A Tale of Two Shows
American Originals: The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs and The Eight and American Modernisms
Milwaukee Art Museum
700 N. Art Museum Drive
June 6 – August 23, 2009
American Originals at the Milwaukee Art Museums takes a slice of artistic life at the turn of the twentieth century and puts together a double shot of shows with The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs and The Eight and American Modernisms. It’s an interesting marriage of convenience as these exhibitions take up summer residence in the Baker/Rowland Gallery. They are arranged back-to-back, like friendly neighbors, but clearly delineated as separate entities, each with its own catalogue.
In architecture and decorative arts, ideas about design and philosophies of living arose in the Arts and Crafts and Aesthetic movements. In many ways, you can think of them as predecessors to our contemporary DIY sensibilities. Art Nouveau had also blossomed by this time, a movement that flourished particularly in Europe in many regional incarnations, but largely included a taste for organic motifs — suddenly everything sprouted leaves and vines. Buildings, lamps, vases, even subway entrances in Paris were taken over by organic sensations and whiplash lines.
The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs
This is the scene, then, when we begin to look at the furniture of Charles Rohlfs and the paintings of The Eight. The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs makes its first stop on a five museum tour here in Milwaukee, and will finish up in 2011 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This exhibition is dense and satisfying, packed with intriguing furniture that, while obviously of an earlier time and place, retains a sharp and commanding presence. Though created in the twilight of the Victorian age, there is nothing stuffy or sedate about these pieces.
Charles Rohlfs (American, 1853-1936) and Anna Katharine Green (American, 1846-1935), Desk Chair, ca. 1898-1899. From the Rohlfs home. Oak, 53 15/16 x 15 15/16 x 16 7/8 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift of American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation in honor of Joseph Cunningham. Photo by Gavin Ashworth © American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation.
Rohlfs produced designs with a keen sense of rigor. Long, straight lines and sharp angles are plentiful but tempered by curved decoration and sinuous carving. A balance is struck between the organic temperament and the architectural clarity of structure. One of the most striking examples of this is seen in the Desk Chair, also credited to his wife, the writer Anna Katharine Green. The crisp exterior silhouette of the chair is sleek, but nature takes hold on the most prominent decoration as the pierced chair back reflects the molecular structure of oak as seen through a microscope — an artistic as well as intellectual design.
Charles Rohlfs (American, 1853-1936), Lamp, ca. 1904. From the Rohlfs home. Copper, brass, and kappa shell, with replaced glass; 23 1/4 x 15 7/8 inches. Private Collection. Photo by Gavin Ashworth © American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation.
Nature is not present only in shapes and wood in Rohlfs’s work. Multiple lamps in the exhibition feature shades made of kappa shell, imported from the Philippines, translucent and glistening. The exotic nature of this material reflects the ability of Rohlfs to draw inspiration from diverse sources, not only from current trends such as Art Nouveau, but also elements derived from Asian and European sources.
Rohlfs’s furniture gained commercial exposure through outlets such as Marshall Field & Co., but did not take off in the mass market. However, his interests were more aligned with artistic creation rather than mass production. He was an independent figure, and termed his work “Artistic Furniture,” created in “The Rohlfs Style,” avoiding allegiance to any single movement. Artistic Furniture is an extraordinarily apt description, but only hints at the full creative power of his work.
The Eight and American Modernisms
American Originals continues with The Eight and American Modernisms. These painters — Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan — gained their numerical moniker and have been historically banded together after an exhibition held in 1908 at the Macbeth Galleries in New York. They have often been associated with urban realism, but this exhibition seeks to showcase their standing as artists at the forefront of modern American painting at this critical juncture.
