PRINT September 1966

The Hodes Collection

BARNET HODES, A LAWYER by profession, former counsel of the City of Chicago and active in various civic affairs acquired some of his first paintings in the ’40s, a Villon and a Braque among others. Association in Paris with one of his clients, William Copley, brought him his first close contact with Surrealism. The works in Copley’s collection were a revelation in themselves but of equal or even greater importance was the personal contact with the artists of the movement. Hodes’ professional background, coupled with an inherent tendency for investigation, led to an exploration of the configuration of Surrealist ideas, an investigation which gradually broadened in scope and became more intensified. Collecting seemed to be a logical part of the process but the paintings, drawings, collages, photo grams and then sculpture soon assumed a role of central importance rather than an adjunctival position.

The irrational, the incongruous, the ambiguous, mystery, hallucinations and fantasy all stand in marked contrast with the clear, logical pursuit of order to be found in the practice of law. Part of Hodes’ interest may be attributed to a natural fascination with qualities in such sharp contrast to those with which he was accustomed. Still, it was the ideal of individual freedom, toward which the Surrealists aimed, an ideal often couched in extreme and far-fetched terms, which caught and held him. If, as they claimed, this end could be served by fusing dream and reality it represented a new and different means of fulfillment. Of the two branches of Surrealism, the one based on elements of chance and accident and which makes use of the various automatic devices had less appeal than the other, which depends on sharp, clear images. Although the whole range is included in the collection, it is the latter which has received greater emphasis. Interestingly, the two phases seem to merge in Arp who is well represented with collages, reliefs and sculpture and which seem quite at home, with their precision and finesse.

An interest in people and the effort sometimes involved in acquiring various pieces often and naturally led to the artist, and a number of highly valued relationships with them have been the result. Since Surrealism has utilized every possible form for its ideas and since often such ideas are expressed as much through the artist’s personality—his own creation, equal to or more important than his other works—such relationships are a valuable part of the collection. A tour with Hodes elicits his enthusiastic response not only to the works but to the artist as well.

Two restrictions on the growing collection served as valuable guidelines as taste developed. To give direction to the collecting, a specific goal was established: Hodes set out to acquire one example of work from each of the artists who had participated in the first collective Surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Pierre in 1925. Secondly, because of space limitations, chosen works had to be small—most pieces were small enough to be “carried away” from the gallery or studio immediately upon purchase. The two limitations actually worked together to build a collection in which all of the major Surrealists and a considerable number of the others, ranging from the minor to the very obscure are comprehensively represented.

The limitation on size, however, was soon broken, and several of the Magrittes, Ernsts, a Delvaux, an Arp and a Wilfredo Lam are all large works, as is a wall-sized Matta.

A roster of the artists in the 1925 exhibition of course included de Chirico, Picasso, Arp, Klee, Miró, André Masson, Max Ernst, Man Ray and Pierre Roy, all of whom were represented by two paintings. Since the goal which Hodes had set called for a representative example by each artist (not the exact piece in the first exhibition, which could not always be determined anyway), no extraordinary difficulties were encountered in assembling this group of works, some of which, given the small size limitation, were drawings. De Chirico’s Metaphysical Interior, 1917, is one of his fine paintings, its cluster of objects painted in rich, glowing color; Miró is represented by several pieces, such as Animated Landscape (painted before 1938, when it was exhibited in the Carnegie International) with its stick line character curiously related to his early work. From Ernst there are the tiny collages and frottages from the ’20s, and from the ’40s and ’50s, several of the decalcomania paintings, Enfant Messafine being a major work from 1957.

According to the catalog of the 1925 exhibition each of these artists (except for Pierre Roy) also exhibited drawings, as did four lesser-known artists: Robert Desnos, George Malkine, Kristians Tonny and Dede Sunbeam.

