A Gallery with a View New Book and Exhibition Show off Washinton University's Art Collection

Article excerpt

WHEN you walk in the door, the picture in front of you announces that something good's awaiting. That picture is a still life of fruit painted by Henri Matisse about 1899, radiant in oranges and yellows and greens. It is extraordinary in its foretelling of things to come from its extraordinary creator.

On the wall opposite are three cubist pictures of conspicuous vitality: one each by Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris and Georges Braque.

The first of them, the enigmatic "Glass and Bottle of Suze," is from 1912, the year that Picasso began his brilliant experiments with collage and papier colle, cut-paper assemblages. "Bottle of Suze" is a fascinating example of what was, 82 years ago, a radical and potential-filled way to make art.

Keep walking through Washington University's Gallery of Art in Steinberg Hall and you'll find pictures and sculptures by many 20th-century masters: Jacques Lipchitz, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann, Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg. Guston and Beckmann, by the way, taught at Washington University in the 1940s.

Take the stairs to the gallery's lower level and look at paintings by Thomas Cole and Frederick Church and George Caleb Bingham and sculptures by the courageous American sculptor Harriet Hosmer. All those objects are from the last century. It was then that this collection of Washington University's was begun.

From the time the university was chartered, almost 150 years ago, it has collected art of one sort or another. The collection grew and in 1881 a building to accommodate it was completed at 19th Street and Lucas Place downtown. At the conclusion of the 1904 World's Fair, St. Louis came into possession of the stately art palace on Art Hill. The university's collection moved into the building from its downtown location in 1906, and it was still a university operation.

In 1907, however, the city voted to support its municipal art museum with tax money. Because Washington University was a private corporation, it could not receive public funds. So the St. Louis Museum of Fine Arts was independently chartered, even though much of what it had to show continued to be the property of Washington U.

Gradually, as the museum's own collection began to grow, art belonging to the school began to migrate into storage. Although there were many works of art of the highest quality in the university collection, there were also many things that barely escaped classification as gimcracks, and had no place in a museum collection.

In the 1940s, a young art historian named Horst W. Janson came to Washington U. and decided to do something about the collection. Janson's name may sound familiar: He wrote the basic art history text that has been used by generations of college freshmen in the United States and by students around the world.

Janson took an inventory of the collection and sent about 750 pieces from it off to auction. With the money raised from the sale in 1945, about $40,000, Janson bought a number of works of art that would form the nucleus of a great university collection.

He spent the money with astonishing prescience: The pictures he bought are now worth hundreds of times more than what he paid for them. And in artistic terms, they are of the highest quality.

Friday night at a reception in Steinberg Hall - the building that in 1960 gave the collection its first permanent home in more than a half century - the Washington University Gallery of Art will show off many of its masterpieces and at the same time will celebrate the publication of a bright new book about the collection. …