Published: March 5, 2002
NEW YORK CITY – In the mid-1940s, H.W. Janson, author of the influential textbook History of Art, built what he proudly called “the finest collection of contemporary art assembled on any American campus” at Washington University in St Louis.
In the 1950s and 60s, Janson’s successors – along with a handful of prominent St Louis collectors – fulfilled and even added to the great scholar’s curatorial architecture, thus creating one of the nation’s finest university collections of Modern art.
This March, New York’s Salander-O’Reilly Galleries will present highlights from that collection with ” at Washington University in St Louis.” The exhibition is organized by Sabine M. Eckmann, PhD, curator of the Washington University Gallery of Art, and features 21 masterworks by 17 European and American Modernists.
Included are paintings and sculptures by Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, Alexander Calder, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Theo van Doesburg, Jean Dubuffet, Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, Juan Gris, Marsden Hartley, Jacques Lipchitz, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Yves Tanguy.
“Janson was the instrumental force in selecting and acquiring Modern art for the university,” Eckmann explained. “Having arrived in the US in 1935 as an exile from Hitler’s Germany, he rejected the National Socialists’ nationalistic interpretation and propagation of German art and was committed to cosmopolitanism.”
“Janson’s acquisitions, as well as the presence of subsequent, nationally known directors, stimulated a new generation of civic leaders to donate important works by major contemporary artists,” noted Mark S. Weil, PhD, E. Desmond Lee Professor for Collaboration in the Arts and director of the Gallery of Art. The results, Weil added, are particularly strong Cubist, Constructivist and Surrealist holdings, as well as a substantial representation of early and mid-Twentieth Century American artists.
“H.W. Janson” opens March 12, and remains on view through April 6. Salander-O’Reilly is at 20 East 79th Street. Hours are 9:30 am to 5:30 pm, Monday through Saturday. For information, 212-879-6606.
“” is divided into two sections, the first focusing on works acquired during Janson’s tenure at Washington University, the second on works acquired in his curatorial wake.
Overall, Janson’s selections emphasize international European movements, especially Cubism and Constructivism. Highlights include Picasso’s early collage “Glass and Bottle of Suze” (1912); Gris’s “Still Life With Playing Cards” (1916); van Doesburg’s “Composition VII: The Three Graces” (1917); Braque’s “Still Life With Glass” (1930); Miró’s “Painting” (1933); and Klee’s “Transition” (1935). Though less of a focus, American Modernists are represented by the organic Surrealism of Calder’s “Bayonets Menacing a Flower” (1945).
Janson also collection the work of Surrealists-in-exile, especially artists he felt showed the marks of their new environments. Beckmann’s “Four Men Around A Table” (1943-44), for example, is an allegorical depiction of the artist and three friends who have fled the Nazis for Amsterdam. (Beckmann, coincidentally, taught at Washington University’s School of Art from 1847 to 1949.) While noting that Beckmann’s American work “perpetuates the tragic violence of the preceding years,” Janson saw the artist engaging his new country through frank self-depiction and a “new American sense of scale.”
Similarly, Ernst’s visionary landscape “The Eye of Silence” (1943-44) conjures both a haunted, war-ravaged Europe and a fantastical, primeval American West. Tanguy’s moody “La Tour Marine (Tower of the Sea)” (1944), with its bright colors and large-scaled objects, seems a commentary on the artist’s arrival in New York.
“The scope of Janson’s undertaking was unusual, considering that the most progressive American museums had only begun collecting Modern work in the late 1920s and 1930s,” Eckmann pointed out. “In light of the strong anti-Modernist trends them dominating the American art world – including university museums – one could even call it bold.”
Subsequent curators Frederick Hartt, William N. Eisendrath, Jr, and others worked with prominent collectors – such as Joseph Pulitzer, Jr, Morton D. May, Etta Steinberg, Sidney M. Shoenberg and Mr and Mrs Richard K. Well – to round out Janson’s early Modern, Cubist and Expressionist projects. Highlights include Matisse’s “Still Life With Oranges” (1899); Lipchitz’s “Pierrot with Clarinet” (1919); Miró’s “Painting” (1925); Gorky’s “Golden Brown” (1943-44); and Picasso’s “Women of Algiers, Variation ‘N'” (1955).
At the same time, Hartley’s “The Iron Cross” (1915) and Davis’s “Max No. 2” (1949) strengthened holdings in early American Modernism while newer movements such as Abstract Expressionism and Art Brut were represented by Pollock’s “Sleeping Effort” (1953); de Kooning’s “Saturday Night” (1956); and Dubuffet’s “Bearded Head” and “Bags Under the Eyes” (both 1959).
The accompanying catalog features Eckmann’s essay “Exilic Vision,” a consideration of Janson’s emigration from Germany, of his connections with prominent New York-based exile dealers and of the influence both would exert on his views about contemporary art. (Eckmann, a specialist in the period, previously co-organized, with Stephanie Barron, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s 1997 survey “Exiles and Émigrés: The Flight of European Artists from Hitler.”)
The catalog also reproduces, for the first time, the text of a 1981 lecture in which Janson recalls his years at Washington University and building the Modern collection. The book includes approximately 34 color and 30 black-and-white illustrations, and will be available from the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries in New York City and the Washington University Gallery of Art, St Louis.
