“Welcome to the Marcel Mauss Portrait Gallery, designed by George Albert Battle and completed in 1957. On our tour today we will hear from artists, architects, curators and historians about the history of this remarkable building.
You should now be on the top floor, just below the domed skylight. Look out over the central void of the atrium. A quarter mile of concrete ramps spiral around the perimeter of the atrium, descending at an angle of three degrees. The ramps create a continuous floor space from the rotunda to the terrazzo floor, 96 feet below you.
Mauss asked Battle to design the museum as a gallery for the large collection of portraits that had fallen into Marcel Mauss’s possession in the wake of the second world war. Art historian Sylvia Lowry explains:
Well you see at that time, in the late 40s, many museums in Europe were remodeling and desperately in need of money. They had accumulated all these portraits that they had no place to store and were of no interest to the public. So they figured, great, we’ll pawn them off on the Americans. And so the Mauss family was able to purchase, in bulk as it were, nearly 130,000 portraits–of shipbrokers, courtiers, society beauties, zoologists, Sultans and Maharajas, Jesuit missionaries, and thousands, quite literally thousands, of European aristocrats.….though naturally, after that infamous party on opening night, there are now not quite so many.
Battle’s grandson, Henry Battle, an apprentice during the time of the museum’s construction, recalls the party:
The night before we opened to the public, Marcel had decided to throw this lavish banquet. The guests were all seated at a single table, a quarter mile long, that ran the whole length of the ramp and followed its natural curve down to the center of the spiral, ending in one small circular table. Marcel sat on one end of the little table, and my grandfather on the other.
No one has ever understood how it happened, or why. But at one point I looked out over the railing and saw that down on the floor Marcel had stood up from the table and was now stabbing away with his steak knife at a portrait of the Fifth Marquess of Bath, while my grandfather rammed his cane through the freshly plastered walls. Then Marcel, steak knife still in hand, began to ascend the ramp, slashing away at the paintings on the walls behind the guests, while my grandfather strode about wrenching the knobs off the water fountains, chipping the marble, scratching the wood. Naturally the guests all got upset, but no one did anything to intervene. I couldn’t tell you why we didn’t try to stop them. Maybe because everything they were breaking was theirs to destroy. Or maybe because the frenzy of destruction was simply so fascinating, in a primitive sort of way. In any event, it wasn’t until Marcel had destroyed a 16th-century portrait of the bearded Dutchwoman–his most valuable acquisition–that my grandfather finally stopped trying to shatter the glass skylights he had designed, and whose installment he had supervised so carefully the week before.”