As the Phillips honors World Refugee Day and celebrates the opening of The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, we reflect on founder Duncan Phillips’s vision for his museum and his belief in the ability of art to demonstrate our shared humanity. In his essay for the exhibition The American Paintings of The Phillips Collection (April 9–May 30, 1944) at the Phillips Memorial Gallery (as the museum was called then), he wrote about the global language of art and specifically the unique history of American art—we hope that our visitors this summer experience this global connection in our galleries.
Here is an excerpt from his 1944 essay:
“I believe fervently that art is international, a universal means of expression extending across boundaries and overcoming the barriers of trade, race, and language. There has never seemed to be a time when our Gallery was willing to devote all of its unfortunately limited space to either American or European paintings. We have always had loan exhibitions and we have always had rooms in which the pictures have been grouped according to instructive contrasts or affinities without specific reference to national labels. We have felt that the distinctions in our painters both of the past and of the present, gain in significance by being mingled and compared with what is best in the painters of other lands.”
“It is a fact too little known that the bulk of our Collection consists of American paintings. Now and again it may be wise to review what we are assembling. But it is a special event, this exhibition. Our American paintings will hang on the walls of all our galleries and give some idea of the scope of our interests and the character of our choices….”
“American art is only attaining to its maturity in being as free and hospitable as America itself. This has become increasingly true since the start of the second world war in Europe. Celebrities of our Collection (Eugene Berman for instance) who had entered it a few years ago as Europeans have since become American citizens. Recently naturalized Americans from Russia, Hungary, Roumania, and Spain are included in the present exhibition. Now more than ever before American art means international art and the studios of our Cosmopolis can help us in the necessary task of growing world-minds for our manifest destiny. In our country there is bound to be a fusion of various sensitivities, a unification of differences. We can afford to blur the clean cut edge of our creative colloquialisms for the compensating benefit of shedding some of our provincial self satisfactions. Our art, like our national aim, can point the way to a new world of neighborly citizen states in which unity in variety and interdependence are taken for granted.”
“In this brief word of introduction there is no need to write even a condensed opinion on the state of American painting today. Nor is this the place for an outline history of the changes in our reactions to influences form older cultures. Suffice it to say that instead of the exaggerated humility as to our standing as artists which prevailed more or less from 1870 to 1930 (and especially perhaps in the Nineteen-twenties when we were discovering the distinction of our brilliant French contemporaries) and instead of the widespread reaction in the Thirties, which its aggressive chauvinism which propagated the “American Scene,” instead of these opposite extremes of adolescent nationalism in art we are now assimilating world wide aesthetic ideas regarding them as our heritage. All the world contributes to our spiritual and creative resources since all the world is contained in our United States. Realism, romanticism, classicism, impressionism, expressionism, and various phases of abstract constructivism, we have practitioners of all these points of departure and these ancient seeing habits.”
“In the Phillips Memorial Gallery we propose to continue selecting what we consider good examples of the recurring manifestations of art’s perennial many-mindedness….Art, in its most essential social function, would endure as the expression of The Individual and of his kindred spirits.”
The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view through September 22.