live with us in 1970, in our building in Saint Germain des Prés in the left bank in Paris. I was 9 year old. He was working in his atelier on the second floor near my room and slept in his room between the second floor and the first floor. I adored him, and the first thing I did when I woke up was to visit him in his room, when i did not spend time in his atelier. He was my first collector and my first client. He asked me to make drawings, offered me a complete Swiss watercolor box as a birthday present, and gave me other original gifts to stimulate my young imagination. And, he made jokes every day.
We also spent time on vacation with the Calder family in their house in Sache or in Bretany. We also had visits in our building on rue Guisarde from all his friends in Paris, such as the Calder family, Barbara Jacobson, Sarie Dienes, Hans and Celia Lindbloom, Klaus Herdeg and his brother, and many others. When the Center of Georges Pompidou was create by Renzo Piano who won the concours, there was a private happening in 1972. I was 11 year old, and Oscar did not feel like going there so Sarie Dienes took me with her as her guest.
She was constantly picking up from the floor all the material she was able to collect for her sculptures. It was so amazing, because each time she found a piece of glass or some wire, she was laughing to express her enthusiasm! For me it was a terrific training to learn to keep my “Joie de vivre” safe, and later in my life, in the time of sorrow, theses images of Sarie Dienes, or the sound of the strong laugh of Alexander Calder, or the picture of the delicious smile of my grandfather Oscar, always comes back in my mind to rescue myself, and for that, i will always have for them huge gratitude!
In addition to inspiring my mind with art and beauty, it opened more doors to develop my intelligence and my imagination; it stimulated my will to learn and develop my curiosity about everything I see, or hear, or read.
Q) You are a photographer, among other things, and I wonder why and how you chose that path, as opposed to some others?
A) The second husband of my grandmother, Andre Bac, was a director of photography in movies. He was also a very good friend with Calder, and did the lighting for the Calder Circus Carlos Villarbo movie. I remember him taking pictures with a Hasselblad in 1962, 1963, and after. When I turned seven years old, we were on vacation in Sache, where I played with my alter ego Andrea Davidson, who was so cute and already looked like a little Marilyn with brown hair.
I remember I asked my parents to buy me a camera, but unfortunately they did not hear my wishes. Otherwise, I would have taken pictures of our great vacation in Sache, with Calder and the party we had together. We were kids, we were friends, with no other sense than kids have, playing and loving each other, having a good time. There was no demanding social circuit, no public relations, no art market then, like there is now. It is a paradise lost. I miss him so much and I miss my friend Andrea.
Anyway, I kept asking to get a camera, but the camera never came from my parents until I got older. I finally convinced my mother to pay my tuition for photography school, for three years training. I worked during the summer to buy my first camera and the additional expenses for the school. I think I chose to become a photographer to take pictures of the souls of people, and to get this feeling of liberty I always have when I capture a unique instant of magic. Yes, I chose to be a photographer to capture the magic events of life, then I became addicted and I never stopped doing it.
I like also motion pictures and I started to work with video 10 years ago. Also, photography allows you to meet people, and provides a great pretext to meet them. I never stopped making collage, and I draw for myself, but you do not get the same energy and the same feeling. Photography taught me to focus, how to challenge myself, especially when I was taking pictures on the 42nd floor of a new building, above the emptiness, or on the top of the Brancusi endless column in Romania in 1996.
I do other kinds of pictures now, and don’t risk my life as. I did in the past just to have the reflection of the sky on the building framed in my photograph. My admiration goes to Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Lilian Bassman, Man Ray, Andre Kertesz, Diana Arbus, Eugene Smith, Phillipe Halsman, Paul Albert Horts, Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastio Salgado, Christine Spengler, Henri Bureau, Don Mac Cullin, Andy Warhol, Don Snyder, Gerard Malanga, Benno Friedman, Mario Testino, Patrick Demarchellier, Andres Serrano and of course Annie Leibovitz. When I told my grandfather Oscar Nitzschké that I wanted to become a photographer, he told that I must read the book, “The Art of Shooting a Bow” of Zen Buddhism, which I did religiously.
Eleonore Nitzschke / photographs
Q) How did your mother and father get along with your grandfather? Were they also artistically inclined? Did they encourage you in your pursuits?
A) My father and my mother took care of my grandfather and asked him to come live with us in 1966 when he was living on 8th street in New York. He finally came to live with us in 1970.
My mother was raised with the Calder family and could have chosen an artistic career, but in the end did not, as she was pregnant with me and changed her mind. My grandfather organized it so she could move to New York, found her and apartment and gave her the opportunity to study style and fashion. In New York she improved her drawing from what she had learned of the academic style at the Beaux Arts in Paris.
