Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America
Throughout the museums and galleries of the world, we come upon pockets of interest that owe their existence not to some general group effort but to the achievements of exceptional, sometimes peculiar, individuals. They have left us their houses as shrines—the Herbert Horne in Florence, the Poldi-Pezzoli in Milan, the Grobet-Labadié in Marseille—or their collections as the basis for distinguished museums. They have bequeathed us the fruits of their connoisseurship—the objects they bought for themselves and those they purchased on behalf of others. They appear to us both as figures of their time and—for they were often of modest means, and went against the grain in their collecting and their tastes—as figures out of time: prophets, loners, contrarians.
Often their stories are known, but known only to a handful of experts: fellow curators, art historians who have taken interest in following a spoor, researchers into provenances who note that a certain name keeps recurring, writers of memoirs who, toward the end of a busy life, take time to set down their favorite anecdotes of their contemporaries. But these anecdotes perhaps turn out to have been embellished or, as we now say, tweaked. We long for better evidence, for genuine documentation. We have enjoyed the anecdotes; now we want the facts.
How did the late Victorian painters Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon (a celebrated same-sex couple of their day) manage, on an income that seldom exceeded £1,000 a year, to put together a collection of drawings which, when bequeathed, formed the core of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s holdings in Cambridge? Who was W.R. Valentiner, who brought to Detroit not only the traditions of Prussian museum-craft and connoisseurship, but also the spirit of Expressionist Berlin? Whose house is it we are entering when we cross the threshold of the wonderful Van der Bergh Museum in Antwerp? And who was the Stibbert of the Stibbert (in Florence)?
In the Avery Memorial wing of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut—the preamble alone sounds stuffy—there is an elegant courtyard that represents the first American museum interior in the International Style. And in the middle of this courtyard there is a pool with a fountain, featuring a magnificent marble group of Venus with a nymph, a satyr, and two dolphins, signed and dated 1600 by the Mannerist sculptor Pietro Francavilla. One could imagine the architect of the courtyard, with its cool rectilinear themes, tearing his hair out at the insertion of such a sculpture, and such a pool, into his ensemble. Surely the site calls out for a sympathetic abstract work? But it turns out that the designer of this interior, which opened in 1934, was the same man who bought the sculpture and devised the shape of the pool: the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum at the time, Chick Austin.
The architect of the Avery Memorial, Robert B. O’Connor of the New York firm Morris & O’Connor, had the task of pleasing both the conventional trustees and the unconventional director. For the exterior he followed orders from above and used a simplified, but nevertheless ornamented, Beaux-Arts style. For the interior he took his instructions from Chick Austin, a man five years his junior, who was not a trained architect and whose knowledge of the International Style was very recent indeed. Had Austin followed his own original plan, the new wing would have had courtyards in various historical styles, perhaps rather as in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Cleveland Museum of Art. But he had just read a work called Modern Architecture: Romanticism and Reintegration (1929) by the young American Henry-Russell Hitchcock, and he wanted to be out there in the vanguard with Gropius, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe.
What made Austin exceptional was not his enthusiasm for the latest thing in architecture, but his combination of that enthusiasm with an appreciation of such disprized styles as Mannerism and the Baroque. When Austin began work at Hartford, Mannerism had hardly been defined as a style rather than as a fault, the critics had hardly called their dogs off the Baroque. Having been educated at Harvard, he knew that the Francavilla group was on deposit at the Fogg Museum, whose assistant director, Paul Sachs, very much wanted to buy it, but whose director, Edward Waldo Forbes, was dead set against it, saying, “We cannot have that naked woman in the middle of a Harvard building.” So it remained stored in a basement, next to the men’s room of the Fogg.
Nakedness (rather than Mannerism) was an issue at Hartford as well, when it came to the discussion of Francavilla’s marble, but throughout at least the first part of Eugene Gaddis’s biography of Austin, the great and the good of Hartford in the 1930s come across as reasonably enlightened types who are prepared to venture a little onto the wilder shores of art, whether it be Modernism or Mannerism. Here is Robert Huntington, head of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, on the question whether Francavilla’s group could be placed where it might be seen from the street:
I believe that the nude cannot be justly criticized inside of a museum. Nobody has to come in and see it if they don’t want to. Whether we have reached the point of artistic appreciation in this country when the trustees can venture to put it where it will meet the gaze of the passer-by, I do not know. If the trustees think that the group is beautiful enough, I think I would be willing to take a chance, but I don’t think that, without seeing it, we ought to be called on to vote.
