Experiments in International Living:
Public Health and Collecting Munch

Sarah (Sally) Epstein: Oral History Excerpts

Social work, international living, discovering Munch

Q: I was amazed at all the activities that came together in your volunteer work—from Planned Parenthood to Experiment in International Living, to the Peace Corps and civil rights. Now I am still looking for those threads. Let me put the question directly: what in your earlier life led you to become interested in art?

SE: I don’t think I was fully interested until I was going to Simmons School of Social Work. I had a boyfriend who was at MIT. He was very keen on modern art and jazz; I had very little of either in my background. One day he said to me “I am taking you to an exhibition of a Norwegian artist by the name of Edvard Munch.” “OK, I’d love to go.” I walked into the exhibition of Munch’s oil paintings and graphics…and he became my artist for life. Everything he did seemed to come directly from him—personal experience and emotions he had felt. Then when I bought the catalogue, I learned all about his life and was just fascinated. That was it.

Q: Love at first sight?

SE: Yes, it was. And then when I met my former husband, Lionel, I found out that he had also seen the exhibit and had been very taken with it. I had met Lionel as we were both in a program with the Experiment for International Living.

Q: So, you were at the Simmons School of Social Work?

SE: Yes.

Q: What made you go there?

SE: Well, my father really wanted me to be a doctor, but he made the mistake of taking me to Mass. General Hospital. They had an operating room with an observation window where students could look down and watch the operation. The one I witnessed was on a fellow’s knee that appeared to be particularly bloody. I was very upset. I had wanted to be a doctor, but my mother had started in the school of social work and I came to view that as being a much more satisfactory way to go. Besides, I knew my father’s work was birth control and if I should get into that field, social work would be a good background.

Q: How did you connect with the Experiment for International Living?

SE: My parents knew Donald Watt, or had friends who introduced them to Watt, the founder of the Experiment. So they knew about it. Now, the first Experiment groups in the 1930s went to Germany in the early days of Hitler. I think there was a feeling that Hitler was giving the German youth a reason for being, getting them in uniform, getting them proud of themselves. They didn’t really think of Hitler as a tyrant. Of course, they didn’t know anything about death camps.

Q: Yes, the death camps came later.

SE: Then, during World War II, they couldn’t send Experiment groups overseas, so they sent them to the Kentucky hills, or Mexico, or other places. I didn’t go immediately, but I had studied German at Milton Academy and again at Wellesley College. There was a mountain-climbing group preparing to go to Austria. I really enjoyed the outdoors, climbing and hiking, so I thought how wonderful—I could use my German and go hiking and climbing. That was 1949.

Q: Where in Austria did you go?

SE: We had homestays in Vienna.

Q: And then you hiked up into the mountains?

SE: Yes. That was a very special summer. I met Lionel, my former husband, as a result of that summer. He had previously been an Experimenter to Holland. That summer he was the leader of the group to Holland. He was attending Harvard Law School. There were a couple of other Experimenters around Cambridge and we used to get together every Tuesday night for dinner. The members of the Experiment dinner group came from different backgrounds and different disciplines. It was fascinating.


Q: I think I remember from your essay in the catalogue for the National Gallery of Art exhibition, Edvard Munch: Master Prints from the Epstein Family Collection (1990), that you had already had begun collecting Munch’s work during the 1950s. You were already in Washington.

SE: We started collecting when we lived in a very modern house in McLean, Virginia. It was built by the architect, Tom Wright.

Q: Tell us how your collecting began in the 1950s.

SE: We already knew that we liked Munch very much. At this time we had had two Norwegian au pairs. That summer Sargent Shriver asked us to sail on a student ship and talk to the young people to see if they liked the idea of joining the Peace Corps. So while awaiting the return sailing, we went to Norway to visit the families of our au pairs. We saw Munch paintings and prints, in friends’homes and in museums. When we returned my husband had to go to New York on business. The architect, Mies van der Rohe, was selling his collection of Munch prints. His pupil, Eugene Summers—who was the sculptor of this very table—had some Munch prints as well and decided he would put his in with the sale. So Lionel went to see it. The next weekend both of us went back to New York to see it. Li didn’t tell me, but he had meantime reserved three of Summers’s prints that he later gave to me for my birthday, Mother’s Day, or whatever. That was really the beginning of our collection.

