Tunis Ponsen

by Susan S. Weininger



The isolationist mentality of this period combined with the enormous amount of government supported art mandating painting of the American Scene -- images of American life, often idealized and stereotypical -- encouraged the production of images of small town or rural life that embodied the traditional ideals of America. In an effort to distinguish themselves from Europeans, American artists during this period self-consciously sought to make representational images with no reference to the abstraction or intellectual modernism of Europe. Artists in Chicago, both conservative and modernist, were perfectly positioned to take up the ideals of this period. Most of them already worked primarily in representational styles and the kinds of subjects that were most popular were those that emerged out of the Midwest -- farms, small towns in the heartland, local industrial activity, and the positive potential of the typical American city.

Ponsen's urban scenes, with their emphasis on the redemptive possibilities of the modern metropolis, fit the mandate. So do the scenes of small towns and midwestern farms he begins to paint during this period. Ponsen had always travelled to the southwestern Michigan farm of his sister and her husband, Arnolda (Nolda) and Herman Schogt, for weekends, holidays and vacations. The never-married Ponsen considered them, along with their daughter Angenita, born in 1918, his family, and maintained very close relations with them all of his life. Their farm and nearby sites provided him with subject matter almost all of his mature artistic career. Because he never learned to drive an automobile and was limited to the bus and train for transportation, his geographical circle was circumscribed. After his visits to the Atlantic coast in the late 1930s, he never went further than his Chicago neighborhood, the scenic towns of Illinois or the rich agricultural settings of southern and western Michigan for inspiration.

Ponsen's images of fertile Michigan farmland resemble the Regionalist landscapes popularized by Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. The panoramic Midwest Landscape with Storm (cat. #32) has the large, 'flattened color areas characteristic of Ponsen's work during this period. Although a cluster of farm buildings appears among the gently rolling hills, the painting puts emphasis on the cycles of nature, the coming storm and the ultimate fertility of the land. During this period of economic deprivation, drought and farm failures, artists in the United States chose to represent rural America as a fecund and rich reservoir ready to yield up its bounty. Like Curry's Wisconsin Landscape (fig. 5) or Chicagoan Elizabeth Colwell's A Kentucky Road (location unknown)[31], the landscape is panoramic, peaceful, cultivated and fertile.

Later landscapes like Apple Tree (cat. #37), reminiscent of the work of Vincent Van Gogh, focus on a single landscape element and rely more on broken, visible brushstrokes and the brilliant, pure color characteristic of mature Impressionism. An Old Tree (cat. #38), done in acrylic paint and dating to his latest period, demonstrates the continuity of interests throughout his career.

His paintings of small towns in the Midwest -- Country Train Station (cat. #30), Galena, Illinois (cat. #28), Midwest Backyards (cat. #29) -- have analogues in the work of local artist William Schwartz (Untitled [City Street], fig. 20) and Aaron Bohrod (Waiting for the 3:30, fig. 21), who similarly extol the virtues of small-town America in their work. Compared to the composition of Schwartz, with its stylized, flattened planes, Ponsen's paintings appear traditional, yet his Train Station closely resembles Bohrod's work of about the same time. Along with the more conventional urban representations of his home on Oakenwald Avenue (House on Oakenwald, cat. #35), which Ponsen painted numerous times, emphasizing the quiet and tranquil small-town quality of the neighborhood, Ponsen's contribution to regionalism in Chicago is clear.

In Galena, Illinois and Midwest Backyards, Ponsen's view from the quiet intimacy of the backyard rather than .the public and active main street is parallel to the view in Backyards of My Childhood and Chicago Silhouettes. In each case, Ponsen takes the opportunity to represent the aspect of the scene that is less often represented, but far more revealing. The resonance and quiet mystery of the images in which we see the "hidden" side of a scene make them some of his most interesting works.

In works like Chicago Fishing Scene (cat. #32), which may correspond to works with titles like City's Edge or South Chicago Shoreline mentioned in newspaper accounts and exhibition records, Ponsen combines his interest in the picturesque boating and fishing scenes of the East Coast with the regional interests he developed in the 1930s. It is similar in color to Gloucester Harbor (cat. #17) and shares its high viewpoint, diagonal shoreline and a horizon defined by vegetation. The scene that Ponsen paints resembles the quaint harbors of the Massachusetts and Maine coasts much more than that of Lake Michigan, where the water and sky merge at the horizon, the opposite shore never visible.

A group of images painted from his studio window span his entire career, beginning with The Repair Gang done in the late 1920s, to Rainy Day (cat. #33) and Burning Cigarette (cat. #34) of the late 1930s and even the undated Snow in Chicago Alley (cat. #36). In these works, Ponsen positions the viewer outside the main activity of the event, separate and detached. The idiosyncratic point of view that Ponsen repeats throughout his career may be related to his own shyness and self-protectiveness, if not isolation.

Ponsen's public popularity reached its peak in the late 1930s. Of the 14 times he participated in juried exhibitions at the Art Institute, only one was after 1938.[32] In that year, he was invited to have a one-person exhibition at the Drake Hotel under the sponsorship of the All Illinois Society of the Fine Arts. Although the 47 paintings exhibited included few, if any, Dutch scenes from the trip a decade earlier, a number of images inspired by his travels to the East Coast from the same period were shown. Inclusion of a number of urban scenes like Chicago Silhouettes, chosen as the cover illustration for the brochure, indicates Ponsen's pride in these works. Many of the images have titles that have associations to weather conditions (After the Storm, Hills in Sunlight, Belated Snow) or seasons (Autumn, Midsummer), underscoring his continuing interest in the atmospheric conditions that affect light and color.

In the postwar period, the taste for representational art was supplanted by the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Even in Chicago, artists like the members of the "Monster Roster" were coming to grips with developments in New York.[33] Ponsen himself attempted abstraction (Sunbeams through the Clouds, cat. #49; Abstract, cat. #50). Other Chicagoans like Don Baum and Gertrude Abercrombie were producing work linked to Surrealism while continuing the tradition established by Ivan Albright. Even as he experimented with abstraction, Ponsen continued to paint representational landscapes and cityscapes (Heavy Snow, cat. #39) similar to his earlier work.

Like his Hyde Park neighbor Abercrombie, he responded to the urban renewal that began in Hyde Park in the 1950s (fig. 22). Ponsen's painting of the skeleton of half-destroyed buildings surrounded by a multi-colored fence of old doors (Demolition in Hyde Park, cat. #40) contrasts markedly with Abercrombie's Doors (fig. 23). Abercrombie's doors dominate the painting, isolated from their original construction site, resonating mysteriously, acting as a device that cuts off the space and communicates her own internal struggles with isolation and loneliness.[34] Painted with precise clarity, there is no conventional attempt to create a sense of space and atmosphere, certainly no fixing of weather or time of day. Abercrombie is interested solely in internal life -- this is the closest to an urban landscape that she ever paints -- and was certainly inspired to paint the doors because of their personal emblematic significance as devices of separation. Abercrombie had also spent the happiest time of her life in a building that was destroyed by urban renewal, giving additional personal weight to the subject. Ponsen's image has his usual skillful objectivity; although not illustrational, it is a record of this important and pervasive activity.


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