Rosamond Bernier’s Art of Living



Life imitates art, which in turn imitates Rosamond Bernier. To celebrate the 95th birthday of a woman who has devoted her life to passionately exploring and discussing art, has released signed, deluxe limited editions of her book Some of My Lives: A Scrapbook Memoir (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Bernier traveled to Paris as a correspondent for Vogue post-World War II, where she befriended creative forces from Picasso and Miro to Balenciaga and Coco Chanel. Combining her precise academic knowledge with a natural feel for creative temperaments and their lives, Bernier founded her own art magazine L’Oeil, before returning to New York to begin a prestigious career lecturing at the Metropolitan Museum. A world traveler and cultural connoisseur, Bernier brings this enterprising temperament to her words. Witty and wise, she writes about glamorous situations and people with brazen candidness and unapologetic humility. We talked with Bernier about getting to know Picasso and other Parisian figures, how the personal played out in her lectures, her initial stage fright, seasickness and what it’s like being on the Best Dressed for Life list.

ROYAL YOUNG: How did you first become interested in art?

ROSAMOND BERNIER: Well, as a child, I loved images. I had a correspondence with a school that sent you little sepia photographs of famous monuments. I was about 10 or 11 and I loved those images and I would pin them up in the board in my schoolroom. In a way, I’ve been doing it ever since.

YOUNG: How did that appreciation for art and images become something larger? Something you built a career out of?

BERNIER: Rather by chance. Vogue sent me to Europe with no instructions whatsoever. They told me to do whatever was interesting, and what I found interesting were the great artists that were still alive then, Matisse, Picasso, Giacometti. So I got to know them and I had the chance to listen to them and talk to them. Finally I had such good material, I thought, “I should use it myself. Why send it off to Vogue or other publications? I’ll do my own magazine!” And that’s what I did.

YOUNG: What was the difference between getting to know such artists as Picasso and Matisse and admiring them from afar?

BERNIER: How can you ask me such a question? I mean, what is the difference between knowing someone and talking to them endlessly and just having heard about them?

YOUNG: Of course. But did you feel a need to get to know them, or is it something that happened organically?

BERNIER: Oh no, it’s because I was going to write about them. And then I began my own art review in 1955 and ran it until 1970. So I was always interested in getting material, not just the great artists. I mean I traveled a great deal getting material for the magazine in Scandinavia, Russia, Germany, Austria. It was very international.

YOUNG: How does a more personal narrative shape your style of lecturing? Do you feel the personal is a more honest way of relating to art?

BERNIER: I never thought in large capital letters, “Relating To Art.” What happened was this, I was an editor for many, many years, and then a personal breakup in my life brought me back to this country. I was asked to lecture, I never thought of it. In fact, I thought it was a horrible idea, but it seemed to take off and next thing I knew, I’d lectured several hundred times at the Met. So only part of my lectures was talking about people that I knew. When you’re lecturing that many times, you’re taking very different subjects. I did a whole series on dance as seen by artists, and a whole series on poetry and writing on art. I opened up the subject, if you want. It was way beyond personal reminiscences.

YOUNG: Why did you initially feel lecturing was something you did not want to do?

BERNIER: I was never an actress; I never did anything in public. I thought, “I’m a writer and editor, what am I doing standing up on a stage?” It’s frightening if you’ve never done it. [laughs]

YOUNG: [laughs] And was the first one frightening for you?

BERNIER: I was always nervous until quite late in the game. I was nervous before I went on, but the minute I got on stage, that disappeared completely, because I was so involved with my subject.

YOUNG: Do you think being daring pays off? Was it good to challenge yourself?

BERNIER: Well, it was interesting and it was paying my living. From the Met, I lectured all over the country, wherever they asked me.

YOUNG: Of all the places you traveled, was there one that shaped your life in a way you didn’t expect?

BERNIER: Well, I didn’t know Texas at all. I enjoyed it immensely. I had the good luck to stay at Dominique de Menil’s house. That was extraordinarily interesting, I mean the kinds of people who came and went—for instance, Roberto Rossellini was a fellow houseguest. We got along famously; it was great fun.

YOUNG: Any places you were particularly fascinated by?

BERNIER: Well, the great museums. Chicago was a revelation, the museum and the architecture. So many wonderful museums, it was a voyage of discovery.

YOUNG: What was it like lecturing on a boat?

BERNIER: I don’t really like it. I like lecturing on the stage of the Met. I like a proper stage, a proper light, a proper microphone. On a ship, even on the luxury cruises, it’s makeshift, and the person running the projectors doesn’t quite know how to do it.

YOUNG: Do you get seasick?

BERNIER: Not at all. I’m lucky. My stepson does, but he has those patches you put behind your ears. Maybe I don’t because I was on ships since I was a small child. My mother was English, so we were constantly going across the Atlantic.

YOUNG: You’re on the Best Dressed for Life list. How does that feel?

BERNIER: It was nice of them to do it, but I really spent no time on that at all. When I was in Paris, the various people in couture, Balenciaga and so forth, liked me and gave me credit because they really cared about the art. And so Balenciaga would lend me things. I was loaned a full-length gold dress and matching coat to go speak at Fort Worth. They thought nothing of lending, so off I went to Fort Worth in all these wonderful dresses, and back I came and returned them. But I never had  the money, let alone the incentive, to buy a lot of expensive clothes.

YOUNG: Is there any other list you’d prefer to be on?

BERNIER: I don’t believe in lists, do you?

YOUNG: [laughs] Not unless they’re grocery lists.

BERNIER: [laughs] Right! That’s different, I quite agree.