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"Surrealism and Modernism from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art"
2003-10-04 until 2004-01-18
Phillips Collection
Washington, DC, USA

The Phillips Collection welcomes Surrealism and Modernism from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, a selection of 59 paintings, collages, and sculptures by the most significant avant-garde artists of the early twentieth century. Surrealism and Modernism represents an outstanding array of major artistic movements in the twentieth century—from expressionist landscapes and classic abstract painting to surrealist illusionism and abstract expressionism. This exhibition also provides a look at a unique era in the history of collecting by American museums, when aesthetically adventurous directors struggled to make the case for modern art to a suspicious public through purchases and exhibitions of work by living artists from Europe, America and Latin America. Although located a few hours away from New York, the Wadsworth Atheneum in the 1930s scored a series of acquisition firsts of the kind that might have been expected of the Museum of Modern Art.

Notably, the Atheneum was the first museum in the world to purchase a painting by Salvador Dalí (1931) and the first American museum to acquire works by surrealist Joan Miró (1934), the Paris-born painter known as Balthus (1938), and American surrealist Joseph Cornell (in 1939). The Atheneum was also among the first museums to acquire work from Alexander Calder, purchasing the first of many pieces by him in 1935.

Many of the remarkable works in Surrealism and Modernism were early purchases from the art dealers Julien Levy and Pierre Matisse. Often they were purchased from the artists’ first exhibitions. Examples in this exhibition of such direct purchases are Dalí’s three frozen, cinematic dreamscapes (acquired 1931, 1935, and 1939 respectively) including the great Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach, 1938, Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Blue and White, 1935 (acquired 1936), Yves Tanguy’s intimate Dream Landscape, 1933 (acquired 1936), Giorgio de Chirico’s seminal The General’s Illness, 1914-1915 (acquired 1937), Jean Arp’s major surrealist sculpture Relief, ‘Objects placed on three planes like writing’, 1928 (acquired 1937), Max Ernst’s apocalyptic Europe after the Rain, 1940-1942 (acquired 1942), Diego Rivera’s haunting genre painting Girl with a Mask, 1939 (acquired 1939), as well as Balthus’s beautiful portrait The Bernese Hat, 1938/9 (acquired 1940) and Roberto Matta’s Prescience, 1939 (acquired 1941).

The powerful influence of these and other works in the Wadsworth Atheneum’s collection on the upcoming generation of American artists was further boosted by the presence in America of many of these European artists, who went into exile in the United States at the onset of the Second World War. For example, Matta, a member of the Paris surrealists, emigrated to America in 1939 and played an important role in familiarizing American artists with surrealist ideas as did Ernst who completed his nightmarish dream landscape Europe after the Rain shortly after arriving in America in 1942. Tanguy, a leading surrealist was one of the first exiles to arrive in New York, in 1939. He played a particularly important role in the history of the Atheneum after marrying the American painter Kay Sage and settling in Woodbury, Connecticut. Tanguy and Sage became part of the Connecticut artistic circle that included such American "surrealists" as Peter Blume and Calder. After the deaths of Tanguy and Sage, the Atheneum was the beneficiary of a generous bequest of three important Tanguys and the classic René Magritte The Tempest from their private collection.

Also included in Surrealism and Modernism are notable sculptures by Henry Moore, Aristide Maillol, and three major bronzes by Marino Marini. Five paintings by Pablo Picasso are in the exhibition, including The Painter, 1934, in which Picasso’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter is transformed into a plant-like creature of sweeping curves and spiraling forms. The exhibition includes important works by the Americans Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove, a monumental cubist still life by Albert Gleizes, a major early painting by the German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, an early self-portrait by Willem de Kooning, and a 1918 portrait by Henri Matisse of his daughter Marguerite. Also included are two expressionist landscapes by Edvard Munch, the disorienting Georgia O’Keeffe painting The Lawrence Tree from her first trip to New Mexico, an unusual Maurice Prendergast nude, and a contemplative Stanley Spencer homage to his ex-wife, among many others.

Henri Matisse (1869-1954),
The Ostrich-Feather Hat, 1918,
Oil on canvas
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT
The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1969.1.
© 2003 Succession H. Matisse, Paris
Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


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