SURREALISM; Phillips Exhibition Tantalizes with a Taste of Star Modern Works from Connecticut Museum, Slights Fascinating Story of Adventurous Early Director

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 11, 2003 | Go to article overview

SURREALISM; Phillips Exhibition Tantalizes with a Taste of Star Modern Works from Connecticut Museum, Slights Fascinating Story of Adventurous Early Director


Byline: Joanna Shaw-Eagle, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The exhibit "Surrealism and Modernism From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum" recently opened at the Phillips Collection on a tour of four U.S. museums. It's mainly a run-of-the-mill hodgepodge of European and American modernism's big names such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Willem de Kooning, Salvador Dali, Giorgio de Chirico and 53 others.

Like many other American museums, the Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., had to open up space for an expansion and put some of its collection on the road. Why it didn't send a better show is the question here.

There's a monumental 1922 Picasso "Bather," a dreamy Henri Rousseau "Landscape at Pontoise," a diminutive Alexander Calder "Dragon" and a large Joan Miro "Painting."

The stars of the show, however, are the superb surrealist paintings acquired by A. Everett "Chick" Austin Jr. while he was directing the Atheneum from 1927 to 1944.

Why aren't there more of these paintings?

I went directly to them in the Phillips' main gallery, where Mr. Austin's adventurous spirit lives with dream-world images by Mr. Dali, Rene Magritte, Mr. de Chirico, Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Kay Sage and Roberto Matta. Mr. Dali's enormous, haunting "Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach" - Mr. Austin's most sensational modernist art purchase for the museum - dominates the room. Nearby, Mr. Magritte's puzzling clouds float in and out of a mysterious room in "The Tempest." Mr. Tanguy evokes a fantasy underwater dreamscape in "Title Unknown (Sans Titre)."

Unfortunately, the Atheneum sent only a taste of its surrealist collections. It also missed out on a great chance to tell the American public about the flamboyant Mr. Austin, one of the country's most enterprising collectors of modernism in the 1930s.

Think what a great exhibit this could have been had the museum shown film clips of when he introduced Gertrude Stein and Mr. Dali to the Hartford community, displayed more photos of him performing his magic acts and described his many buying coups in the exhibit labels next to the purchases.

After touring the exhibit, I found I could savor Mr. Austin and his triumphs more in the handsome, reasonably priced catalog than in the exhibit. The catalog - "Surrealism & Modernism: From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" - tells more about the director's persona than the exhibit.

Mr. Austin's only competitors were Alfred Barr at New York's Museum of Modern Art and Duncan Phillips of Washington's Phillips Collection. Compared to them, he was operating in a cultural backwater, according to the catalog.

The Harvard-educated, astonishingly handsome Mr. Austin, who was just 26 when he came to the Wadsworth in 1927, was not your usual museum director. He was interested in all the arts and was a painter, stage-set designer and actor as well as Atheneum director. Moreover, he married Helen Goodwin, from Hartford's most prestigious family, shortly after arriving in town.

He was open to new ideas and artists, whether he saw Mr. Dali's paintings in Paris or Mr. Picasso's works in New York. Under Mr. Austin, the Atheneum was the first museum in the world to buy a painting by Mr. Dali, the artist's haunting "Solitude" of 1931, the catalog says. The director first saw the tiny work in a gallery in Paris that year and purchased it. Fortunately, visitors can see it at the Phillips.

Mr. Austin quickly went on to organize "Newer Super-Realism," the first exhibition of surrealist art in America. …

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