Tuesday, July 16, 2019

We the People: American Prints from between the World Wars at the Philadelphia Museum of Art


We the People: American Prints from between the World Wars

Philadelphia Museum of Art
March 21 - July 24, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

The 1930's in the United States were a "black and white" time. It is hard to think of this grim but fascinating decade except in terms of black and white photos, newsreels and  feature films. Almost all of the indelible images of the Thirties were in black and white, most notably the  art print culture that flourished to a remarkable degree during the Great Depression.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art's exhibition, We the People: American Prints from between the World Wars, looks at printmaking during the 1930's with a wide focus. Politics and economics provided the theme of many Thirties prints - but not all. Indeed, many of the most potent social images from that decade did so from a subtle, indirect point of view.

Visitors to We the People are enabled to grasp the tremendous range of American printmaking. The works on view were collected by Fern and Hersh Cohen, who generously donated their collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Cohens really deserve great praise because they collected many lesser known print-makers who often do not make it into art exhibitions, including The Urban Scene which was shown at the National Gallery in 2017.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
      Gallery view of the We the People exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.         Samuel L. Margolies' Men of Steel, c.1939, is the print shown in the photo. 

We the People is an important, insightful survey of the Depression decade because these prints reveal how the print makers, masters of their art, yet common citizens, felt about the times in which they lived. 

Perhaps surprisingly, there is a good bit of humor in these "Depression" prints. The jaunty workman lighting his pipe in the introductory image to this essay recalls the constant stream of jokes about workers for the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) leaning on their shovels. In 1939, the same year that Abe Ajay created this lithograph, a "lean on your shovel" skit was included in the musical, Sing for your Supper.

A comparison of two of the prints in We the People highlights the wide-spectrum of artistic presentation and technique. In this case, we see the point-counter-point of the  obvious in art versus the quietly subversive.

Charles Frederick Surendorf, Eviction, around 1938–39

In this visually striking woodcut, Charles Frederick Surendorf (1906-1979) depicted an experience familiar to many American families during the Depression. He did so with a cinematic verve which could readily be appreciated by a generation which had grown-up going to the movies. Yet the very drama of the scene, with the heartless landlady towering over the now homeless family, has too much of a Grimm fairy tale aspect to really convey the grim reality of Depression-era eviction.

Jean Artman, Employment Agency, around 1940–41

By contrast, Jean Artman's Employment Agency is almost devoid of action. It has a comic element to it, like a New Yorker cartoon. There are seven men in the picture but only one is doing anything. This is the forlorn figure at the top of the staircase, fruitlessly searching his pocket for a coin or a bus token. Nobody is moving toward the front door of the "Majestic" Employment Agency. Why bother to ask about available jobs? Nobody was hiring.

There was a tremendous range of theme and topical handling in Depression-era American prints. The level of mastery of the several techniques of printmaking - woodcut, etching and lithography - was little short of amazing.

Santos Zingale, On Relief, around 1937

Santos Zingale, despite his "foreign" sounding name, was "as American as apple pie." Born in Milwaukee, Zingale spent his whole life working and teaching in Wisconsin, except for World War II service in the Navy. Regionalism, a "return" to the authentic America was another defining attribute of "The Thirties." Zingale was a leading exponent.

On Relief, a haunting woodcut Zingale created  around 1937, has a title drenched in irony. The homeless couple, staggered under the load of their meager possessions, are strangers to "relief," whether it was a government subsidy or the feeling of hope that the Depression was ending. In fact, the  U.S. economy took a nosedive in 1937-38 as the global political situation worsened with the approach of World War II.

Almost all the themes of We the People can be seen in Zingale's woodcut. From the skyscrapers looming over the tumbledown wooden dwellings to the nightmare reflections of many that the American Dream was dead or dying, On Relief is a visceral summation of of American art of the 1930's.

Zingale fought with skill and courage to prove that the American Dream was alive. So too, did Surendorf, Artman and other Regionalist artists whose works are included in the exhibition.  All owed a debt of inspiration to the champion of American regionalism, Thomas Hart Benton.

In his 1937 book, An Artist in America (revised in 1951), Benton wrote:

We were all in revolt against the unhappy effects which the Armory Show of 1913 had had on American painting. We objected to the new Parisian aesthetics which was more and more turning away from the living world of active men and women into an academic world of empty pattern. We wanted an American art which was not empty, and we believed that only by turning the formative process of art back again to meaningful subject matter, in our cases specifically American subject matter, could we expect to get one.

Pele DeLappe, Popular Song, 1937

Popular Song by Phyllis (Pele) DeLappe (1916-2007) is a fine example of how an artist  could endorse Benton's call to return American art to "the living world of active men and women." 

