Saturday, May 19, 2018

Art Eyewitness Book Review: The Lives of the Surrealists by Desmond Morris



The Lives of the Surrealists


By Desmond Morris

Thames & Hudson/272 pages /$39.95


Reviewed by Ed Voves

Surrealism, the twentieth century art movement which sought to do away with art, was announced to the world in 1924. André Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism proclaimed that art was now to be created “in the absence of any control exercised by reason, beyond any aesthetic or moral concern.”

In short, Breton pronounced the death of Art – or at least of the kind of art that had been embraced in the Western world since the Renaissance.

It is peculiarly appropriate that Desmond Morris should evoke the very book that established the ideals of the Renaissance during the 1500’s in his book on the “Anti-Renaissance” of the 1900's. For his collective biography of the leading figures of the Surrealist movement, Morris recycled the title of Giorgio Vasari's Renaissance-era classic, The Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters and Sculptors, aka “The Lives of the Artists.”

Morris’ choice of title, The Lives of the Surrealists, is not without some risk. The Surrealists were defiant in opposing everything that Vasari held dear –the rules of perspective, the careful delineation of form, the ideal of beauty. Where the Renaissance masters had sought to present the natural world as God's handiwork, the Surrealists probed the interior world of alienated humanity, a realm where nightmares were more prevalent than visions and dreams.



Conroy Maddox,The Poltergeist, 1941. 

Is Morris setting himself up for a fall by treating iconoclasts like Salvador Dali, André Masson, René Magritte, et al., with the kind of acclaim that Vasari had accorded to Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo?

Vasari and Morris actually have a lot in common. Morris, like Vasari, is a painter who personally knew many of the artists whose lives he so vividly portrays. Henry Moore, Joan Miró, Francis Bacon were some of the major Surrealists who were on friendly terms with Morris. Among the lesser known, all active in the British wing of Surrealism, Roland Penrose, Conroy Maddox and Edouard Mesens were close to Morris. Mesens sponsored the first exhibit of Morris' own Surrealist work in 1950.



Poster for Joan Miró, Desmond Morris, and Cyril Hamersma Exhibition, February 1950

Edouard Mesens (1903-1971), born in Belgium, was also a close friend of René Magritte (1898-1967). Morris was thus accorded privileged access to stories about the enigmatic Magritte. Second-hand testimony like this endows Morris' book with an immediacy which few other books about Surrealism can match.

Morris recounts how Mesens once walked into Magritte's studio and heard Magritte complaining to himself, "boring, boring, boring,"

Magritte, as is well-known, painted in an Old Master representational style. He was bored with painting because what he enjoyed was conceiving of the bizarre subject matter and  incoherent titles of his art works. That act of conception was the surreal element of Magritte's work and of his personality.

Why Magritte painted the "treachery of Images" - pipes that were not pipes, a man selecting facial expressions as if he were choosing a hat - may be explained by the effect of a family tragedy during his youth. Magritte's mother committed suicide in a particularly gruesome manner. 

While the effect of this experience of horror may have planted the seed of revolt in Magritte, the same does not appear to be true for most of the other Surrealists. Family tragedy at a young age occurs in only one other instance in Morris' book. Arshile Gorky's mother starved to death during the Armenian genocide in 1919, while helping her children escape. All of the other Surrealists grew-up in a comfortable life style, largely free of worry. A few - Leonara Carrington, Roland Penrose and Wolfgang Paalen - came from very wealthy families.



Wolfgang Paalen in Studio Daguerre, Paris, 1933.  Photographer unknown. 

Wolfgang Paalen (1905-1959), despite family money and a rich patroness ran through his resources and took to art smuggling. He eventually committed suicide in a remote location in Mexico where his corpse was set upon by wild pigs. Before this truly surreal demise, Paalen invented a technique called fumage, which involved streaking paint on canvases that had been exposed to smoke from a candle. Paalen's work during the 1930's influenced the American Abstract Expressionist painters, though Jackson Pollock scoffed at fumage.



Wolfgang Paalen, Pays Interdit, 1936-37.

If there is a common element to the lives of the Surrealists it was their rebelliousness against middle class morality. Many of the Surrealists were born during the 1890's, the last decade of Victorian respectability. It was against the conformist elements of Victorianism that the Surrealists rebelled. The slaughter of World War I was experienced by several Surrealists (Henry Moore, Max Ernst, André Masson) but a long-ticking social/emotional time bomb actually preceded the war.

