Distinguished Artist Series


The Life and Art of Karl Baumann

by Lauri Hoffman, Curator


Willie Baumann suffered from a prolonged illness after the war and correspondence between him and his son was scarce. In 1928, Willie saved enough money to send for Karl and the two were reunited in 1929. Karl joined his father at Schmidt Lithegraph. Five years later, he married Naomi Pratt. In 1937, Karl was fired from his job because of his pro-union beliefs. This left Baumann open to one of the most important opportunities in his career: to work as an easel painter for the government-sponsored Works Progress Administration. In 1939, Baumann was employed by the WPA. Immersed in a stimulating environment where artists shared new techniques and theories, Baumann was able to devote all of his energy to painting. It was in this atmosphere that Baumann began to explore the abstract in his search for the essence behind nature.

From 1938 to 1941, Baumann painted almost exclusively in watercolor. His subjects included landscapes, cityscapes, seascapes, war themes, and still lifes, all varying in degrees of abstraction. Three themes formed the basis for all of his art: nature, man's deviation from nature, and the catastrophic condition that results. Baumann was interested in expanding one's mind beyond the scope of that which we experience on earth into the realms of the universe. He wished to open man's eyes to see beyond what is visually obvious. He had an unquenchable desire to explore the essence of nature and was intrigued by the mysteries of the universe. He believed that peace existed so long as man lived in harmony with nature and that ill fortune occurred when he lost respect.

Baumann's paintings of the late 1930s and early 1940s illustrate these beliefs. "lndustry" 1938, and "lndustry: San Francisco," 1939, demonstrate the process of nature being overthrown by technology. Trees are replaced by buildings and smokestacks; hills are stripped bare to accommodate railroads and factories. In Untitled (Railroad), 1938 , a train, railroad tracks, electrical cables, and buildings clutter the landscape where only patches of green remain, reminding the viewer of what once existed. The inevitable catastrophe is viewed in Untitled (Crucifixion), 1941, where the mother of mankind hangs on a cross. A martyr, she has died for the sins of her sons. Above her, in the fire-red sky, bombers fly in a mad fury of destruction. At the foot of the cross lie a dead man, a pregnant woman, and a few broken flowers. Technology has steered man away from nature into a world where he cannot survive. He has called for the extinction of his own race, all in the name of greed.

Baumann believed that men in power devised religion and used it to serve their best interests. In an essay entitled, "Right Off the Griddle," he explained that ruling classes created churches and nations which fought each other for power. They insured obedience to their rules by introducing the impending fear of Hell in the afterlife. This focused people "more and more into the unknowable dimensions of the hereafter ... getting further away from building a society without [evil] on this planet. He concluded, "Our society will become what it should have been long ago when each individual has a church of his own from within . . . then we will be free and must take responsibilities for our own actions and grow up." In Untitled (Crucifixion), there is a glimmer of hope in the midst of horror: The pregnant woman at the foot of the cross rests on her elbows, injured but not dead. She is still able to give birth. The scattered flowers at her feet symbolize that the hope of mankind lies in nature. Baumann never lost sight of this optimism.

Above Left: Front 82, 1939, watercolor, (both sides), 29 x 22 inches; Above Right: Untitled (Blue Bay), 1939 watercolor, 23 x 30 inches.

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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 10/28/11

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