Modern and Surreal Combined by a Man Who Loved Them Both

Two of my favorite American art museums, the Phillips Collections in Washington, D.C., and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., are this season collaborating on an exhibition that has brought the cream of the Atheneum’s 20th-century collection to Washington for the first time. The show is called Surrealism and Modernism: From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art , and it consists of some 59 paintings, collages and sculptures. Many of the artists in this exhibition, especially the Surrealist contingent, have never before been shown at the Phillips Collection, and it is certainly a piquant experience, to say the least, to see a venue long dominated by such School of Paris classics as Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque and Nicolas de Stael, and American modernists like Arthur G. Dove and John Marin, transformed by the provocations of Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico and Balthus.

This is not to say that there isn’t any overlap in the two collections. Given their commanding roles in the early history of 20th-century modernism, it was more or less inevitable that Picasso and Matisse would be well represented in both institutions. Yet, even with these artists, there’s a difference in emphasis: The Phillips favored Matisse, while the Atheneum elevated Picasso to a dominant status from the outset. The Atheneum organized, in 1934, the first Picasso retrospective in an American museum. Even earlier, in 1931, the Atheneum mounted the first Surrealism exhibition in this country-an exhibition that would have been unthinkable at the Phillips Collection during the lifetime of its founder, Duncan Phillips. (His favorite French painter was Bonnard, an artist conspicuously missing from Surrealism and Modernism .)

These differences are a vivid reminder, if we need one, that in the early history of 20th-century modernism, when its innovations were still highly controversial and reputations were not yet codified, what was deemed to be acceptable to our museums was crucially dependent upon the vision, comprehension and persuasive powers of certain gifted individuals. Museums had not yet become the corporate entities we know them to be today.

Thus, at the Phillips Collection, every acquisition was determined by Duncan Phillip and his wife, Marjorie Phillips, who was herself an accomplished painter. There was, in effect, no board of trustees to satisfy and no curatorial staff to consult. Audacious choices were by no means a rarity, for the Phillipses were often responsive to new developments, adding Alberto Giacometti, Mark Rothko and even Clyfford Still, among others, to their generally “conservative” selections. Yet, to the end of their tenure, there remained an unspoken ban on Dada, Surrealism and their progeny-which is why, I suppose, the museum never acquired anything by Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg. (Alas, I have to admit that I don’t regard this as a loss.)

The situation at the Atheneum was very different, of course. In the person of A. Everett (Chick) Austin Jr., who joined the staff of the Atheneum in 1927, at the age of 26, and remained in charge for 17 years, the Atheneum had a director who was a flamboyant showman as well as a connoisseur of modernism’s many-sided achievements. For Chick Austin, Surrealism was not so much a style of painting as a way of life. If he sometimes went overboard in acquiring more works by Salvador Dali and Yves Tanguy than some of us would ever want to look at a second time, he was also knowledgeable enough to acquire masterpieces by artists ranging from Edvard Munch and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee. He was also one of the first museum directors to recognize the importance of Joseph Cornell. In the current show, there’s even a Red-Headed Nude (circa 1902) painted by the American painter Maurice Prendergast that Duncan Phillips might have prized, and a genre scene as well- Silent Prayer (1951), by the English painter Stanley Spencer-that Phillips would have been unlikely to let in the door.

Phillips was deeply concerned to preserve the character of the Phillips Collection, even to the point of refusing offers of works or art by well-known artists that he believed would violate that character. After her husband’s death, Marjorie Phillips, in her book Duncan Phillips and His Collection (1970), recounted the story of one of the most important of these offers, which involved the collection of the Société Anonyme, founded by Katherine Drier and Marcel Duchamp in 1920, which was mainly devoted to abstraction and Dada.

“After the death of Miss Katherine Drier in 1951,” Ms. Phillips wrote, “Duncan was astonished to receive a letter from Marcel Duchamp saying that Miss Drier had left a part of her private collection to the Phillips Gallery and asking if he wished to accept the bequest. Duncan was thrilled but at the same time torn-wondering if he should add en bloc so much of another collection since his own was thus far so personal. His solution was to ask if he could choose just the things he would have bought himself-by artists whose work he loved, such as Klee, and also to fill certain gaps in the collection.

“Fortunately Marcel Duchamp was perfectly happy with the plan. From the sculpture Duncan chose a distinguished Pevsner, a small Calder stabile, and a Duchamp-Villon relief. Of the paintings offered he chose a delectable small watercolor ‘Blue Regatta,’ by Paul Klee, to add to our unit of 12; an important Kandinsky; a painting by one of his favorite artists, Kurt Schwitters; a fine Mondrian to balance the one he had brought in 1946; and a painting by Carl Marcs entitled ‘Blue Horses.’”

There are some wonderful things to be seen in the Surrealism and Modernism show, and some fairly dismal things as well. What Duncan Phillips’ response to the exhibition might have been, we can only guess. Probably he would have hated it, for it violates the aesthetic character of the Phillips Collection at almost every turn. As a devotee of the collection, I fervently hope that such violations will not now become common practice. The character of certain museum collections-the Phillips among them-should not be tampered with.

Surrealism and Modernism: From the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art remains on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington through Jan. 18, 2004, and will then travel to the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, Calif.; the Kimball Art Museum, Fort Worth, Tex.; and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Fla.