This brings us to the central figure in Surrealism, André Breton (1896-1966). Having announced in the movement’s First Manifesto that art originates in the unconscious mind and cannot be directed by ethical precepts, Breton turned this theory into an ironclad creed. Artists like Salvador Dali and Henry Moore who refused to follow his dictates were expelled from the movement. Breton's ruthless treatment of dissenters was the artistic counterpart of Stalin's purges of the Communist Party and the officer corps of the Soviet Army during the 1930's.

Morris writes very perceptively about Breton's micro-managing of a cohort of arch-individualists:

This was the basic contradiction of the surrealist movement that beset Breton with endless argument, dissertation and debate for the rest of his life. He must have been aware of this, but the perverse truth was that he relished the disputes and the protests. He positively enjoyed the tensions at the very center of the movement and sometimes seems to have deliberately inflamed the differences between the members of the group. The reason seems obvious enough - the more disagreement there was, the more important was his role as the judge and the jury.

The ruthless control of Breton, the "Pope of Surrealism," gave the movement a cohesion that insured its survival. The benefits of that forced-unity are open to question. The Dada movement, Surrealism's predecessor, lasted only a few years but these were generally very productive. Most of the truly creative Surrealists, Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso, used Surrealist ideas and techniques for a few years and then moved on. Wolfgang Paalen, before his descent into hell, enjoyed three years of great success in the late 1930's.

If Surrealism had remained an option for artists during the 1920's and 1930's, rather than an "either-or" choice, the amount of quality work produced would have been much higher and the positive impact of Surrealism much greater. That is not what occurred.

In order for Surrealism to succeed as "movement," individuality was subordinated to Breton's dictatorship. Creativity was lost and many of Breton's acolytes frittered away their time and talent during the 1930's producing artworks of little value, based on a game of chance called "Exquisite Corpse." Also, a great deal of Surrealist "energy" was of the sexual kind, absorbed in marital betrayal. 

Morris ignores the absurdities of "Exquisite Corpse" but does give a considerable amount of attention to the sexual free-for-all that Surrealism occasioned. It's worth noting that the greatest sculptor of the Surrealists, Henry Moore (1898-1986), and the greatest Surrealist painter, Joan Miró (1893-1983), refused to join in the sexual mania of their colleagues - and the integrity of their work shows it.




Desmond Morris in his studio, 1948. Photographer unknown.

The chapter on Miró is a particular high-point of The Lives of the Surrealists. Morris knew him well. Miró visited Morris at the London Zoo where Morris worked and was conducting art experiments with a chimpanzee named Congo, who painted some pretty impressive Surrealist works. Miró was intrigued and swapped a painting with Morris for one of Congo's. Morris also shows a wonderful photo of Miró holding an exotic bird called a hornbill, taken by Lee Miller at the London Zoo in 1964.

Morris tells many amusing anecdotes - usually packing important insights. This makes The Lives of the Surrealists an absolute joy to read. Morris is also famed as an observer of humanity and this is where his personal skill-set is deployed to brilliant effect. Here is what he has to say about Henry Moore:

The only time I ever annoyed him was when I suggested that it might be worth making a visit to see the huge, new sculpture-garden of a Scandinavian artist that was making the news in the 1960's. To my surprise, Henry dismissed the man's work as appalling rubbish and a waste of space. This seemed so uncharacteristic of him because, on all other topics, he was the epitome of modest, friendly enthusiasm. I soon learned that there were two Henry Moores - the reserved, easy-going, eager-to-learn companion and the passionately driven sculptor who took no prisoners.



Henry Moore, c. 1930s. Photographer unknown.

For Henry Moore, as Morris perceptively noted, "the only thing that really mattered to him, and filled most of his waking hours, was the creation of sculpture."

The creation of sculpture no doubt filled Henry Moore's night-time dreams as well. Great artists are like that. They never sleep. 

Time will tell whether Morris' book will be referred to in the same way as "Vasari's Lives." After reading this thoughtful and hugely enjoyable book, I believe that there is a very good chance that “Morris’ Lives” will find a permanent place in the libraries of art history enthusiasts. They will keep it close to hand for frequent use, on the same book shelf as The Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters and Sculptors.

***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

Introductory Image: 
Book Cover, The Lives of the Surrealists, Courtesy of Thames & Hudson.