In early 1933, the Atheneum board’s representatives visited the Fogg, and in due course the purchase went ahead. It was a brilliant acquisition in every sense. A bargain at $12,000, the group was not only, as Gaddis notes, later recognized as the finest Italian Mannerist sculptures in America—it is one of the finest of all Italian sculptures there. Austin called it “the most beautiful object of its kind which I have ever seen in America,” and he was right. Paul Sachs knew this at the time, and, anticipating its loss to the Fogg, wrote, “Chick is a pretty wise boy. If that statue is set up in the central court of the Wadsworth Atheneum instead of on the central court of the Fogg Museum, you may look for me in Hartford sitting under the statue in a broken down condition and in tears.”
The ability to combine an appreciation of completely disparate styles—Baroque and early abstract painting, Mannerist sculpture and the International Style, early music and the very latest compositions—seems to be typical of Chick Austin, and it elevates our interest in him rather beyond the level it would otherwise have reached. As an architect and decorator in past styles, he rather resembles that eccentric Welsh figure Clough Williams-Ellis, who constructed the fantasy village of Portmeirion on the North Wales Coast. Austin, in a Palladian phase in 1930, chose to build himself a house in Hartford after a design by Palladio’s pupil Scamozzi. But then, for the upstairs rooms of this fantasy, he turned to the Bauhaus. And he did this, as Gaddis reminds us, only a year after Richard Neutra’s Lovell house in Los Angeles. The upshot was a house whose exterior and reception rooms were a scandal to those of his friends (Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson among them) who would most admire the upstairs interior. As Philip Johnson put it in 1984:
Of course none of us could stand his house. We wouldn’t do a copy of a Palladian house, heavens no. The least we could do was copy Gropius. Today every architect I know wouldn’t think of building a house without going through his books of Palladio first. And there it sits on Scarborough—a postmodern house, if you please, fifty years ago.
But while it is amusing to identify Austin as a postmodernist operating before the triumph of modernism, it is perhaps better to establish him first as a figure of his time, rather than a figure out of time—in order, at least, to see if that tells us something about the times he actually lived in.
For of course we are all figures of our time. Nobody is born out of time. Nobody is before his time. It is only a figure of speech that suggests the opposite. If we say that Mannerism and the Baroque were disprized styles in the 1930s (which is what I just did), we must nevertheless add that in February 1930 Austin, a young museum director with a reputation to make, put on in Hartford a show called “Italian Painting of the Sei- and Settecento,” and that this show was seen by 27,000 people in two weeks and was a critical success.
Agnes Mongan, a friend of Austin and later director of the Fogg, said of him: “His influence was profound. It was Chick who started a whole American generation looking at Guercino, Feti, Strozzi—all those people who had never been regarded before—and he bought brilliantly!” Of one such purchase, a Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Bernardo Strozzi, acquired in 1931, Mongan said: “When he bought that Strozzi, he had all kinds of museum directors saying, ‘What can I buy that will be as beautiful as that?’” Both of these remarks, made decades later, imply that there was an audience ready to listen to Austin in the 1930s, ready to be convinced.
And it might be that a part of this audience consisted of people who had never been entirely convinced by, or satisfied with, the canon of Italian art as preached by such figures as Ruskin or Charles Eliot Norton, who had never benefited from, or wanted to subscribe to, the tuition in art history as practiced in Harvard since the 1870s. When Agnes Mongan remarked that people like Guercino had never been regarded before, what she meant was that such painters had not been highly regarded by the teachers she grew up with, for whom the Primitives and the Early Renaissance artists were the objects of greatest reverence and esteem. But that does not mean that such artists were never highly regarded in America.
