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The Valentiner Files: Art and Nature

/ February 23, 2011
One of the truly heroic figures in the history of the North Carolina Museum of Art is William R. Valentiner, our founding director. Dr. Valentiner lived many lives. He was a renowned scholar of European art, particularly the art of Rembrandt and other Dutch and Flemish masters. 
Emil Nolde, Still Life, Tulips, circa 1930, watercolor on paper, 18 13/16 x 13 15/16 in., Bequest of W. R. Valentiner

He was a German soldier on the Western Front during the First World War. He was a forceful champion of modern art, who commissioned mural paintings from Diego Rivera and promoted the works of avant-garde German painters in the United States. And he was perhaps the most distinguished American museum director of his generation, overseeing art museums in Detroit, Los Angeles, and Raleigh. Throughout his long and varied career, Valentiner wrote about art as both a scholar and a poet. Art and artists remained for him a source of deep inspiration and an abiding mystery.

In the fall of 1944, in the fifth year of the Second World War, Valentiner wrote an essay in the Art Quarterly on the reclusive visionary artist Morris Graves.

Our whole existence has been weighed down by the horrors of war to such a degree that we have forgotten how necessary to the balance of our life is the aspect of untouched nature, of nature unaware of and unconcerned with human struggle. There is only one thing that can save man from himself—his contact with nature. When we look up from our work at a bright moment nothing grips our heart more than a glimpse of the splendor of her colors and her forms, than the awareness of the power of her growth. It does not need to be a glance into the crater of a Mount Vesuvius … It is sufficient to become conscious that in the beauty of a flower, in the song of a bird, there is something more wonderful than all the mechanization of the world of which we are so proud. But we people of the cities where wars are conceived, believe this truth only if it is explained to us by the artist-prophets who with their deeper insight into nature speak so convincingly that we cannot help but listen.

W.R. Valentiner, “Morris Graves,” Art Quarterly 7 (Autumn 1944), 251.

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