In this lithograph, DeLappe presented an endearing and ennobling portrait of a young couple dancing to a tune on their record player. There is no revolutionary agenda here, despite DeLappe's left-wing political views. There are just two tired people trying to be happy. DeLappe balances the stoic, far-away expression on the man's face with the closed-eyes and tilted head of the woman. He gazes on the uncertain, unknowable future; she shuts it out, trying to enjoy the precious moment they are sharing.

“The living world of active men and women” was marked by uncertainty and tribulation as evoked in DeLappe’s print. So too was the Regionalist art movement as a whole.

Many leading American scholars like Vernon Parrington and Lewis Mumford championed the concept of American Regionalism. The quality of the prints which attempted to establish a visual identity for Regionalism was often of the highest merit. But Regionalism struggled with the widespread belief that it was a backward looking, nostalgia-driven movement.

Jackson Lee Nesbitt’s career is indicative of the eventual eclipse of Regionalism. Born in Oklahoma in 1913, Nesbitt was a protégé and close friend of Thomas Hart Benton. Nesbitt succeeded in creating prints which showed the modern realities, as well as the local distinctiveness, of Midwest America. Yet, after many years of trying, Nesbitt gave-up his career in the arts to establish an advertising firm in Atlanta. After retiring in the late 1980’s, Nesbitt returned to printmaking with the same sensational results.

Nesbitt’s 1941 etching, Goin to Town, showcases his skill – and his vision - at the high point of his career. 

Jackson Lee Nesbitt, Goin to Town, 1941

At first glance, one might wonder why Nesbitt would  have gone to the trouble of creating an etching of streetcar riders in Kansas City when Walker Evans was using a hidden 35 mm camera to do essentially the same thing on New York City subways. Keep studying Goin to Town, however, and you will realize that Nesbitt created a sense of community with this print in contrast to Evan’s isolated subway riders, alone in a crowd.

Nesbitt portrayed modern-day citizens of Kansas City, not “hayseeds” or “hillbillies.”  They are real “honest to goodness” city dwellers, wearing rumpled suits and weather-beaten hats. Nesbitt’s streetcar riders make their way to work or market with the same kind of resolve that would be seen on the faces of American GIs on landing craft headed to the shores of Omaha Beach.

Sadly, the sale of Nesbitt’s superb works of art declined and he opted for a career-change more in tune with the post-war economic boom: advertising. 

The landscape of America's hinterland was not the only region menaced by the Depression. The urban environment of Victorian America came under the shadow of ominous forces, symbolized by "skyscrapers." These towering structures seemed to have personalities all their own, even as they blotted out the familiar landmarks of the great American cities.

Grace Albee, Contrasts—Rockefeller Center, 1934

Grace Albee's woodcut, Contrasts, lived up to its name. St. Nicholas Collegiate Church appears in the foreground. This was the Dutch-Reformed Church which Theodore Roosevelt attended. Built in 1872, at Fifth Ave and 48th Street, it was one of New York's oldest and most beautiful churches, with a spire which was the tallest edifice in its vicinity. By the 1930's, St. Nicholas was surrounded by nondescript offices and shops, its spire now over-matched by the colossus of 30 Rockefeller Center looming behind it.

Albee, a prodigiously talented New England-born artist, was a master of both woodcuts and lithographs. Here she expertly used the former technique, emphasizing the shadowy recesses of the Gothic Revival architecture to accentuate the gloom of St. Nicholas' displacement by the Babel-like tower of Rockefeller Center.

 And slowly answer'd Arthur from the barge:                                                                 "The old order changeth, yielding place to new,                                                           And God fulfils Himself in many ways,                                                                           Lest one good custom should corrupt the world..."

These memorable lines from Tennyson's Idylls of the King were familiar to many Americans during the 1930's. Children were still taught to memorize and recite poetry in the early decades of the twentieth century. Certainly, the words "The old order changeth" captured the troubled, yet courageous, spirit of the American people during the Depression.

The Old Order in the U.S. did change. The New Deal did deliver on its promises to the American people, if not always as efficiently as was hoped.

The remarkable display of "Thirties" prints in We the People at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a powerful reminder that hard times can bring out the best in people - and inspire great art.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. All rights reserved.                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Introductory Image:
Abraham (Abe) Ajay (American, 1919–1998) Workman Lighting His Pipe, around 1939. Lithograph, published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Federal Art Project, New York City. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2015-197-2

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Gallery view of the We the People exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Samuel L. Margolies' Men of Steel, c.1939, is the print shown in the photo.

