Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 at the National Gallery of Art

The Urban Scene: 1920-1950

National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

February 26, 2017 - August 6, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

Saturday's Child, according to Mother Goose, "works hard for a living." Martin Lewis, the great Australian-born artist, used this nursery tale as the title for one of his greatest works, Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children. We will shortly look at this extraordinary drypoint etching.

Martin Lewis (1881-1962) was a master printmaker, as was Howard N. Cook, whose image of the surging tide of traffic, human and vehicular, in New York City, introduces this review.The art works of Lewis, Cook and other printmakers are currently on display in a small, but hugely important exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 opened last February and runs until August 6, 2017.                  

The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 is the kind of exhibit that can easily be overlooked. Etchings and lithographs do not command the kind of attention that art exhibits about Monet or Matisse achieve. 

Also, the National Gallery of Art has been having a "career" year since the renovated East Wing reopened on September 27, 2016. One outstanding exhibit after another has been mounted:  Della Robbia's Renaissance sculptures, Frederic Bazille and the Birth of Impressionism, East of the Mississippi: 19th Century American Landscape Photography to name a few. It would be a great misfortune if The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 gets lost in the shuffle.

The Urban Scene has two great lessons to teach. First the artistic medium, in this case printmaking, does not need to be "cutting edge" to be effective. The second, even more significant, point is that the everyday life of "blue collar" America - gritty, unsentimental, raw-edged - is a fit subject for great art.

The first point, dealing with printmaking media is perhaps the most problematical. Why did Lewis and company choose drypoint etching, woodblock printing and lithography to create images that directly rivaled the path-breaking photographs of Bernice Abbott and Lewis Hine?

Louis Lozowick, Allen Street, 1929

When you compare Louis Lozowick's lithograph, Allen Street, 1929, with Under the El at the Battery by Berenice Abbott there seems little difference. Both print and photo brilliantly handle the dappled light shed by the metal superstructure of the elevated platform on the street below. Superficially, the same seems to be the case for Samuel Margolies' Men of Steel and the series of photos by Lewis Hine of the construction workers of the Empire State building.

At second glance, one realizes that there is a spiritual quality about the prints, an intimation of the "other reality" that lies all around us. There is no art term that defines this all-encompassing presence. "Numinous," a word borrowed from theology, perhaps comes closest to conveying this idea.

The men in Lozowick's Allen Street evoke an old term to describe people - "souls." The man striding through the shadow at center and those highlighted by the glaring sun evoke a sense of ethereal "being" that defines their humanity. However sketchy  or indistinct their bodies are depicted in the print, in this "other reality" they are souls.

"Numinous" is the most fitting word to describe the shafts of light beaming down on the Men of Steel by Samuel L. Margolies (1897-1974). Margolies, a native of New York City, was a printmaker for the W.P.A during the Depression. He was well-acquainted with how close to the margin of survival many people lived. His etching of a forlorn "Hooverville" shack, Beware of the Dog (not in the exhibit) testifies to his documentary ability. But mostly, Margolies created images of the "heroic" New York skyline or snow-clad country vistas. 

Men of Steel is much more than "heroic" New York. And it is very different from Lewis Hine's vertigo-inducing photos of men at work on the Empire State Building. I get queasy just looking at Hine's pictures of cloth-capped workers dangling from cables high above the streets of New York City.  

Margolies used the drypoint etching technique on Men of Steel. The etched lines, slanting down from the top right-hand corner were meticulously inscribed to achieve modulations of light and shade. These beams of light caress the buildings  below the construction workers, who are so intent in their work that they hardly notice.

Samuel L. Margolies, Men of Steel, c. 1939 

Margolies' level of skill is little short of miraculous. What we see here is an inverse of the expression, "There but for the grace of God go I." Such are our feelings when we look at Hine's photos. But Margolies "men of steel" are being safeguarded by the providential stream of grace, pouring down upon them, upon New York City and ultimately on all humankind.

