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October 17 , 2003

Museum Presents Pontigny Artists

Chagall’s Fiddler, undated woodcut

In the face of Nazi aggression during World War II, many European artists fled to the United States. Among them were the French painters André Masson, a prominent Surrealist, and Marc Chagall, known for his poetic depictions of lovers, fiddlers, fables, and scenes from Jewish village life and the Hebrew Bible. A selection of their prints and drawings can be seen through December 14 at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, in the exhibition Mount Holyoke Encounter: The Artists of Pontigny-in-America.

The exhibition accompanies Artists, Intellectuals, and World War II: The Pontigny Encounters at Mount Holyoke College, 1942–1944, a symposium organized by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, which will take place November 6–8. The symposium celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of the original Pontigny colloquia, which for three consecutive summers brought to the Mount Holyoke campus leading European and American philosophers, social scientists, poets, critics, composers, and artists—among them Masson, Chagall, and the American Robert Motherwell.

The history of modern art underwent a sea change in the years during and after World War II, as the center of the art world gradually shifted from Paris to New York and the star of Abstract Expressionism rose. Mount Holyoke Encounter: The Artists of Pontigny-in-America offers, in miniature, a telling snapshot of this transitional time.

At one end of the stylistic spectrum are several Surrealist prints by Masson. In his 1943 etching and aquatint Le Misanthrope, thick, fluid lines create tense patterns of nervous energy even as they describe the subject’s scowl. At the other end are the entirely nonrepresentational compositions by Abstract Expressionist Motherwell. In his colorful Collage of 1947, for example, interest lies not in figuration but in the lively interplay of patterns and gestural, thickly textured strokes of color. Among the five works by Motherwell are two small studies for his series of paintings commemorating the lives lost during the Spanish Civil War, titled collectively Elegy to the Spanish Republic. Motherwell made more than 100 Elegies, which are famous for their stark, somber compositions of roughly painted black ovals and rectangles set against white grounds. (Also currently on view in the museum lobby is a large wool tapestry from 1965 done after a Motherwell Elegy by Mount Holyoke alumna Gloria Frankenthaler Ross ’44.)

Nine prints by Chagall are on view, many of which, such as Jacob’s Ladder, The Dove of the Ark, and The Sacrifice of Abraham, illustrate stories from the Hebrew Bible. An undated woodcut titled Fiddler is pure Chagall, with its central figure of a bearded fiddler, his face, overcoat, and boots rendered in a loosely Cubist style. The fiddler and a tiny onlooker float dreamily in the foreground; far behind them, puffs of white smoke rise above snow-covered village buildings into the black night. Not surprisingly, considering the all-pervasive influence of Cubism on modern art, echoes of Cubism emerge elsewhere in the show, for example in the harlequin, nude, and guitar appearing in an undated watercolor and gouache titled Studio Interior by the Russian-born French artist Ossip Zadkine.

Rounding out the exhibition are two figurative terracotta sculptures by Henry Rox, a professor of art at Mount Holyoke from 1939 to 1964, and three prints by British Surrealist Stanley William Hayter. For viewers unfamiliar with Hayter’s work, the exhibition offers a concise introduction to the work of this master printmaker, who lived in both Paris and New York. Rendered with swirling, threadlike lines that here and there coalesce into a thumb, a shin, a shoulder blade, the abstracted, trapped-looking figure in Hayter’s etching and engraving Cronos(1944) evokes complex, tortured emotional states.

A panel discussion, "From Surrealism to Abstraction," will take place Friday, November 7, at 1:30 pm in the Art Building’s Gamble Auditorium, as part of Artists, Intellectuals, and World War II. Participants include Romy Golan, art department, City University of New York; art critic Jed Perl, the New Republic; Mary Ann Caws, comparative literature department, City University of New York; and Robert Herbert, Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts, Mount Holyoke.

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