Review: UMMA's "Europe on Paper: The Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection"
Europe on Paper at the University of Michigan Museum of Art certainly delivers everything it says in its title. But as is often the case at the UMMA, there’s a lot more to this exhibit than meets the eye.
For the display is a handful of seriously handsome artworks on paper. And as Lehti Mairike Keelmann, UMMA Assistant Curator of Western Art says in her introduction to the exhibit:
[T]he 47 prints, drawings, and watercolors comprising the Ernst Pulgram and Francis McSparran Collection provide a unique perspective on a momentous change in European history.
The works were made between the 18th and mid-20th century,” says Keelmann, “as the continent industrialized and new modes of transportation began to crisscross the countryside, connecting growing cities. Geopolitical tensions arose as nations attempted to bolster their identities on the world stage, culminating in the violence and turmoil of the two world wars.
And as if these geopolitical upheavals weren’t dramatic enough, there was pretty good art being made all over the place, too. That’s where Pulgram and McSparran come into play. A young and adventurous couple as they had to be, they consistently evaluated and scooped up some of the finest personalized art of this explosive period through their lifetimes.
This is the first time UMMA has mounted the entirety of the Pulgram-McSparran Collection in one setting. Prior selective treats were mounted during March 2005 and April 2009 when UMMA showed us a clutch of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele masterworks. So we’ve been given glimpses of the works comprising this bequest, but Europe on Paper is the first time we’ve been able to place these artworks in their accessorial context.
And what a magnificent context this is. The Pulgram-McSparran Collection is far superior in its totality than in its parts—even if these parts are pretty spectacular in their own right. This exhibit gives us a glimpse of the fine art of fine arts collecting and the finer art of fine arts connoisseurship.
For it takes both a discerning eye and an equally clever checkbook to amass the concise quality of the art found in this collection. Because anyone of sufficient means can purchase art, but it remains for the talented eye to know which work to access and which work to pass on.
As such, Pulgram and McSparran are astoundingly astute—as well as shrewd—because there are only a few times in any century when the mass of a certain kind of aesthetic congregates in a single generation. In other words, to have the precise judgment at the precise time is just as important (if not more so) than knowing what to collect.
With deep enough pockets (as many current multinational corporations are doing at this very time), collecting becomes merely a matter of selectively pruning what’s available on the auction block and/or private market. So what Pulgram and McSparran did together is close to a sort of genius—a very personal enjoying your cake while you eat it, too.
As the art in this exhibit shows us in kind, paper is a notoriously impulsive artistry as painting carries the veneer of a concentrated cache and the commercial standard for sculpture is higher. Collecting paper is typically (if not also paradoxically) less expensive, but the atmosphere is also a bit more rarefied.
Works on paper—and Europe on Paper fully illustrates this fact—is a far more evanescent artistry. Typically executed quickly, there’s the sheer volume to contend with. Thus the virtuosity of the connoisseur of paper lies in sensing (both by appearance and artist) which of these paper works is worth the investment. Each work has the possibility—perhaps even the probability—to appreciate; but like anything else in life, some relative equals are going to be more equal than others.
Since the handiwork is executed with emotional dispatch (printmaking, is of course, somewhat different), there’s more volume to contend with—and so are the odds of missing the work that will bear the passage of time.
To purchase so securely and knowledgeably is akin to having an intuitive hot streak at the proverbial roulette table. There will always be the work that got away—just as there will be the work that bears the compromise. What’s most remarkable about this exhibit is the uniform quality of the art itself.
Back to the period that Pulgram and McSparran chose to collect: Shortly before and through the aftermath of World War I, European art was undergoing a transition that has only a few counterparts in the history of art. For say what one wishes about Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, the stature of the art and the artist in both of these movements was as much of a market contrivance as it was a furor that swept the art world before it.
To make an unfair and perhaps even unseemly analogy, the challenge of German Expressionism in this period to what came before it can only be compared to the challenge of punk music to the established orthodoxies of studio-based progressive rock and disco of the late 20th century. Like the nowhere young musicians of those bloated rock and pop eras, these (largely) German artists challenged the hegemony of the establishment artists in their time with a vivid energy that the more established talents only postured.
Now a century later, the sheer vivacious nervousness of these Expressionist artists strikes a chord that not only rattled the art world of their time but has also set a standard that still has to be responded to if only for its uncompromising and unflinching audacity. Pulgram and McSparran clearly had their finger on the pulse of the period.
Art and scandal were the order of the German Expressionist day. Working from a subjective perspective, this Expressionism sought to evoke emotion rather than emulate the cooler objectivity of the Impressionist and academy schools. Taking hints from Post-Impressionists Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin—both of whose penchant for primitivism and experimental use of color left them largely unappreciated until after their death—these youthful German and Austrian artists took to these insights with an artful vengeance largely unmatched in the annals of art history.
The names found in the Pulgram and McSparran Collection now reads like a who’s who of German and Austrian Expressionism: Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oscar Kokoschka, George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Christian Rohlfs, and Emil Nolde. Among the important art movements represented are Dresden’s Die Brücke; Mannheim’s Neue Sachlichkeit; and Vienna’s Secession.
The works themselves are too rich to be trotted out by line and verse. But it is good to note the return of Klimt’s 1903-04 “Standing Female Nude,” 1907 “Female Nude Reclining,” and an undated blue crayon on paper, “Seated Female Nude—From Behind,” are all intimate examples of his supple, feminine anatomical studies.
Likewise, Schiele’s 1908 watercolor “Nude Woman Lying Back,” 1912 watercolor and pencil on paper “Female Nude Standing,” and especially the 1912 “Female Nude on a Tight Rope” are all notable as much for their zest as their dramatic fervor. Just as his “Standing Female Nude—Back” charcoal and pen drawing of the first quarter of the 20th century is a marvel in its confident concision.
Slightly more compromising (but not by much), is Emile Nolde’s "Actress," a 1912 watercolor on brown wove medium-weight paper. An ostensive nod to the explorations in chromaticity being studied by artists at that time, Nolde manages the remarkable feat of blending his expression with a precise painterly abstraction. “Actress” may well be the masterwork of this masterly exhibit.
But lest we forget that art and capital is at the fore here—given the exhibit’s division into thirds: “The Natural World and the Metropolis”; “The Spiritual and the Sinister”; and “The Human Body and its Conditions”—there’s the intriguing addition of a prime Giovanni Battista Piranesi engraving printed in black ink on paper dating back to 1762 tucked discretely in a corner of the UMMA’s A. Alfred Taubman Gallery.
“The Senate and People of Rome: The marble monuments of the magistrates and triumphant generals of Rome from the founding of the city to the time of divine Augustus, excavated from the rubble of the Forum and places on the Capitoline Hill at the expense of Alessandro Farnese. Grandson of Pope Paul III” shows us a graphic complexity that easily rivals its title. This magnificent print clearly tells us Pulgram and McSparran weren’t above snagging an unquestionable masterwork outside their typical range when the opportunity presented itself.
There’s only one appropriate word for this kind of connoisseurship … bravo!
John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: "Europe on Paper: The Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection” runs through January 29, 2017.