HOLLYWOOD WRITER’S FASCINATION WITH EARLY 20TH CENTURY ART ROOTED IN ERA’S DRIVE TO MODERNITY AND SOCIAL CHANGE
Contradictions drive Max Ember’s collecting. And for Ember, the early 20th century and certainly America in the 1930s was brimming with contradictions.
“We had people in the Dust Bowl watching Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey,” Ember says, “where Lombard, draped in exquisite satins and furs, goes out on a zany scavenger hunt to find some forgotten man. Displaced farmers who had nothing stared at a screen watching these rich scavengers who had absolutely everything. And bizarrely, these insanely different worlds co-existed.”
ESTATES SIGNATURE® AUCTION 5314
Featuring an Important Collection of 20th Century Art and Objects Collected by a Hollywood Writer
March 17-18, 2017
Raised in New York, Ember made his way to California to write and produce television shows and movies. Because a Hollywood writer has little control over his work within the vast studio system, Ember discovered collecting as a therapeutic antidote.
“When you create a collection, you hold all power,” he says. “You decide what to buy … where to display … how to allow your artworks and objects to interact. This control saved my sanity many times over the course of my 40-year career where producers would often blithely announce, ‘We’re cutting the first 10 pages’ without explanation.”
After 40 years of collecting, Ember has decided to move back to the East Coast. Paintings, sculpture and other objects in his collection date from the early 1900s to 1949.
When did you start collecting?
I fell in love with the 1930s when I was in college. I saw [musical choreographer] Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933, which starts with “We’re in the Money,” and then, all of a sudden, the show is dismantled mid-rehearsal because the show hasn’t got any money at all! At the film’s end, “My Forgotten Man” is this huge expensive production number where Joan Blondell performs a simple torch song, this plea for all those forgotten men, men who had no careers, no future, nothing. As she laments, rows of soldiers march and rows of workers pound the breadlines, and chorus girls dance and dance …
It touched me very deeply … this concept of the opulence, glamor, invention and jazz of the late 1920s and 1930s, at a time when the world crashed and everybody lost everything. That counter-balance, those wild discrepancies, haunted me. We lived in the land of Clifford Odets. We also lived in the land of Jean Harlow. They existed “side by side, all glorified …”
Then, of course, there was this other big thing: the birth of modernism. Cameras made realistic artworks obsolete. We suddenly needed to live and work within cities. Technology soared. Electric appliances, refrigerators, stoves and blenders became must-haves. Suddenly, all this creativity explodes. But it’s exploding within the framework of the Great Depression. So, to make this technology feasible, it comes in on a dime. Can’t use platinum? Use chrome! Amazing.
What were the first pieces in your collection?
The first things were the things my grandmother had, things she was throwing out and wondering, “Why would you want to keep that?” A lot of my early collection, before I got fancy, are things that I saw as being simply well-designed. Many, many times, I bought things in junk stores that storekeepers could never see as becoming eventually valuable. I remember finding this Art Deco life-sized figure of a wood-carved flapper. I suspected it was created for some department store display. Only later, when attending the Andy Warhol auction, did I find out I was right, when a similar figure sold for tens of thousands of dollars! Who knew?
So I started by looking and hunting those dumpy antique stores all over the country. Then I moved into the world of auctions. For the keen eye, whether you’re spending a lot or a little, there’s always some awesome surprise right around the corner. Isn’t that why anybody likes collecting?
So what’s been the most satisfying part of collecting for you?
Never owning, always hunting. It’s “The Hunt” that’s always the most satisfying. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a thrill to own some famous or important thing for a little while. It’s intoxicating to live with a treasure and enjoy the idea that “I can’t believe I actually own this.” But in the end, it’s always The Hunt that moves me onward.
What would you say are the kinds of pieces you looked for?
For me, the objects which are most exciting to collect are those actual stepping stones into modernism – the invention of “the new.” Once you start looking at the 20th century, where Realism is dying and people are suddenly seeking vital means of expression, you see the whole world starting to re-think and change: Cubism, Futurism, all the great movements of a new century.
One of my prized possessions is a Charles E. Burchfield which was done in 1917 … Burchfield’s “Magic Year.” That’s important because 1917 was the year where Burchfield discovered Expressionism, and that’s around the time American Expressionism coalesced into its own unique form, different from Van Gogh’s Expressionism or from, say, Hugo Scheiber’s Expressionism. All of a sudden, Expressionism takes on its own unique American identity, and I own a Burchfield from that very period of discovery. That’s incredible! To live with this stuff has been a major inspiration in my life and in my work.
I would also say those pieces and pictures which illuminate the social issues of the time and speak out are those which move me most deeply. Unlike today, this was not a cynical period. It was a period where people viewed defeat as a motivating force to create that City on a Hill. Just look at the Works Progress Administration mural studies. They illuminate this extraordinary panoply, with all eyes pointed to a brighter future.
Why have you finally decided to share your collection?
There is a fine line between being a collector and being a hoarder. I never want to cross that line. Please understand: My collecting is by no means over. I’m still fascinated by the concept of tracing the time-step of modernity. Just as The Hunt is always hopeful and challenging with the promise of something new just around the corner, the artworks and objects, themselves, always provide that same challenge and hope and deep inspiration. I will continue to collect until I die.
Where do you hope your pieces end up?
I know I should say “some museum.” But that’s not true. I hope they go into the hands of people who have my same compassion for working people and for the world we live in. I hope they go into homes where they inspire people, as they have always inspired me.
Look at a common gear. It’s the most amazing thing. A gear is a piece of sculpture. It’s also a mere cog that functions to create some sort of simple utility. That dichotomy is overwhelming to me and that’s why I collect. That’s why I hope that people, when they buy at this auction, can look at these pieces and feel, “Wow, I get it.”