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Suspension of Disbelief: The fantasy Worlds of  Helen Greene Blumenschien, Barbara Harmon, Frieda Lawrence, Gisella Leoffler, Ila McAfee and Millicent Rogers

July 7 - October 14, 2012

 

... to the poet, all times and places are one; ...  no theme is inept, no past or present preferable. The steam whistle will not affright him nor the flutes of Arcadia weary him:...  there is but one time, the artistic moment; but one law, the law of form; but one land, the land of Beauty -- a land removed indeed from the real world and yet more sensuous because more enduring ....  Oscar Wilde,The English Renaissance of Art, 1882

 

The 19th century Irish playwright of The Importance of Being Earnest and author of The Picture of Dorian Gray,  Oscar Wilde is remembered in film and journalism largely as one of the Victorian era's most famous dandies -- an urbane aesthete,  acerbic wit,  and scandalous felon.  What Wilde is less recognized for are his short stories for children, first published in 1888, including "The Happy Prince," "The Nightingale and the Rose," "The Selfish Giant," "The Devoted Friend," and "The Remarkable Rocket."

And  it is even less known that these stories belonged to an inclusive aesthetic that established Wilde as one of the major figures among the Symbolists, the pervasive fin de siècle European  literary and art movement that flourished from c. 1885 to 1910.   Its emerging avant garde eschewed the Renaissance restriction of art to objective truth grounded in nature, advocating in its place the subjective criteria for beauty arising from the artist's inner vision. That inner vision ranged from a world-weary escapism into  religious mysticism and Romanticist rumination on evil and death,  to naïve fantasies or pursuit of dreamy, sensual languor and aesthetic refinement, to morbid reveries replete with exotic or erotic themes and eclectic subject matter-all popularized by the likes of Orientalists, Symbolist poets, animaliers, illustrators, and designers working within the highly decorative ambient of Art Nouveau.  

In England this attempt to rejuvenate art emerged by century's end as the new "Renaissance in Art," as Wilde described it in his lecture tour across America in 1882 -- the English version of Art Nouveau with roots in England's mid-century Pre-Raphaelite movement and the earlier mystical visions of Romantic poet-artist William Blake, for whom imagination was everything. It achieved its wide dissemination through lesser artists and writers whose recourse to popular culture and art forms invested the decorative arts and illustration with the new aesthetic.    

Just as Oscar Wilde's stories for children popularized this late 19th century movement and its reassertion of art in contemporary life, its impact upon the early 20th century is reflected in the likes of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908), A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh (1926), and J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit (1937) and Lord of the Rings trilogy (1949).  

Perhaps surprisingly, this aesthetic is represented in the permanent collection of the University of New Mexico's Harwood Museum of Art. In concert with the Symbolist recourse to inner vision, Wilde's "Renaissance of English art" opened on a world of fantasy that would capture the imaginations of six independent and massively talented female artists living in Taos, New Mexico. Helen Greene Blumenschien (b.1909), Barbara Harmon, Frieda Lawrence (b. 1879), Gisella Leoffler (b. 1900), Ila McAfee (b. 1897), and Millicent Rogers (b.1902) were, if not all friends, contemporaries. The world of make-believe, fairies, unicorns, birthday cakes, Victorian window dressings, anthropomorphic kittens, dreamscape scenes of handsome princes and checkerboard floors and orientalia seemed to have little to do with the traditional western landscape! Yet these women were all drawing from the aesthetic legacy of Art Nouveau and the Symbolists.  Hardly in tune with their time and place, for them there was "but one time, the artistic moment; ... but one land, the land of Beauty -- a  land removed indeed from the real world and yet more sensuous because more enduring.  ... And so it comes that he who seems to stand most remote from his age is he who mirrors it best, because he has stripped life of what is accidental and transitory, stripped it of that 'mist of familiarity' which makes life obscure to us." (Wilde, The English Renaissance in Art).

-- Jina Brenneman, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions

 

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"Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity."

G.K. Chesterton

 

Frieda Lawrence (1852-1930) met and fell in love with D.H. Lawrence who persuaded her, in May of 1912, to leave her husband the three children she had shared with ex-husband, the much older, Ernest Weekly, a University professor.  The Lawrence's received an invitation dated November 1921 from Mabel Dodge Sterne Luhan, who had read some of Lawrence's Sea and Sardinia. Lawrence and Frieda arrived in Taos in mid-September 1922, and after a few typical squabbles with their hostess ended up with the D.H. Lawrence ranch property. Against D. H Lawrence's wishes, Frieda claimed the ranch and gave Dodge Stearne Luhan the manuscript to the novel "Sons and Lovers." The two lived together there for two years, after which Frieda moved back to Europe. After Lawrence's death, Frieda married her former landlord, Angelo Ravagliand made Taos her home once again.

