The Dial: Arts and Letters in the 1920s

Worcester Art Museum / Worcester

(Originally published in Art New England, Volume 11 Number 5, April 1981.)

The Dial was a literary magazine that during the 1920s published such icons of Modernism as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Hart Crane’s At Brooklyn Bridge, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture reproduced for the first time in America in this magazine make up The Dial Collection. It includes paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, and Vuillard; nervous line drawings by  Klimt, Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele: smooth bronzes by Gaston Lachaise; drawings by e.e cummings and other literary figures; prints by Munch, Vlaminck, and Marc; and an airy Marin seascape.

These 150 works were purchased in Europe by Schofield Thayer, a Dial editor and native of Worcester. He was a Henry Jamesian character who went abroad in search of old knowledge and new art. Thayer was attracted to Modernism’s decorative, decorous aspects. The pictures he bought were somewhat less earth-moving and more tasteful than the poems he published. But some of the works are wonderful.

In Matisse‘s Nasturtiums and the Dance, the geometry of floors and chair gives structure to the luminous blue, green, and pink shapes of the plant and the lyrical curves of the dancers’ limbs.  A  late Cezanne color lithograph, The Bathers, is a sunny, golden-age vision of men bathing in a mountain valley. The sharp, angular, rock-hewn mountain fives to the wavelike branches of cedar trees and the yearning curves of clouds and young men’s limbs a poignant, difficult grace. The forms are built up slowly in tiny brushstrokes that embody both the artist’s anxiety and his sureness. The hundreds of lines of ink in thin blacks greens, blues, and brown create a palpable shimmer of intensity and light.

In one of the small Chagall paintings, Under the Moon, a loony green shaft of moonlight falls on the face of a man carrying water. It illuminates the carved wooden beams of houses hung with plants, while lovers, trees, and mystics shiver in the garden, and a road curves into a field.

Thayer shied away from the destructive, vigorous elements in Picasso’s art. He bought only his most classical, harmonious, “beau ideal” compositions. Some of these are very beautiful indeed, especially an exquisite drawing of a boy under an archway and a Rose Period painting, a boy in a lace collar, with a dreamy, self-absorbed luminosity. His delicate hands are held to his body like symbols with a cool, hushed, marble inevitability. Only one of the many works by Picasso, Two Nude Women by the Sea, fully coveys his piercing gaze. The figures in this long drawing are held near the center by four horizontal lines of sea and sky. These lines seem to rip the flesh of space to make way for the bodies of women. They are powerful, abstract marks on the page that contain more than anything else in this exhibition the transforming, heroic vision of early Modernism.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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