The object of Edith Wharton’s satire in her novella False Dawn, Mr. Halston Raycie, is a man who in the 1840s sends his son to Italy in the hope that he will bring back some works of art, and who is frustrated when the son buys into the Primitives. What the father had hoped for is made clear in this passage:
Yes, my dear Lewis, I wish to create a gallery: a gallery of Heirlooms. Your mother participates in this ambition—she desires to see on our walls a few original specimens of the Italian genius. Raphael, I fear, we can hardly aspire to; but a Domenichino, an Albano, a Carlo Dolci, a Guercino, a Carlo Maratta—one or two of Salvator Rosa’s noble landscapes …you see my idea?
But Lewis Raycie breaks his father’s heart by coming home with a Carpaccio and a Giotto. (He is based in part on the historical figure of Thomas Jefferson Bryan, who in a “false dawn” of enlightened taste opened “the Bryan Gallery of Christian Art” in New York in 1852.) The vulgar notion of Italian genius had indeed included Guercino and the Carracci and Guido Reni. And it may well be that among the crowds who flocked to Austin’s show of Baroque paintings there were people who, in their unreformed way, had always thought that this was what great art ought to look like.
Born in 1900, in Brookline, Massachusetts, Arther Everett Austin Jr., known as Chick, was a clever but unmotivated student who was on the verge of failure at Harvard when he was saved by the kind attentions of George Reisner, who offered him work on an archaeological dig in Egypt and the Sudan. Austin went out via Europe, which he already knew a little from childhood, and where he saw among other things a large show of Baroque paintings at the Pitti Palace in Florence. Gaddis tells us that Chick had been attracted to the style by a course run by Chandler Post at Harvard, “Art and Culture of Spain,” in which Post had used a newly acquired painting by Ribera to illustrate the technical brilliance of seventeenth-century painting. This detail alone tells us that the Fogg collection had broadened in scope since its inception in 1895, when the emphasis had been firmly on early Italian painting.
After Austin returned from Egypt and was taken under the wing of Edward Forbes, what he was set to learn was the technical side of tempera panel painting and fresco. He was sent to Italy, Gaddis tells us, to study with restorers and copyists and learn the techniques of the old masters. This involved meeting among others a restorer called Federigo Ioni—to all intents and purposes a master forger—and learning to make plausible gold-ground paintings.
The imagination strains somewhat at the thought of these young Harvard men sent out by Forbes to mingle among the art underworld and learn the tricks of the trade. Indeed, Forbes’s own course on technique at Harvard seems to have aimed to impart skills to the students that it would have taken an apprentice in the Renaissance several years to attain. In addition to this, and the more conventional aspects of art history, Austin and his contemporaries, who included such figures as James Rorimer and Alfred H. Barr Jr. (future directors of the Met and MoMA respectively), attended a museum course run by Paul Sachs, whose subjects included “cajoling trustees, courting donors, matching wits with dealers, organizing exhibitions” and so on. At this he must have excelled, since Forbes soon placed him, by dint of a warm recommendation, at the head of the Wadsworth Atheneum. And with that, as if a gun had been fired in the air, Chick Austin was off.
His first exhibition, called “Distinguished Works of Art,” was put together in a month—everything he did was precipitous—and consisted simply of any great paintings he could lay his hands on. Readers of Gaddis’s book will note the close connection that Austin always maintained between the commercial dealers and the museums he worked for: from the start, the idea was encouraged that if several works in a given show were for sale, that might encourage local collectors. Today, when items shown by museums in special exhibitions turn out to be for sale, the practice is often considered disreputable. But Austin made a point of working hand in glove with dealers such as Duveen and Durlacher, and his success would no doubt have been less striking if he had not done so.
A “Venetian Fête” followed, the first ball to be held in the Atheneum, for which Austin painted the backdrops himself with views of Venice, and persuaded Hartford society (the Lyman Brainerds, the Morgan Brainards, the Morgan Bulkeleys, the Dexter Coffins—euphonious names to a foreign reader) to dress up in fantastic costumes before being introduced to his second show of modern French masters—anything from Degas to Matisse and Picasso. Seldom has society been so lavishly buttered up for the sake of art.
