The Society of Six

by Terry St. John

 



 

The following essay was written in 1986 by Terry St. John, who was, at the time of writing of the essay, an artist and Associate Curator of Art, The Oakland Museum. This essay was written for, and included in, the book titled Plein Air Painters of California, The North, edited by Ruth Lilly Westphal and published by Westphal Publishing, Irvine, California, ISBN 0-9610520-1-5

 

We do not believe that painting is a language. Nor do we try to "say" things, but we do try to fix upon canvas the joy of vision. To express, to show...not to write hieroglyphics. We have no concern with stories, with lapse of time, nor with the probability of improbability or hereafter. In other words, we are not trying to illustrate a thought or write a catalogue, but to produce a joy through the use of the eyes. We have much to express, but nothing to say.

William H. Clapp[1]

 

Increasingly appreciated for their fresh, unsentimental directness are the plein air paintings of the Oakland-based Society of Six. In their time, "The Six" avoided the hackneyed potboilers that were the common fare for the majority of landscape artists of that era. All the members of the group, Louis Bassi Siegriest, born 1899, Maurice George Logan (1886-1971), William Henry Clapp (1879-1954), August Francois Gay (1891-1949), Selden Conner Gile (1877-1947) and Bernard James von Eichman (1899-1970), discovered, during their long association, what it meant to be an artist as well as a member of a closely-knit group of painters with a strong unifying sense of visual purpose. Their dynamic and independent personalities helped them avoid the studied and artificial attitudes that had been adopted by past generations of "Europeanized" California artists.

The Society of Six was intensely devoted to a self-imposed set of rough-and-tumble attitudes that they found necessary for the maintenance of the visual purity in their works. They sensed that they were not making new art merely for the sake of newness, but with an exhilaration that was born from an overthrowing of subservient visual posturing over various sanctified art modes. Although they were a part of the San Francisco Bay Area modernist art scene in the 1920s, they had an allegiance primarily to themselves, and they were forced to be their own best audience. Influences upon them ranged from nineteenth century Impressionism to European Abstractionism. Although it is fairly easy to trace the more obvious influences, "The Six nonetheless, managed individually to fashion their own painting styles into fresh and ingenuous outdoor paintings which appear generally American and specifically Californian. They were regional painters in the best sense of the word.

"Will Bohemia arise in Oakland," was the question asked in an article in the Oakland Tribune on April 22, 1917. The reporter told of the formation of an artist's club of the East Bay with a membership of more than 30 painters, sculptors and art students including Selden Gile, William H. Clapp and William A. Gaw (1891-1973). Many of the things that made the area seem so desirable to "The Six" were mentioned in that review, such as the picturesque waterfront and the sunny rolling hills above the Bay. Oakland was depicted as "...a Bohemia where kindred spirits meet with art and the great adventures that stimulate art to color its atmosphere."

For almost 10 years, 1917 to 1927, until Selden Gile moved to Belvedere,[2] his cabin on Chabot Road in Oakland was the weekly meeting place for "The Six." The "Chow House," as it was called, had electricity but no toilet or bath.[3] What the accommodations lacked in convenience was more than made up for by the heated art discussions and garlic-laced meals that Gile, the generous host, provided. He frequently offered a formidable home-brewed beer to wash down his famous meals and, occasionally, the proceedings were enlivened by the bottles exploding. In addition to the beer, they fortified their meetings with at least two gallons of "dago red" wine which were delivered to Gile every week by an Italian bootlegger friend.[4] Occasionally, von Eichman showed up with his "San Jose Cheer," a prune whiskey that helped to lubricate their discussions.[5] Clapp, the sedate curator, was dubbed "Ho-Ho-Ho" by Gile because that was Clapp's usual exclamation when he arrived at their meetings. He was considered to be the gentleman of the crowd.[6] As Siegriest recalls, "Clapp was a very quiet sort of fellow, polite and quiet." He also remembers with discomfort, "the way these guys would talk in front of him...he looked embarrassed but he would join in."[7] "The Six" friends rarely missed a Saturday or Sunday evening get-together at Selden Gile's place..[8]

William Clapp was the only member of the group who had received formal instruction in France.[9] Born in Canada, in 1879, but reared in Oakland, Clapp returned to Canada, in 1900. He studied there and at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jean-Paul Laurens, as well as the Académie Colarossi and at the Ecole de la Grande Chaumière. Before returning permanently to live in Oakland, about 1917, Clapp had been considered a radical painter in Montreal. In fact his studies in Europe and Paris, and his later familiarity with the modernist Canadian "Group of Seven" who showed for the first time together in Toronto in 1920, contributed immensely to "The Six's" cohesiveness. Not coincidentally, "The Six" had initially been called "The Group of Six," undoubtedly prompted by Clapp's knowledge of the Canadian painters.[10] His previous studies in Paris and Montreal had acquainted him with an attitude that considered manifestos and closely-knit groups to be essentially supportive of art. An Oakland Tribune critic finally named the Oakland-based group of artists "The Society of Six," perhaps cribbing the title from a contemporary group of vanguard French musicians led by Eric Satie, "Les Six," who had been in the news as musical innovators.[11] In 1923, Clapp initiated a policy of annual shows for "The Society of Six" as part of a progressive exhibition program in the Oakland Art Gallery.

