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On June 8, 2006 Todd Behrens, Curator of Art at the Polk Museum of Art, presented a lecture at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art related to the works included in the concurrent exhibition Drawn from Life: Works on Paper from the August L. & L. Tommie Freundlich Trust. Following is the text from the lecture:
Thank you very much for this opportunity to speak about the works in this exhibition. For those of us who are museum geeks, we appreciate the chance to view artworks in different settings. It is astounding how the layout of an exhibition can impact a visitor's encounter with the artworks and I think that Annette and Larry did a wonderful job.
So why are these artworks here? Well, first of all we can look at the names of the artists. Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Burchfield, John Steuart Curry, Stuart Davis, Robert Henri, Ben Shahn, John Sloan, and so on. Big names for sure. And we do like to look at art by artists whose names we recognize. But ultimately that turns out to be a not terribly satisfying goal when looking at art. And, in fact, these names might not be recognizable to many who have viewed this exhibition at either museum. We can also see by the title of the exhibition that these works have come from a single collection: the August L. and L. Tommie Freundlich Trust. That sounds pretty impressive. A single collection and it's in a trust so you know these works must be important to have gotten a financial planner involved. But I've got a collection and you probably do, too. And, to reveal a secret, virtually every work on display in the galleries came from a single, cramped hallway; floor to ceiling, virtually edge to edge, around the corner, past the office and spare bedroom, with only the tiniest of labels occasionally revealing that, yes indeed, that is a Marguerite Zorach and that one over there is an Ernest Lawson. What makes this collection worth exhibiting and not mine? The answer is two-part. It is focused and it reveals an important part of the history of American art that is easily overlooked. I have to confess: my collection is neither focused nor revealing of anything beyond the quirky taste shared by my wife and me. Sowhat ultimately brings this collection into our museums is that it can teach us a thing or two.
When the Polk Museum of Art hosted this exhibition last summer, I heard two questions asked most frequently. The first was, "You say these artists are important, but I've never heard of them. Why is their work worth exhibiting?" and the second was, "Why don't you exhibit paintings by these artists rather than just drawings." To answer the question will require a little jog back into the history of art, the history that led up to the moment represented by the works in the Freundlich Trust Collection.
As most of you are aware, when art historians tell the tale of the development of art throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, they talk a lot about France. From Neo-Classicism into Romanticism into Realism into Impressionism into the various things that have become known as Post-Impressionism into Matisse and Picasso and Duchamp -- the Big Three of the first quarter of the 20th century -- the entire story can be told without leaving France (at least until Duchamp left France and came to the United States). We hear an occasional reference to an American hear and there, you know, the ones who went to Europe like Mary Cassatt and James Whistler. And in the early 20th century there were a few artists who have had lasting fame like Grant Wood (for a single painting of his dentist and his sister), Frederic Remington (because we like cowboys and Indians), and Georgia O'Keeffe because there might just be references to things other than flowers within her flower paintings. But until the age of Jackson Pollock, the story of modern art history can be told without crossing the Atlantic. Right?
Right. So why is this collection important? Because the story we are familiar with is the story that is the simplest to tell. Although the last thirty years has expanded the scope of art historical research to a remarkable degree, it is still difficult to include everything in the "story" of art. To ignore what was happening in this country at the dawn of the 20th century is to miss a period of remarkable change that led to everything that has been produced since. American artists had traveled to Europe to attend the great art academies from the earliest days of this country through the end of the 19th century (and beyond). While there were good artists in this country, an art school with centuries of experience behind it was not something they could find in America. But as the 19th century progressed and increasing numbers of American artists traveled to these European academies, a revolution in art was taking place beyond the doors of the academies.
Beginning in the 1840s artists in what became known as The Barbizon School began to ignore the academic control of the French art world. Looking at nature, influenced by contemporary literature and philosophy, learning from works produced in non-European cultures, artists from Rousseau and Millet to Courbet and Manet to Degas and Monet took their cues not from the academic world which answered the demand of the upper classes for paintings that reflected their status in society but from the physical world around them.