Q: That must have been around 1961—the Peace Corps was launched in that year, I think. Lionel bought Summers’s Munch prints then?

SE: That’s right. Mies Van der Rohe’s collection was reserved by the Chicago Art Institute. Summers had four, five or six prints for sale.

Q: Had you had any connection with Norway prior to your visit?

SE: My brother had gone on the Experiment in International Living to Norway. One of the daughters of my brother’s host family expressed a desire to come to the United States as an au pair to learn English. So we had Gudrun Røvig come to us as an au pair for a year and then she found a friend of hers who wanted to come the next year. That was our initial connection to Norway.


Growth of the collection

Q: So the collecting began in the 1960s. What were some of the major benchmarks in the growth of your collection?

SE: When we first started collecting, we were very fortunate to have known Alan Fern at the Library of Congress. He used to get all the auction catalogues across his desk. He would let us know when some Munchs were up for sale. He would also offer advice on what we might want to bid for them. They weren’t very expensive in those days. They usually came in batches of three or five or eight all at once. That wouldn’t happen today. At any rate, we collected quite rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s. Now we still occasionally do, but not very often. What we usually do now is get a little portrait or etching, something that has meaning for us, or a portrait of someone I know from my studies.

Q: Your description in your 1990 essay of Munch literally surrounded by piles of prints and drawings is evocative of a way of life. The idea that he would treat something that would become so valuable for future generations in the way that he did is amusing and from another angle horrifying.

SE: One of our prints of a beach scene is called Melancholy. If you took it out of the frame and flipped it over, you would see a footprint (laughter) on it. He had obviously stepped in mud or ink or something and then stepped on the back of the print. Well, you know, he could always have printed more for himself, if he wanted more. He printed some on his own and gave others to printers to do.

Q: How difficult was it for you to find people to talk to about Munch who knew him?

SE: Not very hard, because Norway had only about three million people at that time. It seemed everybody knew everybody. One person would say “Oh, I know the son of Munch’s doctor. You could talk to him.” So, I would get an introduction and work it out. It really wasn’t very difficult. I was fortunate to be able to interview his last three models.

Q: Was there a language issue?

SE: Sometimes. For example, the person who had been Munch’s gardener didn’t speak English. So then I took someone from the Munch Museum as my translator.

Q: Did you spend a concentrated period of time there?

SE: I went back and forth about four times to conduct the interviews for periods of ten days to two weeks.

Q: Who would transcribe the interviews?

SE: I have a secretary.

Q: We wish we had one! (laughter) Your catalogue essay was written in 1990 and referred to a collection that was to be bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art.

SE: We created a foundation and the prints now belong to the foundation. Every year I have to decide which three or four works go permanently to the National Gallery. That’s always hard to decide which of your children you are going to send off permanently into the wider world.

Q: Do you designate the works, or do they physically depart?

SE: They physically leave our collection for the National Gallery.

Q: That must be a difficult choice. It sounds like an iterative process—you must revisit it every year.

SE: Yes. Luckily, my secretary used to work at the Corcoran Gallery. She is very knowledgeable about art and how art is handled. And then we loan prints very often to shows. She is the person who works with the curator at the other end. If they are going overseas, then you have to send a courier, so she gets a chance to go to Japan, Germany or England, or wherever they are going to be shown.

Q: Let me ask you about Germany. A lot of Munch’s work ended up there—because it was the biggest market, I guess. I know from your essay that much of the subsequent turnover was generated through German collectors and houses. And we have learned today that you studied German. So this is a German connection. And you spent your first period abroad in a German-speaking country.

SE: Also I had a friend, Carla Lathe, a British art historian who studied Munch. She spoke German much better than I did. So, Carla and I went together to Germany to look for the places were Munch had lived and worked, as well as interviewing people who had known him. That was a lot of fun.

Q: When did you do that and where did you go?

SE: We went to Berlin and environs and some of the other cities that had Munch collections, Lübeck for example and Hamburg. Munch had lived in Lübeck with the Max Linde family. I was too late to interview any of the four children in that family, but I did interview cousins and learned a lot about the family through them.