Janson, Exile and Modernism
Often perceived as a Renaissance scholar, Janson’s international reputation rests largely on his History of Art (first edition 1962), which to date has sold more than four million copies in 14 languages. Yet in the 1930s and 40s, he also emerged as a staunch defender of Modern artists – writing pieces on Beckmann, Klee, Picasso, George Grosz and Philip Guston – while taking a critical scalpel to American Regionalists like Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
“Janson’s perceptions of modern art were clearly formed against the backdrop of the anti-Modernist, racist and defamatory cultural politics of National Socialist Germany,” Eckmann explained. “As an engaged defender of Modern art and a harsh critic of German and American anti-Modernist movements, Janson took a strong stance against national fixities.”
In many ways, Janson’s own exile experience began long before his arrival in the United States. Born in 1913 in St Petersburg, Russia, he was raised in Hamburg, Germany, where his family settle after fleeing the October Revolution of 1917. He began his university education in Munich in 1932 but transferred the following year to Hamburg University, studying with Erwin Panofsky until the influential professor’s firing by National Socialists. (Fellow students included distinguished art historians Lise Lotte Müller, William S. Heckscher and Lotte Brand Philip.)
Though himself gentile, Janson left Germany both out of solidarity with his Jewish teachers and to protest Nazi cultural policies. He would even go so far as to change his name from Horst to Peter, after “The Horst Wessel Song” became an anthem of the Third Reich.
With Panofsky’s probable assistance, Janson secured a fellowship at Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in 1938 and doctorate in 1941 or ’42. During those years he also received appointments at Harvard’s Fine Arts Department, the Worcester (Mass.) Art Museum and Iowa State University.
Janson at Washington University in St Louis
Janson came to Washington University in 1941 as an assistant professor of art history (though during the war he also taught physics to American soldiers). At the time, public awareness of the university collection was almost nonexistent.
Established in 1881, the collection nevertheless lacked on-campus exhibition facilities and was held largely in storage the City Art Museum (CAM), now the Saint Louis Art Museum. Janson himself only discovered the university’s holdings, then most Nineteenth Century American and European painting and applied arts, through a close reading of CAM’s wall labels.
In 1944, Janson lobbied for and received the appointment of Washington University curator, a position he held until leaving St Louis in 1948. Granted a makeshift gallery in the school of architecture, he immediately set out to raise the collection’s profile, organizing exhibitions for which he often provided security by working at a desk he’d brought into the room.
Janson’s boldest stroke came in 1945, when he guided the Art Collections Committee through a de-accessioning of 120 paintings and more than 500 additional objects – then almost a sixth of total holdings. The sale of these objects raised approximately $40,000, but was not without controversy. More than half the funds were brought by Frederic Remington’s “Dash for Timber,” which fetched $23,000 – a price, Janson later remembered, so high as to meet with public shock, even rating the disapproval of Time magazine.
Over the next year, Janson used those monies to purchase some 40 modernist paintings, sculptures and prints, mostly from dealers in exile. These included Paul Rosenberg (whose apartment and gallery were located in the same Manhattan building now home to Salander-O’Reilly), Karl Nieiendorf and especially Curt Valentin, as well as the former expatriate American Peggy Guggenheim. Additionally, “Eye of Silence” was bought from Ernst’s longtime dealer Julien Levy, while “La Tour Marine” came from Yves Tanguy’s childhood friend Pierre Matisse (son of Henri).
“Although these dealers all gave priority to Modern European art, their agendas differed,” Eckmann explained. “Some were committed to modern German art banned in its homeland, others focused on French art and the Surrealists in exile, and some – to a limited degree at least – integrated contemporary American art in their programs.”
As Janson himself would later recall, “Those were the times when the battle for modernism was still being fought.” Yet, while influenced by these competing trends, Janson remained wary of nationally oriented allegiances, preferring an approach that was international in scope, hospitable to cross-cultural fertilization.
Legacy in St Louis
Janson departed St Louis in 1948 for New York University but, galvanized by his accomplishments, many at Washington University and in the community, continued to study, promote and collect contemporary art.
In some ways, Janson’s legacy at Washington University culminated in 1960 with the opening of Mark C. Steinberg Hall, a handsome modernist facility that included a permanent home for the Gallery of Art. The building was designed by future Pritzker Prize-winner Fumihiko Maki, then teaching at the school of architecture, and was made possible by gifts from Etta Steinberg, in memory of her late husband, and Morton D. May.
Appropriately, the dedication of Steinberg Hall was accompanied by a number of events, including lectures from the renowned art historian Leo Steinberg, the artist Walter Baker and architectural historian James Ackerman. The occasion also was marked by a major acquisition, of which Janson would surely have approved – Picasso’s “Women of Algiers.”
The Gallery of Art
The Gallery of Art at Washington University in St Louis is the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi River. Founded in 1881 as part of the St Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts, the collection today includes some 3,000 objects, with the strongest holdings in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century European and American art. The gallery also owns two Egyptian mummies, several Greek vases and the Wulfing Collection of approximately 13,000 Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins, as well as large numbers of prints, drawings and photographs.
Currently, the gallery is working once again with architect Maki to develop new museum facilities. The effort comes as part of Washington University’s Visual Arts & Design Center, a multidisciplinary umbrella organization for the study and promotion of visual culture in a variety of fields.
For information, 212-879-6606.
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