Some American artists, even those trained in the prestigious French academies such as Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Academie Julian, were not that far behind their European brethren in adapting to the idea that art could and should capture the essence of their moment rather than attempting to please a certain clientele. These ideas, beginning as this country was embracing the democratic spirit of such things as the Arts and Crafts Movement, led to a broad reinterpretation of the creation of art and the role it should play in society. Art could enhance the lives of everyone, but in a remarkably abstract way. It was no longer about the overt teaching of history or the metaphorical presentations of universal concepts such as justice, freedom, and sacrifice; nor was it to satisfy the people's taste for the exotic, as in scenes from Turkish baths, or for the sentimental, as in Bouguereau's omnipresent Knitting Girls and Shepherdesses. But if art wasn't about demonstrating the taste, compassion, worldliness, or education of the art patron, then what was the purpose of art?
Connection. Communication. The idea that art could pull people together through either the creation or the appreciation of the abstract beauty within a composition. This idea extended from what is now revered as the most avant-garde art of the time to pure craft. In Europe, Maurice Denis, a disciple of Gauguin, wrote in the early 20th century of Cezanne: "In opposition to modern pictures, a Cezanne inspires by itself, by its qualities of unity in composition and color, in short by its painting. Before the Cezanne artwork we think only of the picture; neither the object represented nor the artist's personality holds our attention." These ideas reflected a growing trend among artists that replaced the emphasis on the finish of the work with an emphasis on the foundation of the work.
Add into this thinking a sprinkling of theory from those involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement. Illustrator and theoretician Walter Crane wrote, "All really great works of art are public works -- monumental, collective, generic -- expressing the ideas of a race, a community, a united people." Again, there is the idea of work that can bring people together. And there were two aspects to this: one had its basis in a growing socialist movement that sought to improve the lives of those at the bottom of the economic strata; and a second that was aware that a nation without a robust, specifically identifiable sense of art and culture was not a truly great nation.
The exhibition hosted a few months ago by this museum, The American Arts & Crafts Home 1900-1915: Selections from the Two Red Roses Foundation Collection, was a perfect demonstration of this moment in American history. Education, industry, and art worked together for harmony, for edification, and for profit. The Arts and Crafts Movement, as indicated by its name, brought together craft and fine art to make craft more artistic and to make art more accessible. The impact of this thinking on the fine art circle of this country was important. It led artists in this country -- even those with the highest academic training -- to focus on the everyday world. Also, it impacted the manner in which they composed their works. A newfound emphasis on the common aspects of their world gave some artists a newfound respect for the role that illustration could play in art, combining the representation of specific subjects with the concept that an American artist who is true to himself or herself will necessarily create something that is both individual and American. So what do we find in the Freundlich Trust Collection? We find works by Robert Henri, the man who was arguably the most influential figure in American art during the Teddy Roosevelt and Taft administrations. Henri was the unofficial leader of two loosely knit and overlapping groups of artists that became known as "The Eight" and "The Ashcan School". He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia and then at those Parisian academies, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Academie Julian, where he studied underWilliam-Adolphe Bouguereau. But he was much more interested in the work of artists such as Franz Hals, Edouard Manet, and Thomas Eakins than in following the precepts of the academies. Henri once remarked, "Judging a Manet from the point of view of Bouguereau, the Manet has not been finished. Judging a Bouguereau from the viewpoint of Manet, the Bouguereau has not been begun." He admired both the subjects and the styles of Hals, Manet and Eakins: their subjects were frequently contemporary, gritty, and reflected a stronger interest in the common than in the grand; at the same time their styles were bold, dark, and dynamic-perfect reflections of their subjects. After he returned to Philadelphia, Henri began to attract a group of followers who met in his studio to discuss art and culture, including several newspaper illustrators: William Glackens, George Luks, and John Sloan. He began teaching at the New York School of Art in 1902, where his students included Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, George Bellows, and Stuart Davis. In 1906, he was elected to the National Academy of Design. But he left the National Academy the next year, declaring it "a cemetery of art," after the work of Glackens, Luks, and Sloan was rejected for the Academy's 1907 exhibition (Henri's work had been accepted).
