Catalog essay on Augustus Dunbier by Roger Augustus Dunbier written for Museum of Nebraska Art's exhibition Augustus Dunbier: Nebraska Impressionist held April 24 to June 5, 1994:




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He grew up In an age that was increasingly ugly. Scientific advances made the long nightmares at Verdun a wake up call for a grinly time. But Dunbier never spoke much of aesthetics -- of the ugly or the beautiful, of the good or the bad. As with the athlete, accomplishment and results were everything. And accomplishment based on training and practice was his life. Ugly was something to overcome or leave to others if they chose that route. In this as in other aspects of his life, he swam against the stream. He likened himself to a 'salmon' when asked by an Omaha World Herald reporter why he remained in Nebraska. He answered by asserting that he had to return to his place of birth. Unnoticed in his response was the fact that salmon is also a color.

To understand Augustus Dunbler, one must begin with color. To hlm it was a kind of religion, only more so--an insubstantiality that you can see with your own eyes but not touch. The reality of this intangible fascinated him beyond description. For him, color was what painters worked with, even struggled with. Although a klnd of "un-thing", color was an adversary to be overcome. As adversary, it deserved the artist's full attention. It came close to belng what painting was all about.

While color absorbed him, he also had great drawing ability. Dunbier's seven years at the Dusseldorf Academy, famous or infamous for Its emphasis on the linear, was buttressed by the four plus decades that he spent teaching life drawing classes. He believed drawing could be mastered. Color was another story.

He chose not to live in a century of "isms." One after another, they came and went, duly examined and all but for a few, subsequently forgotten. They even came, went, and came back again, the principal example being Impressionism. Most would categorize Dunbier's work as being in this school. He, as far as this author knows, never--repeat never--used the term to describe his own work. Whether or not the "ism" ending bothered him is not clear.

That other "isms" worked their way into his thoughts is clear, but that he ever seriously considered drinking deeply is laughable. One could not, however, live to the age of eighty-nine mainly In thls century without some strongly held opinions on art and on civilization in general. He was more than moderately appalled by both, but was by nature optimistic, which most would say shined through In his work.

Born into a virtually all white world, he took great pleasure in his assoclatlon wfth Indians, Negroes, and Mexicans--words of his era. Growing up speaking and understanding both English and German, he spent fifty years of his life learning Spanish, a feat far from accomplished. A day of considerable celebration followed his learning that the Blue Lake sacred Indian site had been returned to the Taos Pueblo.

His opinions on social issues were far from popular even among his friends and students, but they were never based on narrow perspectives or jealousies. His Germanophilla discomforted numerous acquaintances during the two "Great Unpleasantries" of his lifetime in that same way that his denigration of Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism discomforted so many of what Dunbier called "great patriots" who were McCarthy's followers In Nebraska.

As far as women were concerned, it is reported that Dunbier loved them. Regarding any "ism" associated with this sex, it can only be said that he got out of here before feminism's full victory. His use of nude models during the era of the "Noble Experiment" was in some lurid detail examined in more than one pulpit. His tempestuous, much publicized divorce resulted In clerical editorializing. His Omaha competitor for portrait commissions, J. Laurie Wallace, painted numerous churchmen. It is not known if Dunbier painted any. His knowledge of the female anatomy did, however, qualify him as a judge for numerous beauty contests, whlch he took pleasure in doing.

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His second marriage in 1932 to Lou Ekstrom, a woman only slightly over half his age, started the process of demythologizing his public persona as did the arrival of their son two years thereafter. In the years after this domestication, it was also noticed by more than a few that his career took a definite turn to landscape painting done out of doors.

Also intervening at this time was the collapse of the American economy. Hundreds of thousands of Nebraska farmers who were golng broke showed all too little concern for the three full time Nebraska artists doing the same. Help did, however, come from Washington, and like thousands of others, famous and not, Dunbier took a paycheck from the U.S. government. Agriculture was saved. As far as fine art is concerned, the jury is still out. It can, however, be said for the latter that long after the corn was consumed and the crop payments spent, some considerable part of the art remains.

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Much of Dunbier's time during this period was spent teaching, and any fair appraisal of his life and contribution would have to place this very high in order of importance. Granted, it is an ephemeral thing--teaching--but the effects of the Dunbier studio are still about us. More than a little of him can be seen on gallery walls and in the homes of art collectors throughout this state and elsewhere--paintings created by Dunbier students. He was proud of them and never failed to give them credit except for those few who failed to acknowledge his contribution to their education. How is it only in fine art that students find it expedient to deny education and proclaim themselves that always laughable--self-taught? He said that the proclamation of being self-taught was the "admission of submission to an ignorant instructor."

At one time in his teaching career, all the high school art teachers in Omaha were in one or another of his classes. He immensely en]oyed teaching and was good at it. Various organizations wanted to sponsor his classes. Word of mouth provided full enrollments. He never advertised and discouraged others from doing it. For many years, the Joslyn Art Museum was the venue for his always-oversubscribed figure class. His most popular "studio" was of course, what he called the "great out-of-doors."

With reasonably good weather, he and his students would be off to some Missouri or Elkhorn River bluff or oxbow lake to capture the largess of his "great out-of-doors." He often painted along with his students. One of them, Natalie Robinson, reminisced in an artlcle about her mentor in Southwest Art magazine. March 1989:

"I shall never forget that tall figure circulating amongst his students gesticulating with his pipe as he commented on our work, politics, painting, the deficiencies of present-day art, and the world in general. Even when he painted with us, as he often did, his tweed jacket never received a spot of paint and miraculously even his fingers stayed clean, while all the students managed to cover themselves with paint."


Index to photographs of paintings

As a matter of fact, Dunbier students had and still hold a kind of bond: call it pride. Classes were also quasi-social occasions. Students wanted admission for their friends which sometimes presented a problem when would-be students brought paintings to the studio for appraisal or critique. Cornered, his favorite dodge was "you should paint more," and then he let someone else inform the would-be artist that there were, at least for now, no openings. On the other hand, once a person got into a class that student would be welcomed year after year. One student, Margaret Vollmer, studied with Dunbier for an uninterrupted fifty-one years. Late in this rather extended course of study, she was asked why she continued. Perhaps never having given it much thought, she replied, "He never graduates anyone."


Index to photographs of paintings

In the never-graduate-school of landscape painting, Dunbier yielded to few in resolution and in love of the subject that was a lifelong absorption. His perseverance was based upon respect for the integrity of the landscape as registered by his eye and sensed through what he called "vibrations." His depictions might logically be called impressionist and/or realist or perhaps a combination of both and, in many respects, were influenced by his academic training. However, he was not in the business of imposing any predetermined style upon his subject matter because he wanted the subject to guide his brush and not vice-versa.

In nature, he regarded the eye as a remarkably sensitive receptor. To take full advantage, one must work as quickly as possible out of doors, in "plein aire," to actively confront moment to moment whatever the vagaries of nature provided or failed to provide at that time of day, that season of the year. He never started a landscape in the studio. He almost never worked up a larger landscape from sketches and never from a photograph. Landscape was to be accomplished by working within the real thing. In letting the subject lead the way and in his search for new challenges, Dunbier was able to produce marvelously sensitive landscapes that are widely varied in mood.

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