Conroy Maddox, The Poltergeist, 1941. Oil on  canvas, 61 x 51 cm (24 x 20 in.) Israel Museum, Jerusalem (B98.0516). By kind permission of the artist's daughter, Lee Saunders.

Poster for Joan Miró, Desmond Morris, and Cyril Hamersma, exhibition at E.L.T, Mesens' London Gallery, February 1950. Courtesy Desmond Morris

Wolfgang Paalen in Studio Daguerre, Paris, 1933. Photographer unknown. Succession Wolfgang Paalen et Eva Sulzer 

Wolfgang Paalen, Pays Interdit, 1936-37. Oil and candlesmoke (fumage) on canvas, 97.2 x 59.5 cm (38 1/4 x 23 3/8 in.) Succession Wolfgang Paalen et Eva Sulzer 

Desmond Morris in his studio, 1948. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Desmond Morris.

Henry Moore, c. 1930s. Photographer unknown. Height: 18.5 cm. Width: 14 cm (7 1/2 x 5 1/2 In. Photo Popperfoto/Getty Images

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia



Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema


Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA.
May 6, 2018 -  September 3, 2018


Reviewed by Ed Voves
Photos by Anne Lloyd

If Jean Renoir had not been shot by a German soldier in April 1915, the new exhibit at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia most likely would not have been presented. This may seem to be a heartless remark. Renoir himself, in the extraordinary book he later wrote,  acknowledged his "debt" to the Bavarian sharpshooter who fired the nearly fatal bullet.

As a result of his brush with death, Renoir received six months home leave to recuperate. During this "time-off" from World War I, Renoir spent many delightful and inspired hours talking to his elderly father, the great Impressionist painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.

So Shakespeare wrote in Henry V, Act IV, Scene iii.

Despite being crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and confined to a wheelchair, Pierre-Auguste Renoir did not forget. He remembered the details of his amazing life and the pivotal role he played in the rise of Impressionism. 


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Photo of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Jean Renoir
Original Photo was taken by Pierre Bonnard, c. 1916


These memories he recounted to his son, a wounded soldier of the Great War. At the end of his long career as one of the pioneering directors of French cinema, Jean Renoir produced an extraordinary recollection of his own, Renoir, My Father, published in 1962.

The Barnes exhibit recreates the lifelong process by which the younger Renoir came to terms with the creative legacy of the elder. The debt he owed his father was considerable. 

Jean Renoir is quoted as saying that “I have spent my life trying to determine the extent of the influence of my father upon me.” 

This influence was a matter of inspiration, not emulation. Rather than be stunted by the mighty-oak shadow of his father, Jean Renoir did not try his hand as a painter. Rather, he grew in stature as an artist in his own right, a master of a different medium, film making.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of  the Renoir: Father and Son exhibition 
Painting at left is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Les Baigneuses (The Bathers), 1919

This father-son partnership is illustrated from the very first display of the Barnes exhibit. This is a video excerpt of Jean Renoir's 1936 film Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country). Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant (who was a friend of Pierre-Auguste Renoir) it tells the story of an innocent Sunday excursion which becomes the occasion for seduction.

The key scene - the subject of the Barnes video loop  - shows a beautiful young woman, Henriette Dufour (played by Sylvia Bataille), swaying back-and-forth on a swing. Two debonair sportsmen spy her from the window of a country inn where they are having lunch. Their appetites quickly shift from scrambled eggs with tarragon to Henriette on the swing.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Film frame from Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, 1936/1946, Courtesy of the Criterion Collection & Janus Films

Fifty years before Jean Renoir filmed A Day in the Country, Pierre-Auguste Renoir had painted The Swing. Here a young woman stands on a swing, accompanied by two admiring men and an adoring little girl. One of the men looks out from the picture and, meeting our gaze, draws us into the sun-dappled grove. There we join him, his companions and the beribboned beauty in a truly magical moment.




Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail views of Renoir's The Swing (1876) 

In a tremendous coup, the Barnes secured the loan of this iconic work of art for the Renoir: Father and Son exhibit. As a result, visitors to the exhibition can move but a few feet from viewing a masterpiece of French cinema to studying an icon of Impressionism.

The points of contrast between the film scene and the painting are as important and fascinating as the similarities. When Jean Renoir filmed A Day in the Country during the summer of 1936, France was in the midst of the left-wing Popular Front agitation which contributed to the disaster of 1940. The film is a wistful look backward at what appears to be a more balanced and relaxed way of life.