Charles Frederick Surendorf (American, 1906–1979)  Eviction,  around 1938–39. Woodcut.  Philadelphia Museum of Art,Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2015-197-121

Jean Artman (American, 1887–1953) Employment Agency, around 1940–41. Published by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Federal Art Project, New York City. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2015-197-7

Santos Zingale (American, 1908–1999) On Relief, around 1937. Woodcut. Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015-197-126

Pele DeLappe (American, 1916–2007) Popular Song, 1937. Lithograph. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2017-219-37

Jackson Lee Nesbitt (American, 1913–2008) Goin’ to Town, 1941. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Etching  Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2017-219-11

Grace Albee (American, 1890–1985) Contrasts—Rockefeller Center, 1934. Wood engraving.  Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of Fern and Hersh Cohen, 2017-219-32

Monday, July 8, 2019

From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art

 From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
June 28–December 29, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves
Original photos by Anne Lloyd

'"Thus in the beginning all the World was America."

This often-quoted statement by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government (published in 1689) is acutely relevant to an outstanding exhibition on the birth of landscape art in the United States. This splendid, beautifully-mounted exhibit recently opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA).

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
Gallery views of the From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 

Locke commented on the way that human beings originally lived in a state of nature.  He contrasted this primal life-style with habitation in a civil society based on legal codes enforced by the rule of political authority.

"America" for Locke was the great example of the state of nature. God, Locke wrote. "who hath given the World to Men in common, hath also given them reason to make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience. The Earth, and all that is therein, is given to Men for the Support and Comfort of their being."

A century later, after the English-speaking colonists had asserted political independence from Britain, their relationship to the natural world became a matter of great importance. The Patriots having won the War of Independence, "America" was now theirs to "make use of it to the best advantage of Life, and convenience."

Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, proposed in 1782 that a quote from the Roman poet Virgil be modified to appear on the Great Seal of the United States, Novus Ordo Seclorum. The motion passed but the idea of "a New Order of the Ages" no longer corresponded to Locke's conception of "America" as a virgin wilderness. After a century of using the lands along the Atlantic seaboard for "the Support and Comfort of their being," few Americans now lived in a "state" of nature.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Joshua Shaw’s Landscape with Farmhouse and Castle, 1818

In 1790, George Washington and the freshly-minted United States Government launched into the serious business of nation-building. The U.S. capital was the most-populous and centrally-located of America's cities, Philadelphia. As Washington's administration and the First Congress wrestled with the many problems facing the fledgling nation, Philadelphia-based artists addressed the challenges of visually representing "a New Order of the Ages" for their country.

This crucial moment in the history of the United States is where the PAFA exhibition comes in. The exhibit has a rather unusual name (which we will discuss) but it really is vital to think of it in terms of the birth of landscape art in the U.S and of the cultural identity crisis which occurred during the 1820's and 1830's.

The PAFA exhibition is entitled From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic. The Hudson River, because of its relation to New York City, is well-known, but what or where is the Schuylkill?

Pierre Varlé, Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1798

This map of Philadelphia shows the grid of the city between the shallow, meandering Schuylkill River on the left and the deep-water Delaware on the right.

The Schuylkill is one of two rivers which flow around the central and oldest part of Philadelphia. Schuylkill means "hidden creek," a name conferred on it by Dutch explorers in the 1600's. Unlike the much larger Delaware River, the Schuylkill is a shallow stream, limiting its use by ocean-going ships. To make the Schuylkill more usable for "the Support and Comfort of their being," Philadelphians tried a number of economic strategies like the use of steamboats and the digging of one of the first canals in the U.S., opened in 1825.

Philadelphia's claim to greatness during the early 1800's, once the political capital had moved to Washington D.C., was the Fairmount Water Works.

Designed in 1812, the Fairmount Water Works consisted of a pumping station and reservoir to supply the city with fresh water from the Schuylkill. Ironically, this impressive facility was conceived and approved on the mistaken assumption that the devastating 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic, which killed half of Philadelphia's population, had been caused by polluted water. Mosquitoes were the real culprit, but the "Watering Committee" had indeed acted wisely. Even Charles Dickens, no great admirer of Americans, was impressed with the Fairmount Water Works when he visited the United States in 1842.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)  Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821

The stately, neoclassical  edifice of the Fairmount Water Works became so famous that the image was used to decorate Chinese export porcelain, made for the U.S. market.

Unknown artist (China), Cup and Saucer showing the Philadelphia Water Works, 1825

The image of "American" nature which the early Philadelphia artists used time-and-again was one of "progress" and utility, as well as charm and beauty. Philadelphia's merchant elite built country homes on the banks of the Schuylkill and the Delaware where they could watch the movement of their steamboats and coal-laden canal barges.