August Gay and Selden Gile were the first of "The Six" artists to become acquainted with each other and exchange ideas.[12] Although Gile may have seemed at times to be a misanthrope, he was, in fact, unusually generous and sensitive to the needs of others, particularly artists. He supported August Gay on and off from 1911 to 1920, and helped the young Frenchman, the son of recent immigrants, to realize his early dream of becoming an artist.[13] Gay's family was extremely poor, and there was no room for him to paint in their overcrowded house in Alameda so he finally appealed to Gile for help.[14]

Although William Clapp became curator of the Oakland Art Gallery in 1918, it has been suggested that he met Gile earlier, in 1917.[15]

Louis Siegriest, a native of Oakland, first met Selden Gile and August Gay in 1914 when they were both living on James Avenue nearby. When Gile later moved to Chabot Road, Oakland, he became a neighbor and friend of Maurice Logan and they began to paint together. The last member of the group to be "enlisted" was Bernard von Eichman.[16]

Siegriest remembers well the evening when their association was formalized, because it helped to shape his mature career; "I was damn pleased to be included," he said. William Gaw (1891-1973), an often brilliant, pioneering modernist, was a regular associate of the group but he was excluded from it by Gile, who said, "I am going to keep it to six, no more."[17]

Gile, and for the most part the others of "The Six," worked outdoors on most holidays and weekends, usually after hiking short distances in the open fields around North Oakland.[18] They were, however, not confined to the immediate East Bay area. Painting expeditions in search of interesting subjects often took members of the group to Marin County, up and down the California coast from Mendocino to Monterey, and throughout Contra Costa County, the California Mother Lode country and to Taos, New Mexico.

In spite of the inherent limitations of weekend painting, they managed to maintain an intense involvement with art, often completing as many as four or five conveniently-sized, sixteen-by-twenty inch canvases a day.[19]

Even though Selden Gile approached his subjects with a rare spontaneity, his work can be readily identified, not because he employed tired formulas, but, rather, because he approached his themes with an incisive directness that saw each new picture as being unique. He achieved his distinctive color and spatial relationships without resorting to stock recipes, and not only had a flexible palette but also utilized a variety of painting techniques.[20] If it seemed to fit the occasion, he would use a palette knife, while on another, he would use a brush. In any event, he used whatever seemed appropriate at the time.

After Gile moved to Tiburon in 1927, he painted larger canvases which occasionally approached forty by forty-eight inches in size. In a letter to Louis Siegriest, he mentioned that he had difficulties with canvases larger than thirty-four by forty inches.[21] Although Gile did succeed later in painting some fine larger canvases, they frequently appeared labored in technique and static in color. In general, all six artists did their best work in pictures of small format that could be done quickly and "on the spot." Larger canvases seemed to inhibit their work.:[22]

August Gay's earlier paintings clearly show Gile's influence in his use of thick paint and a small brush stroke. Gay's immense talent became apparent by the mid -1920s, and at. that time he also developed the creative strength to grow in an independent direction from the other members of "The Six." After 1920, his color became more inventive and personal and he developed a remarkable ability to organize shapes into spatial patterns that pursued a type of realism that was very similar to that practiced later by some of the Northern California artists who were working in the Bay Area Figurative Style in the 1950s and 60s. Gay's painting, Ranch in Carmel Valley, is one of the dearest examples of this coincidental similarity.

Unlike the works of the other members of "The Six," William Clapp's paintings show that the artist's mature career was chiefly spent working in a style that can be placed somewhere between French Impressionism and Post-Impressionist pointillism. His paintings, at their best, display an inspired use of high-keyed reds, greens and yellows that hint of Monet. Clapp tended to theorize a good deal about art, but had very little impact on the group. According to Louis Siegriest, most of "The Six" were intuitive in their approach to art, and Clapp's intellectual approach to art theory and techniques was barely tolerated.[23]

Maurice Logan, who painted with more authority than Clapp, made some remarkably fine paintings during the 1920s, occasionally working in straightforward impressionist manner. More typical, however, is his Point Richmond of 1929, in which he employed a palette much more akin to the Spanish virtuoso Post-Impressionist, Joaquin Sorrola y Bastida (1863-1923), whom he greatly admired.[24] Logan became well-known during his lifetime as a highly successful commercial artist and as a watercolorist, depicting scenes of the Oakland Estuary, Alameda and San Francisco Bay.