Q: There is an element of Buddenbrooks in that. It must have been interesting to have been in Germany in the 1960s not so long after the war. What was the atmosphere like at that time?

SE: I got a lot of the story of Munch there. I interviewed the daughter of Munch’s cataloguer, Gustav Schieffler. There were the stories of how inflation and war ruined many collectors financially, who then had to sell off their Munchs. Stories of hardship. The second son of the Linde family was gassed in the first world war and had very weak lungs as a result.

Q: You expressed great concern about the dispersion of collections in your essay. You stated a commitment to keeping your collection intact. The Schieffler story sounds like it affected you in this way.

SE: Yes, very sad for the family. However, we saw one collection in Germany that was even bigger than ours, but it is kept in boxes, not on display.

Q: I take it that much of Munch’s work has been sold off piecemeal.

SE: We were so lucky in this respect, because when we first started collecting, Munch’s generation—the people who bought directly from him—were dying and the children were inheriting the works. The children often sold entire collections or parts of them. That is how we had a relatively easy time in finding and collecting them. And we had the assistance of Alan Fern who saw the German catalogues.

Q: A major feature of your contribution to art is the keeping intact of the collection that you have.

SE: Yes. We started out buying prints for our children, so some of them were in the children’s names. But we talked to the children and they agreed that they would go into the foundation. The whole collection from the foundation goes to the National Gallery. We did have three oil paintings—very minor ones—but eventually we sold those just because we decided our collection was really a print collection and it gave us more money to continue to buy prints.


Home in Chevy Chase DC

Q: How did you come to choose Chevy Chase as your home?

SE: We absolutely outgrew our “Wright house” in McLean. Tommy Wright was going to build a wing with three bedrooms, with a corridor that went out through the yard to the new rooms. I thought, well, I don’t really want my children split off in that way. Then we decided we had to look for a house. Someone in Lionel’s office said there was a fine big house up on Oregon Avenue. We came to have a look. You can’t imagine what this house was like in those days: heavy velvet curtains, squiggles going up the walls, the dining table had a glass top with gold Cupids holding it up. In the basement there was a big bar and there were flames coming up, painted in the stairwell and a sign beckoning “come on down, it’s hot down here.” There was a half-swimming pool in back of the house that looked very dangerous. The room in which we are sitting was only half the size it is now. The other half was an outside covered porch with three archways. We put three children’s bedrooms directly over this, now expanded room. I was initially aghast at the décor of the house. It was really Lionel who imagined it differently. He said to think of painting the interior white. So we bid on the house and got it.

Q: Do you know when the house was built?

SE: 1927. I give Munch tours and slide lectures every so often. At one point there was a group coming through that I knew from the museum world. A woman visiting from Boston said “I think my nephew grew up in this house.” I told her that was fascinating and would love to meet him. She wrote to her nephew, who stopped on his way back north from Florida to his summer home in Vermont He brought me photographs of the house as it had been and talked about it. He lived with his grandmother, who had made a fortune during World War I. She owned boarding houses downtown. With the proceeds from those ventures she had this house built.


International engagement

Q: International travel appears to be a motif in your life.

SE: We do a lot of it. My husband, Don, loves to travel. International family planning has had a lot to do with it. Half the time we were going to developing countries, the other half on vacation or on art excursions. We went to London last October because the Tate Gallery was doing a wonderful show about the second half of Munch’s life. His main masterpieces came early, but all the rest of his life he kept up with what was going on in the art world. He took up photography and movie-making. In the Tate exhibition I saw a lot of things I had never seen before.


Art and international work

Q: Do you see art as a relief from the work you do in developing countries? Are these two different spheres for you? I am struggling with how they connect.

SE: I will give you a little pamphlet I have done where I combine the art and the planning. They are not separate. They go together very much. Especially with Munch, because Munch is always about how people feel. I find a lot of empathy and emotion in Munch—as I do in my work. Munch said that he wanted people to understand that all people feel emotions. One time when I was doing a tour at the National Gallery in 1990 at the exhibition of our prints. Halfway through the tour an elderly man joined the group. He was elegantly dressed and had some sort of velvet outlining his lapel. When the rest of the group went to see something else, he came up to me and said “thank you!” and he burst into tears.

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