"The Eight" was formed the following year after an exhibition at the MacBeth Gallery in New York. Under the leadership of Henri, he and the three rejected artists joined Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, Maurice Prendergast, and Everett Shinn for this exhibition. This was a radical moment for American art. At least to a point. Though they publicized the exhibition with the declaration, "We must paint the misery of life, the seamy side," their work was diverse in subject as well as style. As current New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman once observed, "that tried-and-true ploy of outsiders against insiders helped to catapult the event onto the front of newspapers at a time when art coverage rarely escaped the ghetto of the women's pages."
Nowbrace yourself -- you are about to view a number of works by The Eight, works produced at this time. I'll give you a moment to catch your breath after viewing the seamy side of life ca. 1907-1908. The point is: this is how conservative and how controlled the American art scene was 100 years ago, that works such as these could be seen as iconoclastic.
So there's a bit of the history, but there is a little more to be added. The success of "The Eight" led to another, larger exhibition in 1910, the Independent Exhibition, which was modeled after the French Salon des Refuses. This exhibition was organized by Henri, Sloan, Davies and another newspaper artist, Walt Kuhn, to compete directly with the National Academy's annual spring exhibition. The 600 works in this exhibition were promoted as expressing the "spirit of the people of today," and made a remarkable dent in the standing of the Academy. Frank Jewett Mather, an important critic of the time, stated that, in light of the Independent Exhibition, the Academy's annual exhibition was now ''an episode without importance in the life of the city.'' And from the success of this exhibition came the formation of the American Association of Painters and Sculptors in 1911, the initial purpose of which was to organize the International Exhibition of Modern Art, commonly referred to as the Armory Show. Davies, Glackens, and Kuhn oversaw the selection of 1,300 artworks from the United States and Europe. It included seven of The Eight (all but Shinn) plus Childe Hassam, Joseph Stella, Stuart Davis, and, of course, many others. And its opening marked the end of that historical moment in which members of The Eight were viewed by the American public as avant-garde. Yet, ironically, the avant-garde would not have been so dramatically redefined without The Eight.
This time and these artists are reflected in the Freundlich Trust Collection. But why drawings? There are two reasons why drawings are important. The first is, again, historical. The ideas that led to things such as the Arts and Crafts Movement were based, in part, on ascribing great power to the compositional structure of objects. And the power began with line. Again, Walter Crane wrote, "Line is all-important. Let the designer, therefore, in the adaptation of his art, lean upon the staff of line, line determinative, line emphatic, line delicate, line expressive, line controlling and uniting." Artists like Henri, explained the importance of line in reverse, "Because we are saturated with life, because we are human, our strongest motive is life, humanity; and the stronger the motive back of the line the stronger, and therefore more beautiful, the line will be." When we look at drawings by these artists, we are viewing what these artists viewed as not just the compositional foundation of any artwork, but the actual spirit of their artistic vision.
Take for example this 1919 drawing by Yasuo Kunoyoshi, an artist who emigrated from Japan in 1906 and settled in New York in 1910. He studied first with Robert Henri and then attended the Art Students League until 1920. His early forays into art making resulted in a few experiments in Cubism. But even more than Cubist ideas of figurative composition, what lies at the heart of Kuniyoshi's work is the sparest use of a particular medium to convey the essence of the subject. Loose, languid lines of varying width used to depict a nude woman down to her knees. His work actually became more recognizably Cubist in style in later years after he began choosing subjects such as circus performers who were dynamic within tight spaces.