This description sounds very avant-garde, daring, maybe even shocking. But, visually, it is not. In spirit, this colorful play of paint echoes the exploits of the Fauves, a group of French painters whose works shown in 1905 earned them their charming moniker which means “wild beasts.” It wasn’t a term of endearment for their paintings of strange faces with green stripes and brilliantly multicolored flesh. In Henri’s Figure in Motion, the variance in color energizes the surface, but the sense of motion is so delicate and subtle that it seems thwarted by poised surety of balance.
Arthur B. Davies, Rhythms, ca. 1910. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Abert in Memory of Harry J. Grant, M1966.57. Photo by Dedra Walls.
A penchant for artistic exploration runs throughout this exhibition, and in many respects each painter is represented by a variety of styles. Arthur B. Davies’ Remembrance of circa 1903 is heavy, dark and brooding, while other works seem to draw from the artistic well of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes from some twenty years before, particularly in the rendering of skinny, chalky figures in idyllic settings. Davies’ Rhythms, with flattened figures orderly arranged in a strange landscape is reminiscent of symbolist tendencies of the 1890s, something on the order of a benign Ferdinand Hodler (Hodler was a Swiss painter associated with symbolist painting, fascinating and bizarre).
William James Glackens (American, 1870-1938). Julia’s Sister, c. 1915. Oil on canvas. 32 1/8 x 26 1/8 in. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection 1999.58. Photo courtesy Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.
The work of William Glackens offers an even more stunning variety in style. The tarry darkness of Bal Bullier is like the direct rawness of Gustave Courbet, but portraits such as Julia’s Sister are full of soft-spun edges and the saturated color of late Renoir. Breezy Day, Tugboats, New York Harbor, with globby puffs and impasto paint recalls the heyday of Impressionist painting. These references are like a collective blast from the past — the bloodlines of French painting since the 1850s.
The landscapes of Ernest Lawson hang exceptionally well together and seem to venture the least in stylistic exploration. Highly textured and overt in the love for landscape, Lawson uses the Impressionistic vocabulary but solidity and detail remain; the shimmering effects and essence of time and place are hauntingly lovely.
John Sloan (American, 1871-1951), Isadora Duncan, 1911. Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 26 1/4 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Abert, M1969.27
One of the most dramatic pictures in the show is John Sloan’s painting of the great modern dancer Isadora Duncan. Off-center and alone on a stage, she is captured mid-motion in wild abandon. The composition is simple in its circles, angles, and limited color palette. These stark lines set off the sensual vigor of Duncan’s physicality and grace. The painting is sleek, direct and seems to revel in the moment and the pleasures of modernity to a greater extent than any other work in this show.
The ambitions of this exhibition are large, as it seeks to reevaluate the reputation and influence of The Eight. This is an especially tall order since the works are drawn from the collections of only three institutions: the Milwaukee Art Museum, the New Britain Museum of American Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art. This rules out the inclusion of other iconic paintings by these artists, and creates something of an isolated view, as the selection of works is necessarily limited and seemingly divorced from the larger contexts of painterly practice in the United States and abroad. What is apparent, however, is in the work of The Eight we see the strains of European avant-garde making the jump to the practices of American painting.
While visiting the museum, especially in conjunction with this exhibition, a walk through other galleries provides a useful juxtaposition in context and contrasts. There are additional works by The Eight on view in the permanent collection, and a stroll through Gallery 11 is an instructive look at Impressionist sources through the paintings of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro. In Gallery 12, paintings from the exceptional Maurice and Esther Leah Ritz Collection demonstrate trends in European art of the early twentieth century; the vigorous brushwork of Lovis Corinth provides an interesting comparison to the energetic portraits of Robert Henri. A walk through the Expressionist paintings in the Bradley Collection upstairs continues the exploration in the developments of modern art.
The Eight, as well as Charles Rohlfs, shared an aversion to categorization or being assigned to one definitive group or another. There is a strong independent streak in this stance, and one that many would identify as a trait that runs deep in the American psyche. But another characteristic is seen in the multiple influences apparent within these exhibitions: the ability to embrace diverse influences, to innovate and transform.