An Eye For Revolution

A bold, young impresario, Everett Austin, opened a door for the art of our time


October 05, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In 1931, C. Everett Austin, one of America's great impresarios of modern art, organized the first exhibition of surrealist art in the United States at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., where he was director.

Austin had seen the Spanish-born surrealist Salvador Dali's work in Paris earlier that year, and he was immediately struck by Dali's disorienting, dream-like imagery and impeccable painterly technique.

When the exhibition opened in Hartford, it included works by Picasso, Miro, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico. But the star of the show was Dali's exquisite miniature The Persistence of Memory, whose disturbing vision of melting watches on a sandy beach instantly became the defining image of surrealism for a generation of Americans.

Yet when Dali's American dealer, Julien Levy, offered to sell the diminutive masterpiece to the Wadsworth for $350, Austin demurred. He feared the purchase would be considered too daring by the museum's conservative board of trustees.

And so the museum that helped bring modern art to America lost the chance to own one of Modernism's most famous pictures. (The painting was eventually bought by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where it resides to this day.)

Austin's experience with Dali in Hartford sums up the precarious position that modernism occupied during the first decades of the 20th century, when the movement inspired equal parts of admiration, curiosity, bafflement and ridicule.

Yet Austin's persistence ultimately paid off for the Wadsworth, which, during and after his tenure, amassed one of the most important collections of modern masterpieces in the United States.

The magnificent fruits of Austin's seemingly Quixotic quest may be seen in Surrealism and Modernism from the Collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, a wholly captivating exhibition of some 60 paintings, collages and sculptures by modern masters that opens this weekend at the Phillips Collection in Washington.

This show is a testament not only to the artists who revolutionized painting and sculpture in the 20th century but also to the amazing eye and mind of Austin, whose genius for quality placed him among the tiny handful of Americans -- including Duncan Phillips of Washington, Robert Tannahill of Detroit and Alfred Stieglitz of New York -- capable of recognizing the full measure of the modernists' achievement.

Austin was a born bon vivant, egotist and a sometime scamp whose escapades scandalized the provincial-minded insurance executives and businessmen who made up Hartford's social and cultural elite during the Depression.

Yet it was Austin who single-handedly dragged the stuffy Wadsworth into the vortex of the modernist revolution. Before he (at 26) became director in 1927, the museum had contented itself largely with safe exhibitions of academic painting and early American furniture.

Model to emulate

Austin's vision for the Wadsworth as a vibrant educational and cultural hub blew the cobwebs out of what was then the nation's oldest continuously operating museum and turned it into a model for all the arts that other cultural institutions would strive to emulate.

In addition to the first surrealist exhibition, Austin mounted the first major retrospective of Picasso in this country and the first performance of a work by choreographer George Balanchine, whom he helped immigrate to America.

He presented the first slide lecture by a major modern artist (Dali), started the first film series at any museum, and gave the world premiere of composer Virgil Thompson's opera Four Saints in Three Acts.

Both the Balanchine and Thompson performances -- as well as innumerable plays, poetry readings, masked balls and other events -- took place within the Wadsworth's own walls, in keeping with Austin's conviction that museums should serve as a universal forum for cultural expression.

And the paintings acquired by the Wadsworth as a result of Austin's proselytizing -- the loss of the Dali was for him but a minor setback -- included some of the most recognizable images of the modernist canon.

The Phillips show opens with works by Maurice de Vlaminck, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Picasso and Albert Gleizes, including Vlaminck's rapturous expressionist landscape River Scene with Bridge (1905) and Picasso's Still Life with Fish (1923), a pictorial tour de force that seems to combine both the cubist fracturing of space and traditional illusionistic perspective.

One of the artists Austin championed most fervently was the Italian proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. Chirico's foreboding image The General's Illness (1914-15) preceded Andre Breton's Surrealist Manifesto, which officially launched the surrealist movement, by nearly a decade.

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