Very little is known about Frieda Lawrence's art, but many examples of her work exist, including nine watercolors gifted by Mabel Dodge Luhan's son John Evans to the Harwood Museum of Art permanent collection. "She was a generation ahead of us -- she was more interested in the first wave of intellectuals that came from New York -- she was very influential.." "Frieda was sensitive compassionate, you could see that through her painting's delicate concepts." -- Barbara and Cliff Harmon

Light symbolism of woodland gothic to a neaveau celebration of dreamland palaces, processions, and somnolent wanderings through old stone fences and around lily ponds, Lawrence's work brings to mind the tales of Thronton W. Burgess, Kenneth Grahame and George MacDonald. With a decidedly anglophile twist, Lawrence's allowed her poetic personality to flourish through her drawings and paintings. The dainty reenactments create a happy nostalgia devoid of the harsh light of present day.  "Frieda was not destined to go down as a great artist but her religious themed watercolors are interesting in a quirky way. She is an example of one of the many strong willed and creative women who were drawn to Taos. Like her sometimes friend and sometimes rival, Dorothy Brett, she came to Taos because of D.H. Lawrence, but remained long after he departed because she (like Brett and Mabel) was such a good fit for this place."  -- David Witt

 

Barbara Harmon's (b.1927 )skill in traditional portraiture and landscape would be difficult to rival. She dismisses that body of work is with a wave of her hand. What interests Harmon is the dimension that she sees and feels beyond. In "Time for Making Pillows" Harmon's background composition of the natural world (a cotton plant) atmospheric, dusky sky hold the viewer planted on firm ground. Thankfully so, the layer beyond, done is soft pastel presents a microscopic natural spiritualism. Small birds are joined by flying beings -- their task to pluck the soft cotton and fill the tiny striped pillows. The workers are intent with their serious task, in a way that reminds is that stuffing pillows for the winter may be more important than plotting out our next strategic war. Harmon remains the sole survivor of this generation of artists. "The first 84 years are the hardest", states Harmon during a conversation involving at least another twenty year's worth of projects she is about to endeavor."I think that one's basic temperament has a great deal to do with the visual decision making in their work. Make believe and fantasy are a large part of these artists natural temperament." "This group of artists also tended to rebel against anything outside of our highest ideals." Barbara Harmon grew up in Glendale, California. She attended Berkely high school during World War II and at age 16 would make the bus trek and street car ride to San Francisco. Her destination was a little book store in china town. It was in this bookstore that Barbara saw her first "Wind in the Willows" book.When she saw it she said to herself."This is me."There she also became entranced with the oriental style. "I saved my pennies for a stick of pastel and a sheet of rice paper."Japanese printmakers Hiroshige and Hokusai, and turn-of-the-century illustrators Arthur Rackham, W. Heath Robinson, N. C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. Kenneth Grahame Harrison, and Beatrix Potter provided substantial inspiration for Harmon's active imagination. The two most important influences were her parents. Her father, Fred Grayson Sayre, was a member of the Palette and Chisel Club of Chicago, along with co members; Gustave Baumann, Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer. Fred's belief in a world 'under the thin veil of this realm' was translated to Barabara in the form of night time story telling. Barbara fell asleep most nights to the soft sound of her fathers imaginative make believe stories. The final gift Barbara received from her mother was a copy of Oscar Wilde's illustrated book "The Happy Prince and other stories." Barbara Harmon would go on to be part of the Black Mountain College alumni. She is currently living in Taos, New Mexico for 65 years with her husband, fellow artist Cliff Harmon.

 

"I am willing to speak to you, of course, but we can never be friendly.  A Mat beetle, indeed, in company with a caterpillar!  I choose my friends among the Moths, Butterflies, and Dragonflies, - in fact, I move in the upper circles." Among the Meadow People, Clara Dillingham Pierson

 

Mary Millicent Abigail Rogers (1902-1953), discovered Taos in 1947, just six years before she died at age 50. A self-taught artist, fashion and jewelry designer, Rogers used her substantial exposure to haute couture to create sophisticated and highly respected line of jewelry. Her passionate dedication to the culture of New Mexico resulted in the impressive Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos that houses most of her collection of the arts and crafts of the area, a collection of some six thousand pieces of jewelry, which include some prehistoric Southwest works.With her famously innovative eye, Rogers sketched costumes for her multicultural wardrobe, created her own line of Southwest-inspired jewelry designs. Due to illness's that had haunted her since childhood, Rogers eventually created a workshop with facilities for casting was placed off her bedroom. She taught herself local metalworking techniques, and while bedridden designed and created a line of Southwest jewelry." Millicent was better at whimsy than management and during her spells with illness she reverted to her sketchpads. She made up stories for her boys and illustrated them with imaginative stories." Searching for Beauty, Cherie Burns

The drawings in this exhibit "were created in the 1930s while she lived in Austria and was ill and not able to leave her bedroom." -- Millicent Rogers Museum. The light hand, and imaginative, positive storytelling were obviously inspired by the "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Anderson, but Rogers used the her keen European aesthetic and love of "The Tale" to fashion her own unique view of the story.