Or the work of Gaston Lachaise, known as the best sculptor in the country during the 1920s and 1930s. He also emigrated in 1906, coming from France, giving up his place at the National Academy in Paris to follow his love, an American tourist. Once settled in America, he created both portraits and his own idealized sculptures of women. Again, we see these gentle, simple curving lines capturing the refined shapes that made his sculptures so popular.
Henri himself sought to imbue his artworks with a vitality that he felt was lacking in the leading styles at the turn of the 20th century. One of the subjects he explored frequently was urban life. He sensed that city life was changing, becoming faster and more diverse, and he tried to capture that feeling through his paintings and drawings. He believed that the purest method for art creation was not to paint on site, but to paint from memory. By doing this, he believed that the artist was relying on his interpretation of an experience rather than merely copying what was in front of him; this reliance on experience seemed to be the more effective method for capturing on paper or on canvas what was inside the artist. In fact what he created most frequently were portraits, particularly those of friends and family members. And in spite of his desire to paint the dirty and gritty, many of his portraits were of society's brighter lights.
Arthur B. Davies was born in Utica, NY. He studied at many of the leading art academies of the 19th century in both Chicago and New York. He developed a unique style that combined a number of late 19th-century styles such as Tonalism and Art Nouveau with early 20th-century styles such as Cubism. He was thought to have a very conservative style among the other members of The Eight, yet he more than any other individual was responsible for bringing over the most progressive art from Europe for the Armory Show.
Everett Shinn trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, but did not meet the other artists of "The Eight" until they moved to New York. He became well-known for his pastel subjects of New York street scenes that ranged from Park Avenue to the Bowery. His early experience as a newspaper artist-reporter gave him great technical facility which he later exercised as an illustrator for many national magazines such as McClure's, Hearsts International and The Century. Shinn's career as an illustrator, however, was only sporadic. Beginning as early as 1911, he began to lose interest in painting city life and turned his attention more to murals and theatrical sets, completing many for Ziegfeld's Follies.
John Sloan was the most socially and politically engaged artist of "The Eight." An avowed Socialist in the early years of the century, he contributed illustrations to such journals as The Masses, becoming its art editor in 1912. It was probably due to his paintings, which at that time tended to be dark depictions of the gritty side of urban life in New York, that the entire group was later dubbed the "Ashcan School" by art critics. Sloan described himself as a voyeur, a spectator of the human dramas he glimpsed in the streets and tenements. Sloan did not sell his first painting until 1913, but by 1912 he had received enough commissions for illustration work that he was able to move to a larger space, take on students, and begin to study the human figure more earnestly.
Always committed to portraying the social and economic welfare of the working classes, William Gropper began his career as a cartoonist for the now defunct New York Tribune in 1917. Gropper brings us to the second reason why the drawings are important, and it is a more personal reason. Not to imply that Dr. Freundlich is old, but he did actually know a number of these artists -- though I should say that he was very, very young at these meetings and the artists were very, very old. There is something to be said for collecting works that have multiple meanings: aesthetic, art historical, and even personal. And while any good artwork should reflect the individuality of its creator, drawings, whether created from a pencil, pen, lithographic crayon or other methods, seem to be more closely tied to the physical act of making a work of art. Often you can disentangle a drawing by following the marks and lines that have been made; a much more difficult task arises if you attempt to do the same with most any other technique. Drawings bring you as close as you can get to the artist him or herself.
Gropper's teachers, George Bellows and Robert Henri, undoubtedly instilled a deep regard for humanity in Gropper, and, in effect, Gropper traveled the world to document social unrest. Later in life, Gropper toured the prairie states with hopes of making studies of the Dust Bowl for a series of paintings. Gropper also toured Europe following World War II to view the incurred devastation. Gropper's work often incited controversy: in the August 1935 issue of Vanity Fair, a drawing satirizing Emperor Hirohito of Japan outraged the Japanese government so much, Ambassador Hiroshi Saito demanded apologies from both the magazine's publisher and U.S. Secretary of State. Gus met him and his wife Sophie when they visited Miami's Lowe Art Museum of which he was director. Gus recalled, "They were driving a white Cadillac convertible, Sophie wearing a large mink scarf. Times had changed and so had Gropper's lifestyle since the days of the leftist cartoons."
