James Dempsey Provides Insight into Current Art Exhibit at the MET Donated by Scofield Thayer

Humanities and Arts instructor also at work on a film and illustrated book about the Worcester native’s contributions to 20th Century literature and art

July 30, 2018
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After writing a biography of Worcester-born editor and art collector Scofield Thayer, WPI humanities and arts instructor James Dempsey finds himself in the midst of a summer filled with interest and activity surrounding the life and times of Thayer, a brilliant but tragic figure whose career Dempsey helped return to the public eye.

Dempsey holding the MET exhibit catalog containing
his Scofield Thayer essay.

Dempsey was off to New York earlier this month to participate in the opening of a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition of some 50 nude drawings by eminent artists of the time, including Pablo Picasso, among an extensive $300 million Thayer art collection, part of which Thayer donated to the museum when he died in 1982.

Dempsey has penned a 7,000-word essay on Thayer for the exhibit’s catalog, Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso from the Scofield Thayer Collection. The catalog was written by Sabine Rewald, the Met’s Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator of Modern Art, and is for sale at Yale University Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, among others.

The exhibit will run until Oct. 7 at the Met Breuer.

Documentary in the Works

Dempsey is also a consulting producer with New York filmmaker Caroline Camougis on an hour-long documentary on Thayer.

“It’s being written. It’s being fundraised, and the last I knew things were going well,” Dempsey says.

And he is co-writing with Camougis an illustrated book about Thayer and his groundbreaking work as co-owner and editor of the influential arts and literature magazine The Dial.

“We’re taking 20 pieces from The Dial in the 1920s. Literature and art. We’re featuring those pieces and talking about their importance in terms of where art and poetry and novel writing went in the 20th Century,” Dempsey says. “These are iconic pieces.”

The idea of writing the biography was to put Thayer back in the public consciousness, he says. “He’d been forgotten for so long, and he was so central to magazines and to the whole Modernist Movement and how that came to America.”

A Deeper Story to Tell

The beginning of Dempsey's essay for the MET exhibit catalog.

Dempsey’s interest in Thayer had its roots in his reading of the Worcester native’s obituary in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, where he worked as a reporter and columnist for 21 years, and in stories about Thayer written by fellow T&G writers.

He wondered if there wasn’t a deeper story to tell about Thayer, whose magazine was a beacon of literary and artistic modernism in the 1920s, publishing poets such as E. E Cummings, T. S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats, and works from artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Chagall.

The pursuit started in earnest when Dempsey left newspaper journalism and began teaching at WPI. After 10 solid years of research, he produced The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer, published in 2014. It details Thayer’s extraordinary but brief surge of creative output as editor of The Dial from 1920 to 1926, his intense relationships with some of the greatest literary figures of the early 20th century, and his tragic struggle with mental illness.

Thayer was a child of wealth, who went to the finest schools and who co-owned and edited The Dial, which played an important role in introducing and fostering literary and artistic modernism in America.

In the 1920s, he went on art-buying sprees throughout London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, acquiring more than 600 works of art, which are now conservatively valued at over $300 million. He bequeathed some 600 pieces to the Met and about 50 of those works—all nudes—comprise the current exhibit.

“A lot of the stuff that is now being shown was originally in a trunk in a warehouse on Pleasant St. in Worcester—it was marked ‘Household Effects’ or something like that,” Dempsey explains. “There was actually an entire portfolio of erotic work including an oil by Picasso that hadn’t been seen for half a century. Nobody knew where it was.”

-By Thomas Coakley

New York Review of Books

The MET catalogue and Dempsey’s biography of Thayer get a favorable mention in the Aug. 16 issue of the New York Review of Books. In The Universal Eye feature, writer Jed Pearl, cites several details from Dempsey’s biography of Thayer and the catalogue in describing the eccentric bon vivant’s role as a publisher of arts and literature, and how the museum came to acquire the collection now on exhibit. (Note: A subscription is required to access the full review).