 

The things that make us happy

make us wise --

Little Big, John Crowley

 

Ilia McAfee (1897-1995) was born and raised in the Colorado Rockies. It was on her honeymoon that Cafe, and fellow artist/husband Elmer Turner, decided to make Taos, New Mexico their home. Ila, Elmer, Barbara and Cliff Harmon were fast friends, picnicking in the Taos Mountains and exchanging philosophies of natural healings, organic gardening tips. They spent one winter together, along with Mandleman-Ribaks' in the San Blas islands. McAfee, like Harmon, studied traditional, academic painting. Directly after high school MacAfee spent a year in art schools in Los Angeles and before enrolling in Western State College (in 1917. She went to Chicago and studied painting with the noted muralist James E. McBurney until 1924.  McBurney took McAfee on as his assistant for several years).

During 1925 and 1926 she continued her studies in New York at the Art Students League and the National Academy of Design. While in New York, McAfee worked as an illustrator and a painter of miniatures. McAfee painted portraits of horses for wealthy owners and breeders to make ends meet. Like Harmon, McAfee's imagination would not settle on tradition. Her drawings and paintings of horses went from lining a campfire, or grazing in a pasture to making up the crest of an ocean wave, or a herd of making up the eye of a violent cyclone. Ila's anthropomorphic kittens were trumped by her painterly renditions of Taos Native Americans and Northern New Mexico landscapes. It is difficult to believe that this masterful painter of traditional scenes, also created these childlike, playful, make believe scenes.

McAfee's acute visual memory allowed her to paint from memory. She was so well acquainted with the anatomy of the natural world, that she could manipulate them to fit her imaginative whims.

Pat and Harley Manhart remember their visits with Ila McAfee: "At that time they (Ila and Elmer) lived on the very edge of town. All they could see out of their window was prairie and mountain.  Ila had a natural ability and infinite patience with animals. She trained cats to do anything. They played the piano, she even trained fleas. The film industry would hire Ila to train animals for Hollywood movies."

"Gisella Loeffler! How people are attracted to your funny little painted children and the reassuring life you surround them with! This is a real folklore you give us. Everyone is allured and amused by the life of these robust infants with roses and birds and hearts all about them. It makes people forget that sometimes their life is not so gay. These children you paint are very simple and have the sweet peasant charm. Where do you find it? In a faraway Hungarian gypsy grandmother? Or is it really right here beside us all the time, and we too dull and preoccupied with the inconvenience of a mechanical world to be aware of it?" -- Mabel Dodge Luhan

 

Gisella Loeffler (1900-1977) arrived in Taos, New Mexico in 1933. A young, single mother with two daughters, Loeffler would live in Taos on and off again for the remainder of her life. The Loeffler family arrived from Austria in 1908 and settled in St. Louis, Missouri. Loeffler studied art at Washington University in St. Louis where she became a prominent member of the local art community. She joined the St. Louis Art Guild as well as the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts, in addition to creating posters for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Gisella won prizes from the Artists Guild of the Author's League of America in 1919 and 1920 and from the Kansas City Art Institute in 1923. She also began working in textiles, including batik, to which she would return later in her career. In the 1930's Loeffler divorced her husband, writer and music critic Edgar Lacher and after having seen a local exhibition of paintings by Taos artists Oscar Berninghaus (who was from St. Louis) and Ernest Blumenschein, Gisella felt drawn to Taos, which reminded her of the villages of her native Austria Loeffler decided to move with her two daughters to Taos. In the late 1940's Loeffler and her new husband Frank Chase was convinced by Mabel Dodge Luhan to move into former adobe home of writer D.H. Lawrence and were frequent visitors to the Luhan compound. As a part of Luhan's circle Loeffler found camaraderie with fellow artist like Joseph Fleck, a fellow Austrian.

