The narrative of the 2003 film Mona Lisa Smile brought into sharp, if crude, focus the situation of modern art in the United States during the 1950s and what might be called the social politics of teaching young women such a subject at such a moment.
The setting of this encounter, Wellesley College, was described in the film's opening moments as one of the most conservative institutions of education in America. Such an account of their college-and it is clearly ridiculous-provoked angry letters to the New York Times from graduates of that era who strongly disagreed with this characterization of their alma mater and noted that, if history was to be part of the narrative, the screenplay writers seemed to have shown no interest in what actually took place. One writer to the Times noted that the professor played by Julia Roberts was in reality preceded by Alfred H. Barr Jr., who gave in 1926 and 1928 what Mary Bostwick, a student at the time, described proudly in an article for a local Boston newspaper as "almost the first course in modern art offered in any college."
This changes the picture of Wellesley. Barr was a remarkable figure, a great man even, as the critic Clement Greenberg would acknowledge, a passionate advocate of modern art. He was to be deeply important in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and was its first director, from 1928-1944. Hence his interest in teaching the subject at Wellesley as well as the particular and varied choice of the arts he discussed there: as to be expected, the paintings of CE9zanne and Seurat but also the work of Le Corbusier, the Russian ballets, Leger, Stravinsky, and les Six, plus jazz and what he called the "stupendous settings" of the German film Metropolis.
Why, here at Bryn Mawr, should we talk of Wellesley? And why here also should we take any note of Alfred Barr? If such a story of modern art and feminism and cultural politics of the 1950s is of interest still, there is a part for Bryn Mawr College to play, in a way that redounds to its credit.
A provocative invitation
A few years before the movie's time frame, in 1946, Barr came to Bryn Mawr to give a series of six talks on modern art for the Mary Flexner Lecture series. The Flexner Lectures were and are still a jewel in the intellectual crown of Bryn Mawr, but this was an especially interesting, even provocative invitation.
The department of history of art, established in 1923, was a strong and distinguished part of the College. In 1937, the German emigrant scholar, Erwin Panofsky, then at Princeton, had also come as a Flexner Lecturer, giving a series later published as Studies in Iconology. But Panofsky's world, set as it was around the classical tradition, fitted easily into Bryn Mawr's.
Although educated at Princeton and Harvard, Barr was not a scholar in the standard academic mold, and the subject for which he was chosen was still difficult and disreputable for many people. There had been battles for Barr even at the MOMA, in part because the Trustees did not approve of all the art he showed there-the fur lined tea-cup by Meret Oppenheim had caused a particular fuss. In 1943, Barr was dismissed as director, to be replaced by James Thrall Soby and in 1944, by RenE9 d'Harnoncourt. The Flexner committee went ahead with the invitation on the special urging of Associate Professor Joseph C. Sloane Jr., who taught European Painting, was especially interested in Surrealism, and had known Barr for many years. The first invitation had been made to Barr in 1941 by President Marion Edwards Park '98, Ph.D. '18, but he had to decline because of the pressures of his work. When the offer was repeated in 1945, Barr's duties at the Museum had been reduced, and he was free to accept-gratefully, as his correspondence shows, although with some hesitation. He felt that he was not a good public speaker, "unpolished and long-winded always."
There were other issues at stake. As Barr's friend, the architect Philip Johnson, said, Barr had an unbridled passion for art and a stubbornness. If he and fellow students in their youth at Harvard had been challenged by what one of them called a Spenglerian gloom over the crisis in culture, they believed that the state of the world could be righted with modern art; perfection, freedom, and truth being the moral imperatives in the sensibility of the true artist.
The letters from this time between Barr and the new president of the College, Katharine E. McBride '25, Ph.D. '32, are full and detailed, as are those between Barr and Professor Demitri Tselos, a medievalist teaching at Bryn Mawr who was in charge of the many practical details for the lectures. Much of the correspondence is taken up with the usual worrying about lantern slides and the like, but also with problems of hanging the 22 paintings, by artists like Miro and Hopper and Picasso, that Barr gathered from MOMA, private collections in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. These were displayed in Goodhart Common Room for the duration of the lectures, from February 11 to March 11. A film series that also accompanied the lectures included The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Jean Epstein's The Fall of the House of Usher and The Birth of a Nation. In one letter, quite seriously, Barr asked President McBride, if he was expected to wear a dinner jacket when he spoke.
