- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

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. With major works by shockers Mr. Ernst, Mr. Picasso, Mr. de Chirico, Mr. Miro and Mr. Dali, the Atheneum director stood Hartford, and the American art world, on their ears.

The director also made decisive, revolutionary buying decisions for the museum: He purchased works by the Spanish surrealist Joan Miro in 1934, American sculptor Alexander “Sandy” Calder in 1935 and the American surrealist Joseph Cornell in 1939.

Fortunately for visitors not familiar with the shock of surrealism, a small room of two Dalis, a Miro and a Cornell introduces the exhibit’s surrealist art display. Mr. Dali’s “Solitude,” in which a lonely boy sits by the sea, still fascinates after 72 years. The museum placed Mr. Dali’s “Paranoiac-Astral Image,” painted in 1934, next to it. This work is even more off-the-wall in its title and subject matter than “Solitude.”

The artist placed four figures on a deserted beach in “Paranoiac-Astral Image.” Possibly from his childhood, the figures — Mr. Dali in a boyish sailor suit, his father, his mother and his wife — recall both joys and tears from his growing up. The work leads to the main gallery’s much larger “Apparition of Face and Fruit Dish on a Beach,” painted four years later. Mr. Dali has made radical changes. Images such as a beach, a face, a footed dish filled with pears and a dog’s profile are less recognizable and merge into one another.

Two extraordinary landscapes, both purchased by the Atheneum director, complete this part of the exhibition. Mr. Ernst painted the heartbreak of World War II exiles in “Europe After the Rain” through the “decalcomania” technique of impressing wet paint into the support with pieces of glass. It was perfect for imaging Europe as a disintegrating, fantasy landscape. Mr. Matta, by contrast, applied thin yellow glazes for a happy, light-filled image of puzzling biomorphic shapes.

Unfortunately, says Phillips exhibit curator Susan Frank, the conservative Atheneum board of directors forced Mr. Austin out of the directorship in 1944. No matter. His contribution was crucial in the 17 years he was there.

WHAT: “Surrealism and Modernism From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, until 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays, through Jan. 18.

TICKETS: $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors (62 and older), free for Phillips Collection members and children younger than 18.

PHONE: TicketMaster in Washington, 202/432-SEAT; and the Phillips Collection, 202/387-2151.

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