One of the youngest members of "The Six," Louis Siegriest, had formal art instruction, but preferred to learn from the older members of the group. "I never missed a get-together at Gile's," he later recalled. It wasn't for the good food and drink, either. Because of his youth the discussions on art by the members of the group made a great impression on him. "You had better not show up at their get-together either on Saturday or Sunday without a few paintings done that day, recalls Siegriest.[25]

Although he produced some excellent paintings in the 1920s, he was destined to do his finest work after World War II, when he parlayed his long involvement with the California landscape into lyrical abstractions of western deserts.

The youngest member of "The Six," Bernard von Eichman, studied at the Frank Van Sloun School of Art in San Francisco between 1918 and 1920. Unlike Siegriest's, von Eichman's growth as an artist is comparatively difficult to evaluate because he burned a large number of his early paintings thus making an accurate assessment of the evolution of his work difficult.[26] Many artists considered "Red," as he was known, to be very progressive for his time and various newspapers and periodicals called his paintings "ultra modern."[27] In a 1926 Oakland Tribune review by H.L. Dungan, an abstract landscape was reproduced and the reviewer indicated that von Eichman was considered to be the extreme radical of "The Six."[28] Von Eichman's unconventional behavior added considerable excitement to the gatherings of "The Six," but he was, in addition, an intellectual spark to the group. He was an insatiable reader, and although not formally educated, he had traveled widely as an oiler in the merchant marine. Whenever his ship docked at a major port, such as New York, he would go to the local art museums and buy their latest art publications. After his return, he would report to "The Six" on what he had seen. He brought armloads of art magazines to Gile's house and the group perused them.[29]

Although the group had an intensive association of remarkably long duration -- the years from 1917 to 1928 were their most cohesive -- they continued to get together until the beginning of World War II. Their meetings became increasingly social rather than art-producing in nature, however, and relatively infrequent, as Gile's alcoholism worsened and his conviviality waned.[30]

Changes also occurred in the essentially exuberant and optimistic mood of "The Six," when the great depression of the 1930s began to alter their outlook. All of them, with the possible exception of Clapp, made stylistic changes that either reflected a somber mood or changing attitudes towards their previous visual concerns.

Successive years and time's momentum have enhanced the visual achievements of "The Six" because their fundamental integrity and abilities are authentically rooted in the mainstream of California art. Their work continues to surface because of its inherent validity and the archetypal beauty of their images.

Endnotes:

1. William H. Clapp, "We Believe," Society of Six Manifesto presented at the Third Annual Society of Six Exhibition, Oakland, California, 1926. See Terry St. John, Society of Six, exhibition catalogue (Oakland, California: The Oakland Museum, 1972).

2. Selden Gile to Louis Siegriest, 15 November 1927, Archives of California Art, The Oakland Museum.

3. Laura Bride Powers, Oakland Tribune, 15 April 1923. This term was commonly used to describe Gile's cottage, according to Louis Siegriest.

4. Louis Siegriest and Lundy Siegriest, "Louis Bassi Siegriest Reminiscences," interview by Corinne L. Glib, 1954, University of California Regional Oral History Office, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, p. 76.

5. Louis Siegriest and Maurice Logan interview, Oakland, California, 13 January 1972.

6. Louis Siegriest and Lundy Siegriest, p. 77.

7. Rudolph Schmidt and Louis Siegriest interview, Oakland, California, 15 June 1972.

8. Louis Siegriest and Lundy Siegriest, pp. 80-81.

9. William H. Clapp to Fernand Ferret, 30 September 1940, Archives of California Art, The Oakland Museum. Also cited in Oakleaves, publication of the Oakland Public Library (6 May 1954).

10. J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 1966), pp. 257 and 365.

11. Glenn Wessels to Laetitia Meyers, 7 April 1972, Archives of California Art, The Oakland Museum.

12. Schmidt and Siegriest interview.

13. Olympe Allegretti (August Gay's sister), interview, 9 June 1972,

14. Ibid.

15. "Will Bohemia Rise in Oakland?" Oakland Tribune, 22 April 1917.

16. Schmidt and Siegriest interview.

17. Ibid.

18. Siegriest and Siegriest, p. 19.

19. Ibid., p. 20.

20. Siegriest and Siegriest, p. 19.

21. Selden Gile to Louis Siegriest, 29 November 1927, Archives of California Art, The Oakland Museum.

22. Siegriest and Siegriest, p. 20.

23. Louis Siegriest interview, Oakland, California, 23 July 1972.

24. Louis Siegriest, personal communication, Oakland, California, 13 June 1981.

25. Siegriest and Siegriest, pp. 80-81.

26. Mildred von Eichman, interview, Monterey, California, 23 June 1972.

27. Schmidt and Siegriest interview.

28. H. L. Dungan, Oakland Tribune, 3 May 1925. Gile, Gay, Siegriest and von Eichman were described as moving away from Impressionism, with the latter three labeled as "ultra moderns."

29. Schmidt and Siegriest interview.

30. Louis Siegriest interview, 23 July 1972.

 

Essay courtesy of Westpahl Publishing, Irvine, California

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