To give them credit, Philadelphia's "movers and shakers" devoted a considerable amount of effort and money on the arts. The redoubtable Peale brothers, Charles and James, played a dual role as major portrait painters and civic leaders. Not only did the Peales paint the proud "face" of America's prominent leaders and citizens, they also depicted the countryside of the new American nation as we can see in the setting of this family portrait by James Peale.

James Peale, The Artist and His Family, 1795

The Peale brothers were leaders in the founding in 1805 of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The first art school in the U.S., PAFA provided budding artists with the skills to paint or sculpt images of "progress" for the new Republic.

What should have been a straightforward American success story quickly became rather complicated. For one thing,  most of the painters involved  in the Philadelphia-based landscape movement were named Thomas: Thomas Birch, Thomas Doughty, Thomas Cole and Thomas Moran.

The real wrinkle in this story is the fact that three of these artists named "Thomas" were born in England. A number of early America's leading artists like Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley had traveled to Britain around the time of the Revolution, never to return. These young British-born artists looked to the New World to make their fortune.

Thomas Birch's panoramic view of the Fairmount Water Works and the Schuylkill River is perhaps the greatest of the "landscapes of progress" which preoccupied American artists during the early 1800's. Birch painted this exceptional landscape in 1821, epitomizing the virtue and hard work needed to create the Novus Ordo Seclorum in America.

Thomas Birch, Fairmount Water Works, 1821

Birch, however, had achieved success painting naval battles featuring U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides," during the War of 1812. Increasingly, Birch favored maritime drama over the domestic harmony of the Fairmount Water Works and country homes. This yearning for adventure was the American equivalent of the celebration of the "sublime" in nature taking place in British art at the same time.

America had plenty of "sublime" of its own. Upstream of the Fairmount Water Works was the "Falls of the Schuylkill" and for those willing to venture into the frontier region of the U.S. there was the breath-taking Niagara Falls. Already famous from drawings made by British military engineers during the 1700's, Niagara with its awesome, cascading streams of water began nudging the Fairmount Water Works off the sketch-books and easels of American artists. 

William Russell Birch, Falls of Niagara, 1827

Thomas Birch's father, mercifully name William, caught a case of "Niagara" fever. Highly regarded for a series of urban views of Philadelphia which he created shortly after arriving in the U.S., Birch, Senior, plunged headlong into the wilderness with this 1827 enamel on copper view of  Niagara Falls. Interestingly, he chose a close-cropped focus for this miniature scene, with an Iroquois warrior to give a sense of scale. This was an appreciation of "America" worthy of John Locke - and of a rising generation of Americans whose gaze was increasingly directed westwards. 

"Stay-at-homes" could also savor the sublime with views of Niagara Falls on their dinnerware as with this magnificent lead-glazed earthenware serving dish. It was made by the British firm, William Adams and Sons, at some point between 1834 to 1850. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) 
William Adams & Sons Factory & Thomas Cole, The Falls of Niagara, U.S., 1834-1850

The image on the Adams and Sons serving dish was based on a painting by Thomas Cole (1801-1848).  Born in Lancashire, Cole came to America in 1817. His family's fortune had been ruined in an economic downturn in England. Though largely self-taught, Cole did study for a time at PAFA from 1823 to 1825. He then departed for an extensive sketching and painting tour of New York state, at that time still heavily-forested and sparsely populated. It was Cole who made the definitive turn in U.S. art from "Arcadia" inspired landscapes to the rugged, authentic American scene of the Hudson River School.

That is the canonical version of U.S. art history. A major exhibition in 2018, presented by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery in London, examined Cole's decisive contributions to American culture. Thomas Cole's Journey: Atlantic Crossings also investigated the influence of J.M.W. Turner, John Constable and other leading British artists upon Cole when he returned to Britain for a study-visit in 1827. Atlantic Crossings was a wonderful exhibit - but did not address in any detail the early formative contributions of the Philadelphia art scene to Cole's success.

That the "Schuylkill River School" laid the foundation of the more famous Hudson River School is the theme of the PAFA exhibition. It would be incorrect, however, to assume that PAFA's From the Schuylkill to the Hudson was planned as a rebuttal to Atlantic Crossings at the Met. Exhibitions take many years to plan. For over a decade, Dr. Anna O. Marley, PAFA's Curator of Historical American Art, has been studying the origins of American landscape art, dating back well before 1800.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019)
 Dr. Anna O. Marley, PAFA's Curator of Historical American Art. Dr. Marley stands next to Thomas Birch’s The Residence of James Craig, Bristol, Pennsylvania, ca.1820-21

No less an authority than Thomas Cole would have agreed with Dr. Marley on the accomplishments and example of the Philadelphia-based landscape artists. Speaking later in his life to the art historian, William Dunlap, Cole said as a young artist that "his heart sunk as he felt his deficiencies in art when standing before the landscapes of Birch."