In 1876, when Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted The Swing, France was beginning to recover from the disastrous war with Germany in 1870-71. The idyllic scene promotes a feeling of recuperation as a nation. This was to prove a short-lived interval. The collapse in 1882 of a fraudulent investment bank triggered a nation-wide "panic." Durand-Ruel, the agent for Renoir and his fellow Impressionists was only saved from bankruptcy by American sales. This financial disaster was quickly followed by political instability climaxing in the Dreyfus Affair. 

The era of the Impressionists was thus much like the tumultuous 1930's when Jean Renoir was making his classic films. How fitting then was the fate of A Day in the Country which was not released until 1946 because of production difficulties and the outbreak of World War Two. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Sylvie Patry, Consulting Curator of the Barnes Foundation
After this brilliant beginning, the Barnes exhibition proceeds to examine the intertwined lives of the Renoirs, father and son. Since the Barnes collection has 181 Renoir paintings, many of them on view in the collection galleries, there is no need to recount the full story of the great Impressionist. Rather, the paintings on view in the exhibition illustrate the bonds of affection and the exchange of ideas between father and son.

By Jean's birth in 1894, Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent most of his time in the south of France in order to cope with the physical challenges imposed by arthritis. Unable to travel or even grasp his paint brushes to execute fine details on commissioned portraits, Renoir painted what was close at hand - local young women posing as models and his children, especially young Jean. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Renoir: Father and Son

A series of portraits of Jean shows him growing from an infant to a handsome adolescent posing in hunting gear. Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a great admirer of eighteenth century art. By dressing Jean as Pierrot,  Renoir acknowledged the great artist Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), whose wonderful painting of Pierrot has long been one of the highlights of the Louvre.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Renoir’s The White Pierrot, 1901/1902

As Jean Renoir matured into a capable, cultured young man, he searched for his own artistic medium on which to devote his talents. At first, he tried his hand at ceramics and the results are astonishing. Dr. Albert Barnes, who was a devoted collector of his father's paintings, purchased forty pieces of Jean's hand-painted ceramic ware




 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018), Earthenware Vase by Jean Renoir, 1922

These relatively unknown works are a highlight of the Barnes exhibit. Most are painted in a vibrant French country motif. This exquisite vase, however, evokes the Arcadia-like atmosphere which the crippled Pierre-Auguste sought to convey in his final paintings. 

Creating hand-crafted ceramics is a hard way to make a living. By a unique chain of events, Jean Renoir became involved in the French film industry. During the 1920's, he began directing silent films, followed in the 1930's by his "talkies." Renoir's classic trilogy, A Day in the Country (1936/1946), Grand Illusions (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) raised cinema to a level that has seldom been surpassed.

A number of the costumes from Jean Renoir's films are displayed in the Barnes exhibit. One of the dresses has an incredible, indeed exaggerated, trailing skirt. This is a reproduction of a costume from Renoir's silent film version of Emil Zola's Nana (1926). I don't know if it was by chance or by design but when my wife, Anne, took a picture of the "train" of this dress, reflections of a railroad sequence from Renoir's The Human Beast (1938) glimmered on the display case. It was another magical moment in an enchanting exhibition.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Costume (reproduction) from Jean Renoir's Nana

The most magical moment in the exhibition came when I viewed a film clip of Pierre-Auguste Renoir with the art dealer, Ambroise Vollard.  I had seen this clip once, years ago, in an exhibit devoted to Vollard's amazing career. Now, once again seeing the aged Renoir, clearly in pain, yet bursting with creative vigor, I was able to appreciate the film sequence even more.


     
 Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Film frame from Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Painter, 1920 Silent Film produced by Gaumont Actualities
This life force, what the French during the World War I era called elan vital,was the great gift which the elder Renoir gave to his wounded son during his six months of convalescence. It lasted Jean Renoir a lifetime, during which he shared this gift with the world. 
In an extraordinary passage from Renoir, My Father, Jean Renoir described his father's elan vital:

Renoir's conception of life as a state of being rather than an undertaking seems to me an essential explanation of his character, of his art. I should add that this attitude was a joyous one, and that each stage of his life was for him marked by amazing discoveries. He looked at the world with continual astonishment, a feeling of surprise which he made no effort to hide. I saw my father suffer absolute martyrdom, but never saw him looking bored.