My father was a musician and a conductor and acquired several gouaches of Calder. He finally encouraged me and gave me a Leica with three lenses when I came back to Paris from New York in 1986. That was a very concrete encouragement. Silence is gold, talking is silver, in Love you need proofs, in friendship, too, and that was the best proof for me that he finally cared about me and that he was proud of my choice to become a photographer .
Q) As a photographer, are many of the images in your collection taken by yourself?
A) Many photos in my collection are taken by myself, but since 1990 I began to collect and started to build a collection with vintage photographs from other photographers. I did tremendous research about the cultural relationship of Paris with New York, and I still do, as well as about Saint Germain des Prés .
My grandfather Oscar Nitzchké gave me a lot of archives including unpublished drawings , vintage photographs taken by an anonymous photographer of himself with Braque, Calder, Aimee Ozenfant, Duke Ellington, Ines Cavanaugh, and others. To tell you the truth I did not finish the accurate inventory of these archives. So I shall get a good surprise soon. Also, I became friends with photographers from my generation ( and not only ) in Paris and in New York, especially with Christine Spengler, Irina Ionesco, Andre Morain, Didier Gicquel, Phillipe Bonnant and recently I meet Andres Serrano with his wife Irina, in New York and had a good time with them. I have also become friends with other collectors, curators, gallerists, experts in photography, and auctioneers who love photography and consider photography as another artistic medium.
Q) You have said you have suitcases or trunks of materials in the archive. What kinds of things do you have in the collection that would bring light to the history of Oscar Nitzchké’s life and times
A) It is a little bit too early to tell, I plan to publish a book, based with my memories and my own pictures of Oscar, I expect to discover more unpublished stories and material about the life of Oscar Nitzschké, and also about my talented grandmother Ritou, who inspired Alexander Calder who made several masterful hanging mobiles titled with her nickname Ritou. One of the Ritou mobiles is part of the permanent collection of the Reinia Sofia Museum in Madrid.
Q) As the keeper of the jewels, so to speak, what is your plan for them, and how exactly do you expect to achieve that goal?
A) I am working to get financial and logistic support to achieve that goal and to get a new space for all my archive, print a limited series of my works and organize the legacy of the Oscar Nitzschké Estate. It means continuing to travel between Paris, New York, Geneva, Basel, Hamburg, Venice and Sao Paolo.
Q) He was friends with Alexander Calder, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and many others. Did you know them, as well?
A) I did not have the chance to meet Willem de Kooning and Elaine de Kooning, I miss Oscar Neimeyer who recently passed away in Brazil, I played as a kid with Alexander Calder (and he was a big kid), I remember his wife so beautiful Louisa, and the entire family, Sandra Davidson, Shawn Davidson (Willie), Andrea Davidson, Mary Calder Rower and her husband Howard Rower, Holton C. Rower, Sandy C. Rower. Also, Celia and Hans Lindbloom. Has was wonderful to me when I came back to New York for the Oscar Nitzchké’s Cooper Union Retrospective that was organized by George And Gus Dudley.
They collected and exhibited a tremendous number of terrific works with the help of Joseph Abrams, and my mother. We were so happy to take pictures of the happening and the exhibit, spending time with Oscar, walking together in the streets of New York, uptown, downtown, midtown… to be able to enjoy being together in New York City, like when we were very young.
Q) How did you happen to meet Nick Buglaj, who was kind enough to introduce us?
A) By coincidence. I believe that we create coincidences and the power of thoughts are so amazing. I was doing some research about Oscar Nitzschké on the Internet I found the great interview you did in Ragazine about the life and friendship of Nikolai Buglaj and Oscar Nitzschké. I discovered many events and unknown aspects of Oscar’s personality and events of his life. Probably without the Internet I would have found you anyway, both of you guys! But for sure it would had taken much more time, and more research. In two clicks, the miracle happened and I started to communicate with Nick Buglaj. Then he immediatly mentioned you and wanted to make this introduction.
Life is full of great coincidences. I am sure that now, the spirit of Oscar Nitzchké now can start to get more peace and happiness, and I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to spread peace on his spirit and on us, also.
Thank you, all of you.
Oscar Nitzschké emigrated to America in 1939 and spent much of his professional life in New York City. Nitzschké, working with Wallace Harrison Group and Le Corbusier, designed The United Nations Plaza on the East River in New York City. His drawings of “La maison de la Publicité” in Paris are in the Museum of Modern Art collection in New York.
About the interviewer:
Mike Foldes is the founder and managing editor of Ragazine.CC. You can read more about him in About Us.