The Philadelphia Museum of Art today announced its acquisition of the Julien Levy collection of photographs, a trove of nearly 2000 images amassed by one of the most influential and colorful proponents of modern art and photography in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. More than 130 artists are represented in the collection, which bears witness to the Julien Levy Gallery's activities on behalf of photography in New York from 1931 through 1948 and contains major and little known works by American and European photographers active between the World Wars. It includes a superb group of 362 works by the French photographer Eugène Atget (1857-1927) and prime examples by the American masters Anne Brigman (1868-1950), Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), Man Ray (1890-1976), Paul Outerbridge (1896-1959), and Lee Miller (1907-1977). In the important group of photographs by European practitioners are works by artists closely associated with the advent of Surrealism, among them Max Ernst (1891-1976), Dora Maar (1907-1999), Roger Parry (1905-1977), Maurice Tabard (1897-1984), and Umbo (1902-1980).
The Museum acquired the collection in part as a gift from Levy's widow, Jean Farley Levy, and with a major contribution from longtime Philadelphia residents and philanthropists Lynne and Harold Honickman.
Anne d'Harnoncourt, Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Museum, said: "We are thrilled that this acquisition was made possible by these two splendid gifts. Mrs. Levy chose this museum to realize her wish to see the Julien Levy collection find a home that illuminates its crucial place in history. As philanthropists and collectors in Philadelphia, Lynne and Harold Honickman immediately recognized the Levy collection's beauty, importance, and the eloquent dialogue that it would find here and offered their assistance in bringing about this happy marriage. In this way, together, we are restoring Levy's close association with Marcel Duchamp and Alfred Stieglitz, whose works are at the core of the Museum's holdings, and celebrating Levy's pivotal role in the story of modern art and photography in a compelling context.
"This is a terrific boost to our 125th anniversary drive for great works of art, headed by Museum Trustee Harvey S. Shipley Miller to enrich the collections for the benefit of our visitors, the greater Philadelphia region, and for future generations," added Ms. d'Harnoncourt. "The timing of this acquisition could not be better, because our recently appointed Curator of Photographs, Katherine Ware, will bring her expertise in Modernist and Surrealist photography to exploring and presenting this remarkable collection."
Ms. Ware noted: "The Levy material would be a prize if it consisted entirely of its group of Atget prints alone. Together with the photographer Berenice Abbott, it was Levy who helped to rescue Atget's photographs at a crucial moment when they could have been lost forever. These pictures, including some of his rare arrowroot prints, now place the Museum among this country's top resources for the study and display of Atget. In addition, the collection greatly expands our small but choice holdings of works by European photographers and augments with exceptional prints our renowned holdings of works by the Stieglitz circle, notably Paul Strand, Frank Eugene, and Gertrude Käsebier."
"We are delighted to help bring the Levy Collection and the Museum together," commented Lynne and Harold Honickman. "Our gift enables us to express our commitment to the mission of the Museum at a remarkable moment in its history. When an incomparable collection such as Levy's is acquired by the Museum, it helps to create a new awareness of the medium and opens this unique field to the inquiry of a larger public. We are also aware that by strengthening cultural resources here in Philadelphia, we are contributing something rich and permanent to our own community."
Mrs. Honickman is a member of the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Committee of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Trustee of the Honickman Foundation. Mr. Honickman is owner of Canada Dry Delaware Valley Bottling Company and Board Chairman of Pepsi Cola National Brands, Inc.
Julien Levy (1906-1981) emerged in the 1930s as a prominent New York art dealer who mounted the first exhibition in New York to be devoted to Surrealism and was a major proponent of photography. His commitment to Surrealism set the stage for the first m useum exhibition on the subject, at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. He obtained his early training at the Weyhe Gallery in New York, as an assistant to Carl Zigrosser who later became curator of prints and drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1927, Levy traveled to Paris with Duchamp to join the lively interchange among American expatriates and European artists. He opened his gallery in 1931 in New York at age 25. As he recalled it in 1977: "I privately adopted Marcel Duchamp and Alfred Stieglitz as godfathers."
In addition to holding exhibitions devoted to painters Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, and Yves Tanguy, Levy boldly exhibited the photographs of Strand, Man Ray (1890-1976), Brassaï (1899-1964), André Kertész (1894-1985), and László Moholy-Nagy (1894-1946), among others. Among the artists for whom he gave first exhibitions are the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), who was also the subject of a series of Levy's own photographs, and photographer Lee Miller, for whom he organized the only solo exhibition of her lifetime. Levy also launched the career of the American Surrealist artist Joseph Cornell, who is represented in the collection by three intriguing examples of his boxes, two of which contain photographic portraits of Julien Levy while another contains an image of the artist and poet Mina Loy, mother of Levy's first wife.
Among the individual highlights of the collection is Atget's Versailles (1914), an albumen print that represents with startling immediacy the stone figure of a river god in the gardens of the French palace. Side of White Barn (1917), a seminal image taken by Sheeler in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, was among the works that later prompted Edward Steichen to say, "Sheeler was objective before the rest of us were." A surprise in the collection is a group of evocative Pictorialist images, including Heart of the Storm (1915), by Brigman, a California photographer whose prints were collected by Stieglitz and published in Camera Work. Also notable is a still from the 1929 Surrealist film, Un Chien andalou (The Andalusian Dog), a landmark collaboration of Dalí with filmmaker Luis Buñuel.
Portions of the Levy collection were acquired by The Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1970s. The collection has remained a remarkable body of work in terms of its breadth and quality. In offering the collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mrs. Levy expressed her respect for its importance as "a record of my husband's contribution to history, one that is so at home with the important modern art collections at the Philadelphia Museum of Art."