You too will enjoy many moments of joy, astonishment and inspiration at the Barnes Foundation exhibit, Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema. And if you follow the example of Jean Renoir, the creative force, the elan vital, that is present in the exhibition galleries will inspire you as well.

***

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                               
 Photos courtesy of the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. PA, and Anne Lloyd

I
ntroductory Image:

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) La balançoire (The Swing), 1876. Oil on canvas. H. 92 ; L. 73 cm Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Gustave Caillebotte Bequest, 1894. © Musée d'Orsay

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of photo, Auguste and Jean Renoir, taken by Pierre Bonnard, c. 1916. Original photo in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema exhibit at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia PA.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Film frame from Jean Renoir’s Partie de Campagne (A Day in the Country), 1936/1946. Produced by Les Films du Pantheon. Courtesy of the Criterion Collection and Janus Films.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail views of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s La balançoire (The Swing), 1876.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Sylvie Patry, Consulting Curator of the Barnes Foundation at the press preview of the Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema exhibit.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema exhibit at the Barnes Foundation.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail views of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The White Pierrot, 1901-02. Oil on canvas. 79.1 × 61.9 cm Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Vase by Jean Renoir, 1922. Earthenware with polychrome decoration over tin-glaze. The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema exhibit, showing a reproduction of a costume from the 1926 film, Nana, directed by Jean Renoir.


Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Film frame from Pierre-Auguste Renoir: artiste-peinture (Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Painter), 1920. Produced by Gaumont Actualities. Distributed by Gaumont Pathé Archives.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art




Modern Times: American Art 1910-1950


Philadelphia Museum of Art
April 18—September 3, 2018

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Modern art in the United States came of age between 1913 and 1951. These two years were highlighted by art exhibitions of seminal importance, both held in New York City.  The controversial Armory Show of February 1913 shocked an America still clinging to the moral certitudes of the Victorian Age. Nearly four decades later, the Ninth Street Show, held between May 21-June 10, 1951, marked the triumph of the Abstract Expressionism of the New York School.

A great deal of American art was created in between these two red-letter dates. The range and variety of art produced during those crowded decades is truly impressive, as can be seen in the  recently-opened exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 

The works of art on view in Modern Times are almost entirely drawn from the collection of the  Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA). A few come from a private collection which has been promised to the PMA, but there can be little doubt about the exceptional caliber of the museum's holdings of American art. 

Many of these works came to the PMA during the cash-strapped 1930's and 1940's. The head of the PMA at that time, Fiske Kimball (1888-1955), used his limited resources to buy or to encourage donations of then contemporary art. The payoff for Kimball's astute collection strategy can be seen in this excellent exhibit.

Modern Times is a comprehensive and thoroughly enjoyable examination of how American art reflected, rejected  and retooled the accepted ideals of society in "these United States." It is brilliantly curated by Jessica Todd Smith. As an added touch, period clothing and artifacts, such as flapper dresses and Prohibition-era cocktail shakers, are used to complement the art on display.  



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Jessica Todd Smith, Curator of the Modern Times exhibit

A key work of the exhibit is Georgia O’Keeffe's Red and Orange Streak. Painted in 1919, shortly O’Keeffe moved to New York City, it is both an abstract and a realist work of art. O'Keeffe painted it as an homage to the Texas plains where she had lived prior to moving to the East Coast. O'Keeffe took nocturnal walks, observing the dazzling displays of lighting above the darkened expanse of the prairie. 

Such "special effects" in nature are impossible to depict in terms of absolute realism. In fact, no such state exists is nature because the real impact is felt, indeed co-created, in the imagination of the viewer. 



Georgia O'Keeffe, Red and Orange Streak, 1919

O’Keeffe acknowledged this in letter to a friend, noting that “the whole thing—lit up—first in one place—then in another with flashes of lightning—sometimes just sheet lightning—and sometimes sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across—I . . . sat on the fence for a long time—just looking at the lightning.”

Here we can see the process at work that informed O'Keeffe's often-quoted belief that, "nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."

O’Keeffe's Red and Orange Streak came to the PMA in 1949, part of her generous endowment of art works by herself and by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who had died in 1946. The PMA is rich in works by both artists and this no doubt helped the museum recently secure a vast archive of photos by Paul Strand, Stieglitz' versatile colleague.



