Arturo Schwartz – benefactor to art and Israel

Arturo Schwartz carried on a long-time friendship and correspondence with pioneering Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp (above).Italian art collector Arturo Schwartz, the son of non-observant Jewish parents, was a strong backer of Israel and showed his support by donating his immense …

Arturo Schwartz carried on a long-time friendship and correspondence with pioneering Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp (above).Italian art collector Arturo Schwartz, the son of non-observant Jewish parents, was a strong backer of Israel and showed his support by donating his immense collection of Dada and Surrealist art to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem in 1998.

The collection, accumulated over Schwartz’s years as an art historian, lecturer, art consultant and curator of international art exhibitions in Milan, is composed of more than 700 works by such Surrealist artists as Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Jean Arp. The works include paintings, sculptures, objects, drawings, prints, collages and photographs by more than 200 artists.

At the end of 2000, about 350 of the most significant pieces of the collection were put on display in a show at the Israel Museum under the title “Dreaming with Open Eyes.” The same show is now at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco until April 28 as part of a three-venue world tour organized by the Israel Museum, which continues this summer at the Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

Schwartz was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1924 and early on was a supporter of the Zionist movement. He lived in Egypt until 1949 when he was expelled for political activities following Israel’s independence. From there he moved to Milan, where he established a bookstore and later an art gallery, known as the Galleria Schwartz.

Schwartz became an aficionado of Dada, principally for the way it flouted conventional aesthetic and cultural values or “liberated the creative process from the shackles of rules and academism,” as he put it.

In Dada’s counterpart, Surrealism, Schwartz “discovered a philosophy of life whose cardinal points – love, freedom, and poetry – coincided with my own.”

“I have thus never seen myself as an ‘art collector,’ but rather as a convinced Surrealist, keen to acquire the works which were inspired by my own convictions,” Schwartz declared.

Schwartz’s relationship with the Israel Museum began in 1972 when he sponsored an exhibit of Duchamp’s works. Duchamp had outraged the sensibilities of many European art patrons in the early years of the 20th century by declaring found objects, such as his famous urinal, which he provocatively signed “R. Mutt,” to be art.

The urinal was the most controversial of piece of a group of objects that were to become known as “readymades,” that also included a shovel, a broom, a hat rack, a bicycle wheel and other objects.

Schwartz carried on a correspondence with Duchamp in the early 50s and met Duchamp’s friend, Dada artist Man Ray, through him. He put special focus on Duchamp and Man Ray by arranging exhibitions, acquiring dozens of their works and writing books about them. There are 70 works by these two artists in the exhibition, which clearly demonstrate their conceptual approach to art.

After the 1972 Duchamp exhibit, Schwartz donated a complete set of replicas of the original “readymades” to the Israel Museum, which became the beginning of a larger collection that he resolved to donate following the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

“When the Iraqi missiles started falling on Tel Aviv, my reaction was to donate my whole collection of Dada and Surrealist periodicals and illustrated publications, for which the Getty Foundation had offered me a fabulous sum, to the Israel Museum,” Schwartz said.

The actual transfer of the collection to the Museum in Jerusalem was delayed by years of haggling with the Italian government over an export license for the collection before the roadblocks were finally cleared in 1997.

In assembling the collection, Schwartz emphasized the idea that Surrealism in particular was not just a French movement by accumulating works from Surrealists from other countries in Europe as well as from North and South America. In addition, the collection spans decades and includes artists who were influenced by Dada and Surrealism from as recently as the 1990s.

“His selection disregards both conventional aesthetic distinctions and any accepted hierarchy of major and secondary works or important and unimportant artists,” said Tamar Manor-Friedman, the curator of the touring exhibition. “The result is an encyclopedic cultural mosaic that is impressive and astonishing, especially if one takes into account that it is the lifework of a single individual.”