One nice detail that has survived from all this activity is a list of all the books on modern art in the College's library, running to some 10 type-written pages. If this seems a scanty total, it includes the usual suspects in the history of criticism, Ardengo Soffici, Julius Maier-Graefe and Roger Fry, plus a number of the most recent MOMA publications, so many of which were by Barr himself.
The title of the lectures, as one historian has put it, seem almost devotional. Barr suggested, "ART MUST BE-," as he first wrote in a letter to Tselos, "Modern, Pure and Marvellous." Then possibly, as the list grew longer, "National, Popular, Democratic, Passionate, Traditional, Innocent, Functional, Inartistic, Rational, Poetic, Spontaneous, Beautiful, Propaganda" and then, added in pencil, "Irrational, International." In the end, for the last lectures, he settled on the titles of Art as Intense, National and Social and these, together with those already in place, allowed him to touch on all the themes he identified as defining Modern art: the rise of the machine, fantasy and enigma, anxiety, violence and ecstasy, plus what he called regional and racial self-esteem, propaganda and prophesy.
This was a lot to bite off in a mere six lectures, but he did so, and the audience in Goodhart Hall was large and appreciative by all accounts. Sloane later recalled the lectures as "magnificent: clear, learned, and skillful, the best guide, through the maze of modern movements that anyone had so far been privileged to hear."
Respect for women
The students' reaction was also enthusiastic. In his hirings of people like Iris Barry and Dorothy Miller at the Museum, Barr had shown an unusual respect for women, and he seemed to have charmed the students completely. If his romantic appeal was the subject of a doggerel in the College News, "T'ain't what 'cha do, it's the way that 'cha do it," in other issues each lecture was carefully reported. A number of general articles appeared, some unsigned, some written by Norma Ulian '47, on subjects raised during the lectures or the paintings on display. In one article we can read of the role of the machine, the purity of free geometric art, and the marvelous, from a lecture on the rational and the irrational in Surrealism. In an interview with Priscilla Boughton '49, Barr spoke of how he had begun collecting, first butterflies and stamps, and then "a kind of romantic interest" in extinct animals. Another account noted that in spite of some glassy eyes and shaking heads among the students in Goodhart one Monday evening, "Mr. Barr's" arrival on the campus was a sheer necessity and his exhibit a godsend.
At the end of the series, a poll was taken in the course, European Painting since 1550, for which Barr also lectured during his six weeks at Bryn Mawr, to ascertain the most and least popular paintings. In her College News article of March 27, Ulian was shrewd in assessing her peers' taste-the results showed that the class still leaned toward conservatism. The most popular paintings were by Cezanne, de Chirico, Hopper and Rouault; the least liked was Miro's "Catalan Landscape," with Arp and Leger close behind. Masson and Severini, she added, were neither liked or disliked.
Barr, having been showered by invitations during his visit, returned to New York and the turbulent world of MOMA. Sadly the lectures were never written up; the publication requirement had to be waived when the renewed offer was made to him in 1945, in part because MOMA allowed him no time. (The museum lent its paintings to make up for this, however.) Although the lectures have been only briefly mentioned in accounts of Barr, there was enough preserved at Bryn Mawr for my account of those glorious and interesting events. Much of this I uncovered 10 years or so ago in the cold, grey file cabinet that is passed on from chair to chair in the Department of History of Art and in Barr's papers, now at the Smithsonian.
Times were changing in the world of art and beyond. A year or so later, Charles Sawyer, Director of the Worcester Art Museum, asked Barr if he would repeat the series there, which was especially necessary, as he put it, since the entire Modern Movement had been under widespread attack recently in the press. In the future lurked the populist, if conservative, convulsions of the Republican Congressman from Michigan, George A. Dondero, who saw all modern art as communism and in the 1950s reserved his special hatred for the MOMA. There was something more.
The varieties of modern art that Barr espoused, the "upper East Side European surrealists," as Clement Greenberg once contemptuously referred to them, were being supplanted by American artists such as Jackson Pollock, Morris Louis, and Barnett Newman. But Barr was still there, as was the MOMA. As are Bryn Mawr and the Flexner Lectures. If we think back to this moment in 1946, we can do so with a certain pride; for Bryn Mawr-and Wellesley too-were advanced and progressive in their cultural interests. As still, whatever the consequences, we-and doubtless Wellesley also-always hope to be.
Professor and Chairman of History of Art David Cast is a specialist in Renaissance art and in the history of the classical tradition.
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