David Smith’s ‘Medals for Dishonor’ series acquired by Harvard Art Museums

A visitor with David Smith’s “Medals for Dishonor.” Artwork © The Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham Photography

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The Harvard Art Museums have acquired an important gift of “Medals for Dishonor,” a critical early work by preeminent 20th-century sculptor David Smith (American, 1906–1965). The gift from the artist’s estate comprises 14 cast bronze narrative reliefs from a profoundly political and satirical series that addresses anti-war and anti-fascist themes. The 15th medal in the series has been placed on long-term loan by the estate. Harvard is now the only institution with the ability to show the “Medals for Dishonor” as a unified group.

The medals join a large group of sculptures, paintings, and works on paper by Smith in the museums’ collections. The series is currently on display in the museums’ Social Realism gallery on Level 1. Admission is free to all visitors.

“This transformative gift allows the museums to continue to exhibit, study, and teach with these critical early works in the way that the artist himself envisioned,” said Sarah Kianovsky, who recently retired as curator of the Collection in the Division of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Harvard Art Museums.

Kianovsky, who has published extensively on the work of David Smith, arranged for the loan of the medals from the estate in preparation for the reopening of the Harvard Art Museums in November 2014, after a major renovation and expansion project. The medals have been on display since, where they are regularly used in university courses ranging from history to sociology and economics. They draw the curiosity and sustained attention of many general visitors as well.

Smith began work on the elaborately detailed figurative medals at the same time (1938–40) he was preparing for his first solo exhibition of abstract steel sculptures. Turning the notion of the military medal on its head, he created instead a searing examination of the causes and effects of war that was informed by his recent travels in Europe and the Soviet Union, by the political commentary in Picasso’s “Guernica” and “The Dream and Lie of Franco,” and by his work in the sculpture division of the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration.

Candida Smith and Rebecca Smith, co-presidents of The Estate of David Smith, said: “The family of David Smith is convinced, as was the artist himself, that there is no better place for the “Medals for Dishonor” than the Harvard Art Museums, which contain a large collection of artworks and archival objects relating to David Smith’s life and work. We are immensely gratified to know that the ‘Medals for Dishonor,’  during their residency at the Fogg Museum, have been viewed regularly by art and history students alike.”

“We are thrilled that David Smith’s entire ‘Medals for Dishonor’  series will now have a permanent home in the Harvard Art Museums collections,” said Martha Tedeschi, the Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard Art Museums. “I am all the more delighted that we are able to mark Sarah Kianovsky’s recent retirement in this way, after her distinguished 30 years of thoughtful research, mentorship, and leadership at the museums.”