Surrealism at Princeton

Focused primarily on building a teaching collection of historic European, American, and Asian art, the Princeton University Art Museum did not begin to seriously acquire twentieth-century avant-garde art until Patrick J. Kelleher, Class of 1947, was appointed director in 1960. In 1963, James Thrall Soby, an art historian then associated with The Museum of Modern Art, New York, was charged with distributing to American museums artwork from the estate of the American painter Kay Sage and her late husband, Yves Tanguy. Princeton received two fine drawings by Tanguy that became the first Surrealist works to enter the Museum’s collection. Further correspondence among Kelleher, Soby, and Alfred H. Barr, Class of 1922 (the first director of The Museum of Modern Art), led to the addition of two paintings to fill out the bequest: I Saw Three Cities (1944) by Sage and Par la Forêt (1941) by Tanguy. Recalling Par la Forêt in a letter to Kelleher dated June 28, 1963, Soby writes: “The picture always hung in the living room of the Tanguys’ house in Woodbury Conn., because it was one of Kay [Sage] Tanguy’s special favorites. I talked to her about this little picture many times . . .”

Adding to Princeton’s small but growing collection of Surrealist works, Alfred and Margaret Scolari Barr made subsequent gifts from their own collection, including Max Ernst’s jewel-like decalcomania work The Witch, painted in 1941—the same year the artist escaped German-occupied France and emigrated to the United States—and Pablo Picasso’s seminal etching La Minotauromachie (1935), a proof given to Barr by the artist. Other important gifts to the Museum included photographs by Man Ray, Frederick Sommer, and Brassaï.

In the 1990s, through the generosity of David L. Meginnity, Class of 1958, the Museum gained an exceptional collection of works by twentieth-century Latin American artists. The Meginnity Collection includes prints, drawings, and paintings by the Spanish-born Surrealist Remedios Varo and the British-born Leonora Carrington, women artists who were closely associated with Max Ernst in the 1930s and continued their careers in Mexico following the outbreak of World War II. The Cuban artist Wifredo Lam and the Chilean painter Roberto Matta likewise encountered Surrealism in Paris before returning to Latin America, where their work had a formative influence on a younger generation of artists throughout the 1950s.

This installation has been organized to coincide with the International Conference Surrealism: From France to the World, sponsored by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, The Humanities Council, The Department of French and Italian, and The French Embassy in the United States.

Calvin Brown, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawing, Princeton University Art Museum