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Updated 1:30 PM April 26, 2008
 

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UMMA receives Austrian and German expressionist collection

Works by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka

The U-M Museum of Art (UMMA) has received more than 40 drawings, paintings on paper and prints by some of the most sought after avant-garde artists of the 20th century, including Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. The gifts are from the late Ernst Pulgram, professor emeritus of romance and classical linguistics at the University, and his wife, Frances McSparran, associate professor emerita and chief editor of the Middle English Compendium.
Gustav Klimt, Woman Lying Half Draped, graphite on paper, U-M Museum of Art, Gift of the Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection. (Image courtesy UMMMA)

Pulgram built one of the most personal and exhilarating collections of Austrian and German Expressionist art to be found in private hands, says UMMA Director James Steward. Before his death in 2005 he shared his longtime wish for this remarkable group of works to remain at Michigan.

"It would be difficult to overstate Ernst Pulgram's generosity, sagacity and cultural literacy," Steward says. "The warmth and commitment that he and Frances had and have for our University community is once again shown by their conviction that these exceptional works of art should be actively used and treasured here at Michigan. We are so grateful to him and to Frances for what is truly a priceless and transformative gift to the Museum of Art."

In addition to Schiele, Klimt and Kokoschka, others among the 15 artists represented are Otto Dix, George Grosz, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Christian Rohlfs.

As psychological documents of their time, the drawings, watercolors and prints were considered completed works of art, not preparatory studies. The responsive properties of the media — stylus on paper or plate — allowed the artists a level of immediacy that resulted in works that are extraordinarily intimate and incisive records of a European society in decline — decadent, disenchanted and spiritually bereft. The edgy, angular quality of line and figural distortion combined to create emotionally unsettling compositions that the Nazis branded as degenerate.

Though decidedly out of fashion when Pulgram began collecting, works by Klimt and Schiele, in particular, have risen dramatically in market significance over the last decade. For instance one 1910 Schiele drawing sold in February at auction for $5.7 million. Klimt's iconic 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was acquired for $135 million in 2006 and now hangs in New York's Neue Galerie.

Born in Vienna in 1915, Pulgram completed his doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1938 and shortly thereafter left Austria, following the Nazi annexation of the country. After arriving in the United States in 1939, Pulgram was drafted and served in the Pacific during World War II. He subsequently earned a doctorate in comparative linguistics at Harvard on the G.I. Bill and began teaching at U-M a couple years later. He started to collect in the early 1960s and particularly was drawn to the artists and imagery that reminded him of home — the post-World War I era of the Viennese Secession — and to the purity and economy of line in works on paper.

"More than anything this gift honors Ernst's great appetite for seeing and collecting and his love of this University," McSparran says. "Michigan was Ernst's academic home, and he enjoyed a wonderful and happy scholarly life here. He felt the collection would make an important archive of materials for students and scholars and that the museum and the community would be enriched by it. I know it would give him enormous pleasure to know that we've fulfilled his vision."

The museum plans two future special exhibitions that will feature the collection in its entirety — one of which will help launch the expanded museum at its reopening in 2009, the other later in the year.

Individual works will regularly feature in the collections galleries, subject to rigorous preservation criteria because of their fragility. When not on view, the Pulgram-McSparran collection will be available to scholars, students and other researchers in the future Ernestine Winston Rubin Study Center for Works on Paper.

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