Exploring Harvard's Artistic Past


The Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, 1929-1936

at the Fogg Art Museum

through March 7

In 1929 three undergraduates formed the Harvard Society for Contemporary Art to give Boston its first taste of modern art.

Sixty-three years later, a Harvard undergraduate has put together a small but fascinating exhibition at the Fogg that celebrates the artistic vision of this student group.


When Joanna Dreifus '94, a fine arts concentrator, approached Fogg director James Cuno last year about a summer job, Cuno suggested she might be interested in working on an exhibition about the society. "They were planning to have this exhibition, which was going to be small...enough to be manageable for me," Dreifus explains. "And also the subject matter of it--an undergraduate organization that exhibited modern art in the early 1930s--[he felt] it would be appropriate for an undergraduate to be working on it."

To plan the exhibition, Dreifus first had to "just kind of get general information about what the society was." Nicholas Fox Weber's Patron Saints: Five Rebels Who Opened America to a New Art, 1928-1943 provided much of the necessary background. "[The book] is about these Harvard undergraduates that...paved the way for a greater appreciation of modern art," Dreifus says. "Then from there, I looked in the archives of the Fogg. They had a lot of documentary materials from the society that were just tucked away in these folders that hadn't been opened in 60 years."

In the course of her research, Dreifus discovered just how extraordinary the members of the Society were. She says, "Lincoln Kirstein, who was one of the original founders, would write on the...catalogs that they produced for each exhibition--he would write these very bold and brash statements [saying] modern art today means this and that. These were all very bold things for an undergraduate to be doing, but for [the society]--it was just in them to do it. It's not something many people do today."

Dreifus describes how the group operated: "It was...a small group that did everything themselves. They rented out two rooms at the Coop...They arranged to borrow the works of art, they hung them up, they were even the security guards during the exhibitions--they would sit there with their homework on their laps. It was entirely student-run."

For a student-run organization, it was very well-connected. Not only were members of the Society able to borrow works from collections like that of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, members were "even friendly with the artists themselves," Dreifus says. "For example, Alexander Calder, the wire sculptor, had a solo exhibition for the Harvard Society. They invited him to Harvard to construct everything here and exhibit it. And he stayed with Eddie Warburg, who was one of the men in the society. He stayed in his room in Holworthy and...constructed everything there."

After graduation, the members of the Society continued their involvement in the arts. "These men who were in the Society--one of them went on to found the New York City Ballet, and they were responsible for a lot of foreign artists immigrating to the United States. So they were real revolutionaries," Dreifus says.

Once she finished researching the project, Dreifus had to decide what to display. "We were going to be exhibiting materials from the archives, but we also wanted to show the kinds of works [the society] exhibited at the time...So I went through the catalogs at the Fogg and picked out things for the exhibition and then did research on those works of art and the artists, so I could write the text for the labels on the walls."

Entitled The Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, 1929-1936, the exhibition includes works by Picasso, Matisse and Lachaise--artists whose talents were first introduced to Boston by the society. Dreifus also incorporates brochures printed by the society, newspaper articles about their exhibitions and correspondence between members of the society and their influential patrons. Dreifus' texts are intriguing and descriptive, giving visitors a glimpse into a more idealistic world.

One thing missing from the display is photographs of the society's actual exhibitions. Dreifus asked John P. Coolidge '35, who was one of the Society's undergraduate executives, about the lack of existing photographs. "He said, `Well, you know, Joanna, if you were to go to the athletic building right now for a swim or something, would you take a picture of it?' It [was] just something they were doing...They didn't realize at the time how historic it would be, or how revolutionary."

The Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, 1929-1936 is well worth seeing, if not for the art itself, then at least for its Harvard connection. Dreifus' exhibition is as much the story of a few Harvard kids struggling to bring a new vision to a resistant world as it is a moment in the history of modern art.

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