For Students


Pulgram-McSparran Collection Comes to UMMA

Jacob Proctor

Gustav Klimt
Woman Lying Half Draped
graphite on paper
Gift of the Ernst Pulgram and Frances McSparran Collection, 2007/2.88

Collecting great works of art on a professor’s salary may sound like a fairy tale. But Ernst Pulgram, professor of romance and classical linguistics at the University of Michigan from 1948 until his retirement in 1986, did just that, acquiring works by some of the most currently sought after artists of the twentieth-century. Together with his wife Frances McSparran, UM associate professor and chief editor of the Middle English Compendium, Pulgram built one of the most personal and exhilarating collections of Austrian and German Expressionist art to be found in private hands. Before his death in 2005, Professor Pulgram shared his longtime wish for this remarkable group of more than 40 drawings, paintings on paper, and several prints to remain at Michigan, and the Museum of Art is honored to announce this extraordinary donation by an extraordinary couple.

“It would be difficult to overstate Ernst Pulgram’s generosity, sagacity, and cultural literacy,” said UMMA Director James Steward. “He was a scholar and a gentleman in the most capacious sense. 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. ”

“More than anything this gift honors Ernst’s great appetite for seeing and collecting and his love of this University,” said Professor McSparran. “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 would be enriched by it. I know it would give him enormous pleasure to know that we’ve fulfilled his vision.”

Born in Vienna in 1915, Ernst Pulgram grew up in the wake of World War I. He completed his doctorate at the University of Vienna in 1938 and shortly thereafter left Austria following the recent Nazi annexation of the country. After arriving in the U.S. 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 GI Bill and began teaching at UM a couple years later.

After the war, Professor Pulgram began returning to Europe, touring extensively in his car that sailed with him across the Atlantic. He studied at the American Academy in Rome, traveled on fellowships and sabbaticals, and established lifelong friendships with artists, architects, and scholars who encouraged his interest in art and music. He started to collect in the early 1960s and was particularly drawn to the artists and imagery that reminded him of home—the post-World War I era of the Vienna Secession—and to the purity and economy of line in works on paper.

A native of Ireland, Professor McSparran arrived in the U.S. in 1968 and remembers first visiting Pulgram’s “quaint little cottage on the Huron River stuffed with art, with works hanging everywhere.” The couple reviewed catalogues and traveled a great deal together in Europe, cultivating relationships with gallerists in Salzburg, Vienna, and London.

“Ernst had a very lively mind,” said Professor McSparran. “He developed an expertise in the artists he was interested in and he bought with discrimination, taste, and focus—he had to on an academic’s salary! He bought something because he loved it when he saw it. It’s a very personal collection.”

A signature component of the Pulgram-McSparran collection is work by the Austrian Expressionist artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Among the other noteworthy artists represented are George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, and Christian Rohlfs. As psychological documents of their time, these 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 Professor 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 at auction for $5.7 million in February of this year. 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.

The Pulgram-McSparran collection beautifully complements UMMA’s significant holdings in European art of the period. 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, while the second will figure later in that year’s exhibition schedule. Individual works will regularly feature in the Museum’s collections galleries, subject to rigorous preservation criteria because of the fragility of many of the works. When not on view, the Pulgram-McSparran collection will be available to scholars, students, and other researchers in the Museum’s future Ernestine Winston Rubin Study Center for Works on Paper.

Stephanie Rieke
Senior Writer