Cole more than made-up for his "deficiencies." He became a national cultural figure and that is how we should view the rise of landscape painting in the early Republic. This was not an either/or process, Philadelphia vs. New York. The artists involved, whether the many "Thomases" or John Lewis Krimmel, Joshua Shaw, Russell Smith  and Asher Durand, all had one objective. It was to discover and accurately depict the authentic American landscape.

The key discovery was the need to go back to primal nature, Locke's "America," or as close as the artists could reach. It did not matter whether they were members of a Schuylkill River School or a Hudson River School. Their paintings played a leading role in a national trend. Beginning In the 1820's, Americans began to search for their identity in art, literature, religion and philosophy. James Fenimore Cooper, after writing dull English-style novels, dropped this derivative format, selecting American frontier history as the subject for his immortal "Leatherstocking" tales.

Jacob Eichholtz, Conestoga Creek and Lancaster, 1833

Albert Bierstadt, Niagara, 1869

Cooper was writing The Last of the Mohicans in 1825, the year that Cole first traveled up the Hudson. The Pennsylvania-born Jacob Eichholtz (1776-1842) and the German-born Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) followed Cooper and Cole to the "backcountry" for the same purpose. All sought to discover the real America and the true meaning of American life.

It is delightful to be able to report that this journey of discovery continues with From the Schuylkill to the Hudson at PAFA.

Most of the works of art on view in the exhibition come from PAFA's extensive collection. Dr. Marley conducted a thorough audit of PAFA's paintings from the 1800's and came across a magnificent mid-nineteenth century landscape which had been forgotten or overlooked for decades. Research showed that the painting had quite a tale to tell, directly relevant to the theme of From the Schuylkill to the Hudson.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening, 1856

The huge oil-on-canvas was entitled Landscape: Evening. A now obscure German artist, Paul Weber (1823-1916), had created this masterpiece in 1856. It is a tour-de-force depiction of the American wilderness and was so-regarded during the 1850's. A subscription was taken among Philadelphia's art lovers to purchase the painting for PAFA.

Who was this virtually unknown painter? Gottlieb Daniel Paul Weber had fled Germany after the 1848 democratic revolutions in Western Europe had been crushed by military  forces. He emigrated to the U.S., settling in Philadelphia. He  exhibited widely throughout the U.S. and won the Silver Medal from PAFA in 1858.

Weber was also an influential teacher. Two of the greatest American landscape painters of the 1800's, William Trost Richards and William Stanley Haseltine, studied with Weber. Both are now relatively forgotten, as is Weber. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening

Landscape: Evening is a revelation. This is not only a technical marvel, as can be seen in the incredible way that Weber handled the golden glow of the setting sun on the topmost branches of the trees. More significantly, Weber transformed a relatively undistinguished patch of woodland into a setting for profound meditation on the mysteries of creation, the cosmos, the passage of time.

 There are no landmark features of nature here or man-made monuments, no Niagara Falls or Fairmount Water Works, to distract your attention. It's just you and God. 

 With this rediscovered masterpiece, Paul Weber places each of us in that much-discussed realm, the state of nature, where "in the beginning all the World was America."

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves. Original Photos: Anne Lloyd. All rights reserved                                                                                           
Images courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA

Introductory Image:

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821. Oil on canvas:  20 1/8 x 30 1/16 in. (51.1175 x 76.35875 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection. #: 1845.1. Bequest of Charles Graff.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Gallery views of the From the Schuylkill to the Hudson: Landscapes of the Early Republic exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. 

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Joshua Shaw’s Landscape with Farmhouse and Castle, 1818. Oil on canvas: 15 1/4 x 21 1/2 in. (38.7 x 54.6 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1879.8.21. Bequest of Henry C. Carey (The Carey Collection).

Pierre Varlé. Plan of the City and Its Environs, 1798. Watercolor on paper: 18 x 20 in. (45.72 x 50.8 cm.) Private collection, Chestnut Hill

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Detail of Thomas Birch's Fairmount Water Works, 1821.