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of the Modern Times exhibit, showing works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Hills and Bones (1943) and From the Lake, No. 3 (1924)

With several of her works on view, we are able to appreciate O'Keeffe's trajectory as an artist and that of twentieth century American art as a whole. More famous for her landscapes of New Mexico, such as Red Hills and Bones (1943), O'Keeffe also painted works evoking the backwoods feel of Stieglitz' summer home at Lake George, New York. What makes this 1924 painting, From the Lake, No. 3, so significant is that O'Keeffe pointed in the direction that American mainstream art would take, leading to the Ab-Ex paintings at the Ninth Street Show of 1951.

The transition from realism to abstraction was but one of the seismic shifts which occurred in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century. The Armory Show certainly led to the efforts of Stuart Davis during the 1930's to "strip a subject down to the real physical source of its stimulus" and then to the 1950's abstraction of Barnett Newman and Jackson Pollock.



Stuart Davis, Something on the Eight Ball, 1953-1954

Realism, however, never entirely lost out to Abstraction. Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and O'Keeffe herself maintained figurative art as a force to be reckoned with. The truth about America's search for an answer to the challenges of the twentieth century, in art and in society, is that there was no one solution, no defining creed of Modernism. Rather, there were many.

During this period of bewildering change, American society crossed the divide from regionalism to a nationalistic identity, from a solidly White Protestant moral code to an acceptance of diversified ethnic ideals. For the first time, the creative talents of African Americans and women secured a beachhead on the New York-East Coast art scene.


Horace Pippin, The Getaway, 1939

Major African American artists like Beauford Delaney, Dox Thrash and Horace Pippin figure prominently in Modern Times. These pioneering artists were literally heroic figures. Pippin, crippled in his right arm by a wound suffered in World War I, taught himself to paint in a vigorous folk style. His works, evoking the rural atmosphere of West Chester in the Philadelphia suburbs, offer an interesting counterpoint to a very different painter from that area, Andrew Wyeth, who is represented in the exhibit by farm scene as well.

Dox Thrash, likewise wounded in World War I, was a gifted painter and a superlative print maker. His powerful images, especially in this latter medium, celebrated African American life at a time when it was all but marginalized by the dominant White culture .



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Beauford Delaney's Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945

Beauford Delaney (1901-1979) was possibly the most talented of the African American artists on view in the PMA exhibit, as his striking portrait of the writer James Baldwin testifies. Delaney however had the bad luck to begin his career just as the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance were cut short by the Wall Street Crash. After years of struggle and hardship, he eventually emigrated to France in the 1950's.        

The role of women in the visual arts is also surveyed in Modern Times. However, the numerous works by Georgia O'Keeffe dominate this aspect of the exhibit and the absence of talented female photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Berenice Abbott is a further weak point. 

A more questionable feature of Modern Times is the lack of art related to the World Wars and the economic collapse of the 1930's. In terms of the impact on the lives of America's people between 1910 to 1950, the global conflicts had powerful and enduring effects. So too did the Great Depression. Yet, there are few direct references to these events.



Man Ray, A.D. 1914, 1914

World War I does figure in two major paintings in the exhibit. Both, however, require considerable effort to interpret before their allusions to the horrors of 1914-1918 can be appreciated. In A.D. 1914, Man Ray posed the combatants, men and horses, in a cubist style which directly acknowledges works from the 1913 Armory Show, especially Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase.

More indirectly - and ultimately more emotionally affecting - is Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), created by Marsden Hartley in 1915.




Marsden Hartley, Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), 1915

Hartley lived in Berlin at the outbreak of 1914-1918 war. Berlin was both the capital of the militaristic German Empire and the leading city of Gay culture in Europe. Hartley's lover, Lieutenant Karl von Freyburg, was killed in the opening campaign of World War I. In homage to his fallen companion, Hartley created a series of brightly-hued works, masterpieces of human sentiment and of skillful layering of meaning. 

These paintings are essentially painted colleges, grouping examples of German military insignia, patriotic memorabilia, cult-like symbols and cryptic allusions to von Freyberg's identity. The toy horse for instance refers to von Freyberg's branch of the army, the cavalry. 



Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Marsden Hartley's Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse)


Von Freyberg was killed on October 7, 1914 at a small French town called Gommecourt, not far from the English Channel. The German and Allied forces were engaged in an attempt to outflank each other called the "Race to the Sea." Neither won and both armies, upon reaching the Channel, began digging trenches. The horror of the Western Front had begun.

