That was the year that was: 1957

Hans and Bessie Bechtler had a burst of art collecting in the mid-1950s, and now the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art is focusing an exhibition on one pivotal year - 1957.

"Mid-Century Modernism: 1957 and the Bechtler Collection" is made up of 41 works by 28 artists, acquired primarily in 1957, from the museum's permanent collection.

The works, in all media, give visitors a sense of the Bechtlers as patrons, and the exhibit as a whole provides context for the time in which the artists were working. The Bechtlers started collecting art in the 1950s when they lived in Zurich and continued throughout their lives. Their son, Andreas Bechtler, made Charlotte his home and donated his part of his parents' collection for the museum.

For those of us who weren't around in 1957 (or who may have forgotten), a large timeline helps visitors place each artist in the country they were working. In the exhibit's introductory text, we are reminded of world events: Eisenhower was president; the Soviet Union launched Sputnik; the pill was approved by the FDA; Dr. Seuss created the Grinch and The Cat in the Hat.

Museum president John Boyer said that 1957 marks an extraordinary burst in acquisition for the Bechtlers. The exhibit shows their remarkable breadth of taste, which included works by artists of different nationalities and in different stages of maturity in their career.

The works are displayed sparsely in themes. Six paintings in the first gallery are arranged by texture. The theme of another group of works is lines. A third group are depictions based on "The Odyssey."

The works show what was on the artists' minds at the time. Max Ernst's painting "Projet Pour un Monument a W.C. Fields" is an homage to the artist's favorite movie, "My Little Chickadee," starring Mae West. The painting, in red, blue and green, is influenced by the movie poster, which shows West carrying a parasol. Boyer said the painting underscores the importance of the film to Ernst. The film came out in 1940, the year Ernst came to the U.S.

Alfred Manessier's painting "Dans La Flamme Qui Consumme" is steeped in religious mysticism and was created after the artist visited a Trappist monastery in 1943. It is surrounded by works inspired by the Canticles of Saint John of the Cross.

Several of the pieces, including Barbara Hepworth's "Garden Sculpture" and Robert Muller's fragile iron sculpture "Palourde," have been recently restored.

Hans Bechtler met Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti in 1957, leading to an important relationship for both men. Boyer said Bechtler was "never so affected by a first meeting" than with Giacometti, and the artist's sculpture "Seated Woman" is situated prominently in the center of the second gallery.

The works will be accompanied by photos that show where they were kept in the Bechtlers' home. One painting, "T-1956-22" by Hans Hartung was hung at the end of Hans Bechtler's bed. Its brown canvas with an almost transparent green stripe and black wisps were the last thing Bechtler saw at night and the first thing he saw in the morning.

The works in "Mid-Century Modernism" are compelling on their own, but grouped together they are made more interesting by what they reveal about the time, the artists and the collectors.