Artist/maker unknown, Chinese, for export to the American market. Cup and Saucer showing the Philadelphia Waterworks,1825. Hard-paste porcelain with cobalt underglaze decoration and gilt cup: 2 5/8 x 4 3/8 x 3 5/8 in. (6.6675 x 11.1125 x 9.2075 cm.); saucer: 1 1/8 x 5 1/2 in. (2.8575 x 13.97 cm.) Philadelphia Museum of Art

James Peale, (1749 -1831) The Artist and His Family, 1795.Oil on canvas: 31 1/4 x 32 3/4 in. (79.4 x 83.2 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1922.1.1. Gift of John Frederick Lewis, 1922.1.1.

Thomas Birch, (1779-1851) Fairmount Water Works, 1821. Oil on canvas: 20 1/8 x 30 1/16 in. (51.1175 x 76.35875 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1845.1. Bequest of Charles Graff.

William Russell Birch, (1755-1834) Falls of Niagara, 1827. Enamel on copper: 2 1/2 x 2 1/4 in. (6.4 x 5.7 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1860.1. Bequest of Eliza Howard Burd.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) William Adams and Sons Factory & Thomas Cole, The Falls of Niagara, U.S., 1834-1850. Earthenware (white) and lead glaze 1 11/16 x 19 7/8 x 16 3/8 in. (4.318 x 50.546 x 41.656 cm.) Winterthur Museum, Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Dr. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Dr. Marley stands next to Thomas Birch’s The Residence of James Craig, Bristol, Pennsylvania, as seen from the Delaware River, ca. 1820-21, PAFA collection.

Albert Bierstadt, (1830-1902) Niagara, 1869.Oil on paper laid down on canvas: 19 x 27 in. (48.26 x 68.58 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #2015.18. Joseph E. Temple Fund.

Jacob Eichholtz, (1776-1842) Conestoga Creek and Lancaster, 1833. Oil on canvas: 20 1/4 x 30 1/4 in. (51.4 x 76.8 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts collection, #1961.8.10. Gift of Mrs. James H. Beal.

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2019) Paul Weber’s Landscape: Evening, 1856. Oil on canvas: 60 1/4 x 86 in. (153.0 x 218.4 cm.) Pennsylvania Academy purchase, by subscription, #1857.1.


Sunday, June 30, 2019

Maurice Sendak Exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum

Drawing the Curtain: 

Maurice Sendak’s Design for Opera and Ballet

Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
June 14 – October 6, 2019

Reviewed by Ed Voves

While F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on his final novel, The Last Tycoon, he jotted down a note which has since become a much-debated quote.

"There are no second acts in American lives.”

In Fitzgerald’s case, that remark was a self-fulfilling prophecy. He died shortly after jotting it down. The Last Tycoon, his come-back novel, was never finished.

Another American literary lion came close during the late 1970’s to suffering Fitzgerald’s fate. Yet, as Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Design for Opera and Ballet at the Morgan Library and Museum shows, this beloved author did enjoy a “second act.”

Maurice Sendak, Ship (Nutcracker), 1982-84

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012) is arguably the greatest artist/illustrator of children's books of the twentieth century, certainly in the United States. Less well-known is his astonishing oeuvre for the theater. Based upon the bequest to the Morgan Library of 900 pieces of Sendak's art, Drawing the Curtain presents over 150 works of art, personal artifacts and documents related to Sendak's theatrical career.

Maurice Sendak, Study for Wild Things costume, with notes 
(Where the Wild Things Are), 1979

The theater costumes which Sendak designed were astonishing. Some of the costumes in Where the Wild Things Are measured eight feet in height and required two people to manipulate. On view at the Morgan are two less-intimidating characters from Sendak productions, the owl from Cunning Little Vixen and Tiger Boy from Nutcracker. They greet you at the gallery entrance, heralds of the wonders to be found inside.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of the entrance of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet

The Morgan exhibition focuses on Sendak's drawings and designs for costumes, “stage props” and theater curtains. These he created for the opera based on his celebrated children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, and for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen, Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges and Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Each of these innovation productions is brilliantly explored.

During much of the 1970’s, Sendak was engaged on a new book, Outside Over There. Already a controversial figure in children’s literature, Sendak struggled to complete this magnificently illustrated, yet frightening tale. It tells the story of a young girl named Ida, who rescues her baby sister from goblins. It was not a reassuring “kid’s” book for the first Sesame Street generation. At one point, Sendak was advised to give-up on his problematical masterpiece.

Sendak persevered, especially since there was a strong current of autobiographical sentiment in Outside Over There. The youngest of three children, Sendak had enjoyed a close bond with his brother Jack and sister Natalie. Although he had never been kidnapped by "goblins," Sendak survived - and thrived - as a child of the 1930's Depression era largely through the affection and support of his siblings.

Brotherly - and sisterly - love also helped Sendak score his big breakthrough into the art world, ultimately leading him to a second career in the theater.  