Desnos, the French writer and poet who was known for his version of automatic writing and his “investigations” during the “dream period” of Surrealism, had collaborated with André Breton in doing the preface for the catalog of the exhibition—a juxtaposition of titles and disparate phrases. The watercolor which was acquired has more historic than esthetic interest illustrating as it does the practice of drawing and exhibiting indulged in by many of the Surrealist writers.

George Malkine, a Belgian artist, was another of the group and although his work was reproduced in several of the Surrealist reviews during the late ’20s it remains little known although Marcel Jean has characterized it as “uneven but always curious.” Hodes’ small painting by Malkine is inventive in its grid-like treatment although it is almost artless in its simple expression of Surrealist themes.

The Dutch artist, Kristians Tonny, has also remained obscure and there is little reference to him in Surrealist literature. His work in the collection is an example of his transfer technique (similar to monoprint) and his fine, light line depicts profuse flame-like imagery.

The fourth artist of the group included in the exhibition with drawings was named Dédé Sunbeam. Reproductions in La Révolution Surréaliste (April 1925 and June 1926) seemed to confirm the artist’s existence—or at least an artist who used that somewhat improbable name or pseudonym. Typical of much of the intended obfuscation in which the Surrealists delighted, especially in the early period of the movement, Sunbeam seems to elude discovery and even his existence was called into question. Persistent inquiry had little effect. Duchamp when questioned thought that Sunbeam had been an Englishman; Kay Sage thought Sunbeam had been a woman; others of the group had even forgotten altogether about his (or her) existence. Finally, in 1958, Patrick Waldberg discovered a doctor who had received three drawings by Sunbeam in return for his services, and, according to Waldberg, Sunbeam was the alias for René Dailly. His existence seems to be confirmed yet he remains a shadowy figure at best and the drawing which Hodes obtained, along with those in La Révolution Surréaliste, though it has a slight dreamlike quality, gives little hint about the personality of the artist.

The Sunbeam drawing filled the gap and meant that the goal which Hodes had set was complete. How ever, the momentum which had developed and the interest which had been aroused were not to be allayed and the collection has continued to grow with the addition of works by Cornell, Dominguez, Fini, Bellmer, Hugo, Freddie, sculpture by Arp, Ernst, Giacometti and Picasso, and extending to Dadaists such as Hugnet, Janco, Grosz, Höch, Richter, Picabia, Schad, Schwitters, Tzara, and Duchamp. However it is those artists most markedly influenced by de Chirico, the “pictorialists,” who are most strikingly represented. In addition to Ernst there are Tanguys, all of which show that artist to advantage, one, The Neck Of The Swallow, 1934, seemingly composed of silent sounds. The Hour Of The Erased Face, 1934, is Dalí at his finest, his great facility disciplined and the bare, flat plain painted in restrained tones of grey, mauve and yellow. Delvaux’s The Challenge successfully sustains a haunting, evocative moodless opulent than usual and it gains in quiet power.

Of all the artists represented in the Hodes Collection, it was finally Magritte—who had not been involved in that first Surrealist exhibition at all—who came to have the greatest appeal to Hodes. He is represented by over fifty small gouaches, collages, painted bottles and several large oils, including The Ready Made Bouquet of 1957. Magritte’s ability to hold the reasonable and the irrational in a delicate balance, the enigma in his play of illusion and reality equivocating between logic and the illogical have qualities of the “marvelous,” as Breton stipulated.

A letter from Magritte to Hodes in 1957 clarifies not only the artist’s own position but explains something of the fascination which this collector shares and which, indirectly at least, calls attention to the commitment which is evidenced in the collection. “The art of painting such as I understand it, consists of representing—by means of pictorial technique—unforeseen images which appear to me, either with closed or open eyes. . . . I can do very well without explanation of the things I love. . . . The art of painting, as I conceive it, is neither easy nor difficult. I do know that at some moments, unforeseen images appear to me and that these are the subjects of painting I like to paint. These images seem to dominate my ideas [and] they reveal the present as an absolute mystery.”

Whitney Halstead