This excursion into military history is significant because it reminds us how all of the trappings of military glory, which were held to be important before 1914, were now utterly useless. The medals and insignia, which Hartley painted with such vibrant energy, served no purpose except as talismans to cherish the memory of the dead.  

Hartley's Painting No. 4 did exactly that, offering a testament to the Lost Generation of World War I - and II. The lack of similar examples of art from World War II is not such a great omission after all. In fact, World War II produced few great works of visual art, just as the poetry of the 1939-1945 conflict never equaled the verse of 1914-1918.

The theme of Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 transcends the specific events of the twentieth century, even such an important one as World War II. How the people of the United States conceptualized the industrialized, urban culture which increasingly pervaded every aspect of their lives is the theme of this provocative exhibit.


Wharton H. Esherick, Of a Great City, 1923

The Philadelphia artist Wharton Esherick created a memorable expression of the challenges posed by the sensory overload of modern life. In the wood engraving, Of a Great City, Esherick shows the novelist Theodore Dreiser almost buried by an avalanche of cultural objects, books, music, works of modern art. Below in the concrete canyon is an ant-like stream of humanity. How can we preserve our individuality under such circumstances?

In political terms, the answer was provided by the title of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-fighting program, the New Deal. Bold legislative and economic initiatives were tried, but never a fundamental realignment of political power. 

Art in the United States emphasized similar concepts, ideals that espoused the "new", the "efficient," the "visionary."  When you look at the PSFS Building in Philadelphia, the first International-style "skyscraper" built in the U.S., you see all these Modernist attributes in place.


Lloyd Ullberg, PSFS Building, Philadelphia, c.1932 - 1933

Yet, when you reflect upon the clean, austere lines and the soaring reach of the PSFS building, you realize that this treasure of American architecture has more in common with the wide-open prairie sky that Georgia O'Keeffe saw than with the European ideals of the Bauhaus.

This is the great lesson of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's superb exhibit. No matter how "thoroughly modern" America became during the first decades of the twentieth century, it remained America First.

***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                Photos courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Anne Lloyd

Introductory Image
Charles Sheeler (American, 1883 - 1965) Pertaining to Yachts and Yachting, 1922. Oil on canvas, 20 x 24 1/16 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Margaretta S. Hinchman, 1955-96-9.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950 exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887 - 1986) Red and Orange Streak, 1919. Oil on canvas, 27 x 23 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987-70-3. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Gallery view of Modern Times exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Arts, showing works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Red Hills and Bones (1943) and From the Lake, No. 3 (1924)

Stuart Davis (American, 1892 - 1964) Something on the Eight Ball, 1953-1954. Oil on canvas, 56 × 45 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Adele Haas Turner and Beatrice Pastorius Turner Memorial Fund, 1954-30-1. © Estate of Stuart Davis / Licensed by VAGA, New York

Horace Pippin (American, 1888 - 1946) The Getaway, 1939. Oil on canvas, 24 5/8 x 36 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Daniel W. Dietrich II, 2016-3-3.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Beauford Delaney's Portrait of James Baldwin, 1945. Oil on canvas, 22 x 18 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by The Daniel W. Dietrich Foundation in memory of Joseph C. Bailey and with a grant from The Judith Rothschild Foundation, 1998-3-1

Man Ray (American, 1890 - 1976) A.D. 1914, 1914. Oil on linen: 36 7/8 × 69 3/4 inches (93.7 × 177.2 cm) © Man Ray Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris Philadelephia Museum of Art # 1944-90-1 A. E. Gallatin Collection, 1944

Marsden Hartley (American, 1877 -1943) Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), 1915. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4 x 31 5/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1949-18-8

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2018) Detail of Marsden Hartley's Painting No. 4 (A Black Horse), 1915.

Wharton H. Esherick (American, 1887 - 1970), Of a Great City, 1923. Wood engraving, image: 9 15/16 x 6 5/16 inches, sheet: 11 7/16 x 7 1/2 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund from the Carl and Laura Zigrosser Collection, 1979-12-11.

Lloyd Ullberg (American, 1904-1996) PSFS Building, Philadelphia, c.1932 - 1933. Gelatin silver print, image and sheet:10 x 7 3/8 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art: Purchased with the Lola Downin Peck Fund, 1999-121-3.