Sendak had been fascinated with Disney cartoons and pop-up books as a child. His birthday, June 10, 1928, incredibly,was the day that Mickey Mouse was first designed. In 1948, Sendak, with the help of Jack and Natalie, crafted movable toy depictions of fairy tale episodes, including  Little Red Riding Hood and Pinocchio (below).

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Wooden, mechanical toys made by Maurice Sendak & Jack Sendak in 1948

Sendak hoped that the famous New York City toy store, F.A.O. Schwarz, would be able to produce and market his creations. F.A.O. Schwarz declined, given the cost to produce the toys for a mass market. But the chief of advertising at F.A.O. Schwarz hired Sendak to help create the store's attention-grabbing window displays.

Later, the F.A.O. Schwarz staff member responsible for buying children's books, Frances Chrystie, introduced Sendak to Ursula Nordstrom, children's editor at Harper and Row. Nordstrom encouraged Sendak to create art for children's books. Sendak's "first" career as illustrator and author of children's books had begun.

In 1978, as Sendak anguished over Outside Over There, destiny once again came knocking on his door. He received a phone call from the noted theater director, Frank Corso.  Although he had never met Sendak, Corso had a feeling that Sendak's unconventional art and psychological insight would be well-suited to designing the costumes and sets for a new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Sendak thought it over. The risk was huge, possibly derailing publishing Outside Over There.

"Fifty,” Sendak reflected, “is a good time to either change careers or have a nervous breakdown.”

Sendak accepted Corso's offer, in no small part because classical music was a personal passion and The Magic Flute just happened to be his favorite opera.

It is fascinating to examine the works of art which Sendak created for this production of The Magic Flute. Not only did Sendak design costumes and sets, he crafted dioramas to help envision how the production would look on the stage. 

      Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
        Two views of a diorama made by Maurice Sendak         
 for the 1980 production of The Magic Flute 

Here we can see a reassertion of the do-it-yourself savvy that was evident in the toy designs he unsuccessfully tried to sell to F.A.O. Schwarz thirty years before. With remarkable patience and skill, the Morgan curatorial team carefully reassembled these miniature marvels for the exhibition. 

Sendak's theater designs also reflect his art scholarship, particularly his visits to the Morgan Library to study the rich collection of works by William Blake and Giovanni Tiepolo. The latter's Venetian work influenced Sendak's design's for the 1981 production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, the opera set during the French Revolution.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 
Scene of Contemporary Life: The Chaperoned Visit, ca. 1791

Maurice Sendak, Design for show curtain (The Love for Three Oranges), 1981

Agreeing to collaborate with Corso on The Magic Flute launched Sendak into an incredible burst of creative energy. At one point, in 1981, Sendak was at work on four different operas at the same time. The pace, scope and scale of this schedule was punishing. Even Sendak could not always guarantee complete success. 

Maurice Sendak, Storyboard for Where the Wild Things Are, 1979

The 1980 premiere of the opera version of his own Where the Wild Things Are partly misfired. The score was not complete and the huge costumes difficult to use. Sendak  certainly devoted enormous effort on his part. He created a detailed storyboard, depicting the scenes of the opera in advance of the try-out. This storyboard, on view in the Morgan exhibit, makes for fascinating viewing as we see how Sendak managed the transfer of his classic 1963 story from book to stage.

Sendak teamed with Corso for a revival, indeed a completed version, of Wild Things in 1984. It was first performed in London and was a complete triumph.

One of the most notable - and controversial - features of Sendak's books was his refusal to "sugarcoat" life's challenges for children. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he refused to add "sugarcoating" to mollify parents. In her book on Sendak, published in 1980, Selma Lanes quoted him on the challenges of writing and illustrating for children:

No one protects children from life because you cannot; and all we are trying to do in serious work is to tell them about life… You must tell the truth about a subject to a child as well as you are able, without any mitigating of that truth.

Sendak made few attempts to "mitigate" the truth as he saw it while working on the theatrical works under survey in the Morgan exhibition. Sendak's version of The Nutcracker was dark and alarming, yet closer to the original 1816 story than the charming Christmas classic which currently keeps ballet companies solvent from year-to-year.

Dark nuances may abound in Sendak's work but only because darkness as well as light, death as well as birth, are part of life.  

The nature of life was very much a feature of Sendak's art for Leoš Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen. This opera has comic elements, telling about the life and misadventures of a fox, Vixen Sharp-ears. The real theme, however, is the life-cycle of all creatures, in this case a fox. Perhaps, it was for that reason that Sendak agreed to add this little-known opera to his already overflowing work schedule in 1981.