Hartford took to the excitement of the new regime in good spirit, and Austin was clever for a while in making people think it worthwhile to give the unapproachable a try. He began a society called the Friends and Enemies of Modern Music (which has an astonishing record of performances both of modern and of ancient music), which was so called in order to keep a nervous membership happy. The major Surrealist show which he put on was introduced in the most nonchalant way to readers of the Hartford Times:
These pictures which you are going to see are chic. They are entertaining. They are of the moment. We do not have to take them too seriously to enjoy them. We need not demand necessarily that they be important. Many of them are humorous and we can laugh at them. Some of them are sinister and terrifying but so are the Tabloids. It is much more satisfying aesthetically to be amused, to be frightened even, than to be bored by a pompous and empty art which has become enfeebled through constant repetition of outmoded formulae.
Whether the Surrealists themselves would have approved of this cajoling or not, it certainly reads refreshingly today. And I am not sure it was wrong to call Surrealism chic, entertaining, and of the moment.
Austin, who had been a happy acknowledged bisexual in a bohemian Harvard milieu, married into Hartford society, and there are two versions of why. Virgil Thomson, who knew him well, said that although Austin didn’t need money, because his parents were quite well off, “social position, or family placement, so to speak, in a town like Hartford was very important to him.” His biographer finds this surprising coming from a friend, and argues that Austin’s desires were more complicated than that. No doubt they were, but that desire for social position was a part of the complication. He wanted to live in a palace and have the town at his feet. He built the palace. He became the master of ceremonies, the arbiter elegantiae, the genius always on display. And Hartford went along with it—liked it very much when he put the town on the map and reminded them of the days when Mark Twain was alive. And his wife seems to have liked it very much, and she bore him two children, and seems not to have understood at first the fact that Austin came to need, at least once a year, to get well away from his marriage.
The high point, from the professional point of view, was the successful premiere of Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts at the opening of the Avery Memorial wing in 1934. The problems began shortly afterward, when Austin attempted a repeat of his success with the Venetian Fête, in the form of a “Paper Ball,” for which Pavel Tchelitchew transformed that cool Modernist courtyard into a kind of circus tent. At the climax of the festivities a troop of “poets” arrived, including Parker Tyler and the novelist Charles Henri Ford, heavily made up and dressed as cowboys and Indians. A certain Mrs. Hector Prud’homme remarked perceptively that they were simply “nasty young men…kind of gay cowboys with false eyelashes, who did not go down well with me and my friends.”
It was all right for Hartford to become the center of attention, and win praise internationally for its artistic ventures. What was not all right was for Hartford to be overrun by a certain kind of New York beastliness (the photograph of the troop of “poets” on page 306 explains everything). It was all right for Austin to spend largeish sums of money on old masters (the sums were never very large) and small sums on modern art. It was not all right for him apparently to lose interest in his role as museum director in favor of running the theater, with himself as lead actor, in interminable productions of Hamlet and, with deliberate provocation, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore (interminable because Austin, for all his flare at building and designing sets, could never master the art of the quick scene-change).
However brilliantly Austin knew how to win Hartford over at the start, he showed no resources at all when his relationship with the town, and with the society that supported and ran his museum, got a bit bumpy. He began to feel trapped. He became bitter and self-pitying and, one is sorry to say about such an absorbing character, somewhat ridiculous. He took a sabbatical in Hollywood and began paying court to Bette Davis. Finally he was told to take a lifetime sabbatical.
Forbes came to his rescue once again, and secured this nearly broken man what should have been a perfect position for his talents (which included that of being a first-rate magician). He went to run the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, to bring its paintings back from the verge of decay. Cancer was soon to kill him. He lived with a boyfriend who adored him, but whom none of his friends apparently could stand. Eugene Gaddis, in this biography, doesn’t have much time for him either, and records his last years in a rather curt footnote.
Gaddis is archivist and curator of the Austin house, that Scamozzi villa on Scarborough Street. He has found so much good material that he almost satisfies our interest in the story. Were there still a museum course at Harvard preparing ambitious young men and women to slip into positions of power in all the art institutions of the land, as the group that once met at Paul Sachs’s house were groomed for power, no doubt this book would provide the basis for many a heated discussion: Where did Austin go wrong with the trustees? What can we learn from his example? But perhaps what he had cannot be taught: nonchalance, grace, sprezzatura, and—while it lasted—the devil’s own luck.