As with the work of her "Suspension of Disbelief" contemporaries, Loeffler's work had no room for the the macabre, the sad, the tortured, or the offensive. No reminiscence of Grimm Fairy Tale is found anywhere in her work, "only a world where children or childlike adults inhabit a simple, brightly colored world filled with happiness." -- Michael Grauer

Loeffler's work brought yet another form of Internationalism to Taos. Applying her Austro-Hungarian folk-art style to the Indian and Hispanic aesthetic that she discovered and live with in Taos; her work had an unusual Autrian/folk/Native American/Mexican style unique unto herself. "She was playful; she brought the feeling of Easter European fantasy to Taos." -- Barbara Harmon

Through the Work Progress Administration Gisella began illustrating children's books in 1941 She also wrote and illustrated her own book, El Ekeko, in 1964. Loeffler designed ceramics, textiles and was first know in New Mexico for her lively murals that she not only painted on walls, but on any surface she could get her hands on. In the Harwood Museum, Loeffler painted a mural on the bathroom door, which is still utilized today by staff and visitors."But perhaps Gisella's greatest legacy is the murals she painted for children's areas in hospitals across the United States." -- Michael Grauer You will find no mark of politics, fear tactics or moral instruction in Loeffler's colored pencil, paint, of textiles, just The Tale.

 

Stella Snead (1910-2006) born in London to wealthy parents, began her educational life in sophisticated private school. Unfortunately psychological depression devoured her father, and as he became more dangerous to wife and daughter, they fled. In 1924 Snead was enrolled in a progressive, co-ed, self-governing, Theosophical, vegetarian boarding school St. Christopher's, Letchworth, Herts., England.  Snead began painting in her early 20's. She studied with Amedee Ozenfant, a friend of Léger and Le Corbusier, at his newly opened art school in London (1936). At Ozenfant's school Snead would also develop a friendship that would last through her years in America. The English Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington was a fast friend and positive influence. In 1939 Snead fled to New York, there, she met Carrington again and moved in the émigré surrealist circles. Her curious mind led her to travel -- hitchhiking- throughout the US on mail trucks. It was during this time that Snead met Native Americans and traders in the Western United States, in particular Taos, New Mexico. "I had never felt space so completely," she recalled. It was in Taos that Snead felt compelled to stay. During that time, Snead became part of the Taos artist's colony. She produced prolifically in that setting and spent the years in a quaint adobe house.

In the 1950's Snead succumbed to the disease that had consumed her father. She stopped painting entirely, and lived through that suffering in her home country. Not long after, looking for relief, Snead journeyed to India and began a career in photography. Snead lived in India through the '60's. She took photographs of street life, nature and Hindu sculpture and would later publish eight books of photography,

Finally, in 1987, she resumed her career as a painter. On and off again throughout her career, Snead was recognized for her work. Including, a 1949 exhibit at the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh, PA. Most recently, a work from the 1940's was included in a major survey of Surrealism at the National Academy in New York."Stella conveyed a sense of exuberance, of the use of all available energy, of being a cipher for the color and music of the world. She herself was colorful. Her hair was white and wavy, a clean, bright white, and her toenails a vivid pink. Her shoes were golden Indian sandals. Her clothes were western, but sort of a parody of the conservative model of dress that abounded. The lines were simple but the colors neon." -- Kathy Fehl

Stella Snead's role in this exhibition is an introduction of surrealism. Although her work is fantastical, Nocturnal, and dreamlike. Her landscapes, anthropomorphic animal and semi human creatures bring a twisted edge to the other work being exhibited. Perhaps showing a path that would lead from the pastoral idealism of a prewar London to a more realistic, yet still fantastical view that included fear and the macabre.

All of the women in this exhibit are strong willed women who battled prejudice, single motherhood and/or hardships of a foreign western landscape. Although they are often dismissed with a snobbish wave of the hand, they were all as talented, if not more so than their traditional counterparts. Taking into consideration the internationalism, imagination and true view of the outside world, these five ought to be remembered with extreme appreciation for their intellectual, aesthetic bravery and generous acceptance of being dismissed for the meantime.

 

 

(above: Millicent Rogers, "She Sets Eyes on Narcisuss and Goes Journeying," ca. 1939)

 

(above: Gisella Loeffler, "Black Potter," acrylic on board)

 

(above: Mildred Tolbert, Portrait of Ila McAffee, collection Harwood Museum of Art, courtesy of Mildred Tolbert)

 

Resource Library editor's note

The above text is adapted from gallery texts from the exhibition Suspension of Disbelief: The fantasy Worlds of  Helen Greene Blumenschien, Barbara Harmon, Frieda Lawrence, Gisella Leoffler, Ila McAfee and Millicent Rogers, on exhibit at the Harwood Museum July 7 - October 14, 2012.

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