Maurice Sendak, The Edge of the Forest, interlude between Act II, scene 2 and 3,
 for The Cunning Little Vixen, 1983

The art which Sendax created for Cunning Little Vixen is at once naturalistic and dreamlike. Vixen Sharp-ears, as Sendak sees her, is a creature from the real world and from the realm of the imagination. 

This leads us to consider Sendak's motives in adapting his style of art to the theater. Was he attempting to adapt his books and his vision to the conventions of the theater? Or was he aiming at something more subtle and profound?

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
Costume designs by Maurice Sendak for the Where the Wild Things Are opera
A copy of the 1963 book appears at center

Life imitates art, as the old saying goes - and vice versa. Personally, I think that Sendak was striving to reach the unexplored country where imagination and reality are one and the same. I also think he reached that goal.

Tony Kushner, playwrite, friend and biographer of Sendak, wrote a superb book on the artist's late-career. Kushner's book is essential for understanding this phase of Sendak's work, but also for how it was based on his earlier achievements as an artist/writer for children. Here is a very astute comment from the book:

It is only on the stage that Sendak characters actually move among Sendak forests, houses and ruins. And yet there’s a curious thing about his designs. These are not polite sets, nor recessive, not background: they challenge, they crowd up against the theatrical event, as the best designs do. But for all their depth, sound, and motion, for all their atmospherically evocative power, they evoke nothing more powerful than do the book illustrations of Maurice Sendak.

Sendak, in his "second" act, continued on the same visionary, unconventional and challenging path of his first career. Like most explorers, he brought a lot of baggage with him on the journey, but it proved to be very adaptable to his "brave new world."

Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
 Museum banner for the Morgan Library & Museum's Maurice Sendak exhibit 
Maurice Sendak is shown wearing a costume from The Nutcracker

In closing, I would like to thank the Morgan Library and Museum for presenting Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Design for Opera and Ballet. It helped me relive one of the peak experiences of my life, interviewing Sendak by phone for an article I wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News in 1995. I later met him at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia which was presenting an exhibit of his art work. It was a moment to cherish and so is a visit to this inspiring, life-affirming exhibition at the Morgan.

Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved                                                                
Images courtesy of the  Morgan Library and Museum 

Introductory Image:
Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012), Diorama of Moishe scrim and flower proscenium (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983. Watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on laminated paperboard. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.103:69, 70, 71. Photography by Graham Haber, 2018

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012), Ship (Nutcracker), 1982-84. Gouache and graphite pencil on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.107:289. Photography by Janny Chiu

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012), Study for Wild Things costume, with notes (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979. Watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on paper. 
© The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.103:19. Photography by Janny Chiu

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of the entrance of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet. The costumes shown here are the Owl from The Cunning Little Vixen and Tiger Boy from The Nutcracker.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of wooden, mechanical toys made by Maurice Sendak and Jack Sendak in 1948. Photo shows Pinocchio (top) and Little Red Riding Hood. On view at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Two views of a diorama by Maurice Sendak for the Frank Corso production of The Magic Flute (1980). On view at the Maurice Sendak exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum. 

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (Italian,1726?-1804) Scene of Contemporary Life: The Chaperoned Visit, ca. 1791. Pen and brown-black ink and wash over black chalk:
14 5/8 × 19 11/16 in. (37.1 × 50 cm) Morgan Library and Museum,Thaw Collection.    2017.255. Photography by Steven H. Crossot
                                                                                                                                    Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012) Design for show curtain (The Love for Three Oranges), 1981. Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper: 13 × 22 in. (33.02 × 55.88 cm) © The Maurice Sendak Foundation,  2013. Morgan Library and Museum 2013.106:167. Photography by Janny Chiu

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012) Storyboard (Where the Wild Things Are,1979). Watercolor, pen and ink and graphite pencil on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation, 2013. Morgan Library and Museum 2013.72ab. Photography by Janny Chiu

Maurice Sendak (American, 1928-2012) The Edge of the Forest, interlude between Act II, scene 2 and 3, for PBS broadcast (The Cunning Little Vixen), 1983. Watercolor and graphite pencil on paper: 11 15/16 × 16 in. (30.32 × 40.64 cm) Frame: 16 5/8 x 21 3/4 x 1 in. Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.105:102. Photography by Janny Chiu

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Gallery view of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet. Photo shows Maurice Sendak's costumes for the opera version of Where the Wild Things Are and a copy of the 1963 book.

Ed Voves, Photo (2019) View of the entrance of the Morgan Library & Museum exhibition, Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak's Designs for Opera and Ballet. Photo show a museum banner of Maurice Sendak wearing a costume from The Nutcracker.