Leon Kroll first achieved success while a student at the Acádemie Julien in Paris where he won the Grand Prix for a painting of the female nude. On returning to New York in 1910, Kroll earned critical and popular success with a one-person exhibition at the National Academy of Design. He became associated with the circle of artists that included George Bellows, Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks and Edward Hopper and participated in the Armory Show. Gus recalled that "When I met Leon Kroll, I was installing an exhibit of his work at Syracuse University's Lubin House in New York City. Kroll was famous for his images of beautiful young nudes. By this time, nearly ninety and bent over by arthritis, he still could not stop chasing the two female graduate students who were helping me with mounting the show."
Robert Gwathmey's deep concern for social injustice, especially that endured by African-Americans in rural Virginia during the 1940s and 1950s, served as a primary theme in his works. Gwathmey created a unique style that emulated collages that he would create by hand, bordered by even black lines. His studies included time during the 1920s at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts -- there it is again -- followed by fellowships in Europe. Upon his return to the US, he became ever more aware of the social inequities of his time, inspired by his wife Rosalie's documentary photographs of African-American life in the South during the 1930s and 1940s. Gus was introduced to Gwathmey by art dealer Terry Dintenfass. He was able to purchase a well known Gwathmey serigraph (Portrait of a Farmer's Wife), the first of several Gwathmeys in their collection, and was going to begin work on monograph of the artist. However, the project came to a halt when a supportive editor died. Decades later a casual conversation with Dr. Louis Zona, Director of the Butler Institute of American Art, uncovered a mutual admiration of the work of Gwathmey. The result was the most important exhibition to date of the work by Robert Gwathmey, curated by Gus Freundlich, which after opening at The Butler traveled the country in 1999 and 2000.
Feininger was born in New York City, the son of a musician, who grew up with a love of ships, trains, and motion. He traveled to Berlin to study music in 1887, but decided a year later to study art. He became associated with the Blue Rider group, and formed a close relationship with artists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. In 1919 he was invited by Walter Gropius to join the Bauhaus, one of the most influential design schools in the world. Feininger stayed until the Bauhaus was closed by Hitler in 1933. Feininger developed a style identifiable for its delicate, yet dramatic use of angular lines. When he returned to New York, ships became one of his favorite subjects, lending themselves well to his passion for the movement of lines.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Anton Refregier studied art in Munich with Hans Hofmann and at the Rhode Island School of Design. After finishing school in 1925, Refregier held a number of jobs until the 1930s when he found work with the Federal Art Projects and the Works Progress Adminstration. He gained fame in the 1930s as a mural artist, completing murals across the country. In 1941 he won a national competition that earned him a commission to complete his most recognized work-the mural in the Rincon Annex, which had been the San Francisco Post Office. The painting of this enormous mural, depicting the history of Northern California, was interrupted during WWII and not completed until 1948. It depicted scenes deemed controversial to politicians during the post-war era and the artist was required to make 92 changes to the original mural. The mural was the largest commission of its kind for the painting and sculpture division of the WPA. "Anton Refregier was, in 1951, probably the first of many artist friends and colleagues I met. Within the last several years, a mural he had painted for a San Francisco Post Office had become the subject of widespread discussion. A particular segment showed Chinese laborers at work laying railroad track. Objections came from those who felt it showed the development of California in an unflattering light. I found the preliminary drawing for the mural recently in a New York gallery. It brought back pleasant memories of a wonderful man and great artist."
Jean Charlot studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris before serving in the French Army during World War I. His mother, with her French, Mexican and Jewish lineage, introduced him to Mexico in 1920, where he sketched for archeologists excavating Mayan ruins. He became enthused with his Mexican heritage, as was evident through his assistance of Diego Rivera and other members of the Syndicate of Painters and Sculptors on a series of mural paintings in Mexico City. Charlot is credited by Rivera for reviving and refining the fresco technique that he used. After working from 1929 with lithography printer George Miller in New York, Charlot began a lifetime collaboration in 1933 with Lynton R. Kistler, master lithography printer in Los Angeles, reputedly making the first stone-drawn color lithographs in the United States. Charlot devoted himself to themes of family and the working class, revealing the universality of human nature.
Moses Soyer was born in Russia on December 25, 1899. He grew up in a liberal and artistic household. The Soyers were deported in 1913 by the Czarist Russians, and they settled in New York City. After studying with his twin brother, Raphael, at two schools that they found stifling, Moses entered the unconventional Ferrer Art School in Spanish Harlem. It was there that he met Robert Henri and was deeply influenced by the Ashcan School's focus on the hard life of simple people. In 1926 Soyer was given a one-man show and was also awarded a two-year art scholarship which enabled him to go to Europe. In Europe he studied drawing almost exclusively and came to know every painting in the Louvre from his frequent visits to the museum. Soyer returned to New York and began painting furiously. Prosperity was just beginning to shine on Soyer when the Great Depression hit, forcing him to survive on commissions earned for decorating public buildings. After World War II, he remained true to his own style of realism of the poor of New York, and portraits of friends and of himself.
Regarded as America's leading advocate of realism, Raphael Soyer devoted his long, productive life to "painting people... in their natural context who belong to their time." During the 1930s, Soyer's poignant portrayals of New York City's office workers and the unemployed secured his reputation as a major Social Realist. Beginning in 1917, Soyer's most frequently used model was himself, often with pencil or brush in hand. "I always paint myself appearing introvertedI never make myself entirely like myself. I always appear older looking, or unshaven, or all alone. It's the result of looking a little bit more deeply." "Among the many studio visits made for the Syracuse University collection, I met Raphael Soyer. He was painting a portrait of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer. To pass the time Singer was telling a great story of life in a Jewish/Russian Stedtl. I was thrilled to meet two great creative spirits at the same time."
Born on a farm just outside of Dunavant, Kansas, John Steuart Curry developed a deep attachment to a rustic way of life. But he was keenly aware of heroic struggles that had taken place and continued to take place to ensure the tranquility of the rustic life. Curry was born not far from where John Brown had murdered five pro-slavery men 40 years before. After studying at various art schools including the Kansas City Art Institute and The Art Institute of Chicago, Curry settled in Paris and then took up teaching in New York City at the Art Students League and Cooper Union. But he returned to Topeka in 1937 to work on a series of murals for the state house. In response to these murals, the state legislature barred him from completing his murals. Fifty years later, the legislature offered a posthumous apology.
As the son of a Missouri U.S. Congressman and the grandnephew of a U.S. Senator, it is not surprising that Thomas Hart Benton developed an early interest in American politics, history and folklore. Benton was an influential art instructor at the Art Students League and became best known as a muralist, chronicling the lives of everyday folks in the American heartland. He enjoyed a productive career as a printmaker, completing nearly 100 lithographs. The majority of his prints were published and distributed by the Associated American Artists, an organization that pioneered the notion of selling popular imagery at affordable prices. Wreck of the Ole '97 was based on a 1923 ballad recounting the 1893 fatal crash of a Southern Railway train.
And how does this story link us to age of Jackson Pollock?
Jackson Pollock's first instructor when he moved to New York in was Thomas
Hart Benton. Without Benton's free-flowing lines, search for heroic stories,
and ability to work on the massive scale required for murals, would there
have been the Jackson Pollock as we know him?
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Jody Sherman of the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art, for her help concerning permission from Todd Behrens for reprinting the text of his lecture.
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