It wasn't just these "men of steel" who were unaware of God's grace. People during  the 1930s often strained to see any evidence of divine intercession. The Depression-decade was a tough time to live. The more waspish Americans were likely to see the blackest of humor in the old saying that "God takes care of drunks, children and the United States," 

The grimness of life during the American 1930's is forcefully evoked in Clare Leighton's wood engraving, Breadline, New York, 1931 and Benton Murdoch Spruance's lithograph, The People Work - Evening, 1937. Both artists used time-worn techniques - in Leighton's case, almost anachronistic - to brilliant effect. What newspaper photos and newsreel footage showed, these two works "revealed." 

Clare Leighton, Breadline, New York, 1931

In these unsparing images, life is reduced to a rat race, to "brother can you spare a dime." Yet, even here, we detect a hint of spiritual presence at work. Like the fire warming the numbed fingers and hands of the down-and-out men in Breadline, a sense humanity will flare-up to unfreeze our calloused hearts. 

Look at the bottom right-hand corner of The People Work - Evening. There, squeezed against the edge of the picture, you will see the face of a smiling, older woman. It is the one and only clearly defined countenance in the entire scene.

Benton Spruance, The People Work - Evening, 1937

Benton Spruance (1904-1967) was one of the dominant figures of the Philadelphia art establishment during the 1930's and 40's. He often had a polemical slant to his work. But here, the elderly woman is finding inner peace amid all the hubbub. Or is she just amused by the madness of the human comedy taking place all around her?

Ambiguity too has a role to play in art. What better place for the "gray area" of life than a black and white print?

In Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children, Martin Lewis raises questions and doubts about the meaning of modern urban life. The scene takes place with a medieval-looking edifice in the background. This is the now demolished 71st Regiment Armory on the southeast corner of 34th Street and Fourth Avenue in New York City. Lewis, whose studio was a couple blocks away at 145 East Thirty-Fourth Street, no doubt witnessed such a scene many times. 

Martin Lewis, Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children, 1929

With a mastery rivaling Margolies, Lewis depicted streams of light pouring past the faux-towers and battlements of the armory.Trooping up Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue) is a cavalcade of city dwellers, counterparts to Spruance's troll-like hoard. Who are these stylishly-dressed young women in tight-fitting flapper coats, bundled against the wind of a late winter morning in 1929?

The title of Lewis' print may provide the answer. Quarter of Nine most likely means that these urbanites are rushing to get to work on time.

In 1929, most Americans still worked a six-day or five-and-a half-day work week. The Ford Motor Company instituted a Monday to Friday schedule in 1926. But it was not until President Franklin Roosevelt signed the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that the two-day weekend was authorized by law.

Nobody likes working on a Saturday. The hustling pedestrians, straining to get to work by nine a.m., are no doubt thinking of what they will do with their truncated weekend. Most likely, they are thinking of home. Lewis was a master of night scenes. Nearly two decades after Quarter of Nine - Saturday’s Children, Martin Lewis created Yorkville Night in 1948, also in drypoint, showing homeward-bound New Yorkers. 

The superstructure of an elevated platform looms overhead, as in Louis Lozowick's Allen Street lithograph. It is the light coming from the under the awning of the corner produce market that dominates the scene. The glow speaks of the items being selected for dinner that will be enjoyed at home. This light silhouettes the two women walking away from the store with their purchases. 

Martin Lewis, Yorkville Night, 1948

Lewis was celebrated in his day for such nocturnes as Yorkville Night. His incredible skill with the technique of hatching and cross-hatching gained the attention of Edward Hopper. Lewis shared the secrets of his technique with Hopper, helping  the great painter become an accomplished printmaker as well.

A year before Lewis created Yorkville Night, Stow Wengenroth (1906-1978) evoked "night in the city" with his lithograph, Quiet Hour. In an exhibition where every work on display is a certified masterpiece, I must say that Quiet Hour takes the top prize. That is saying a lot because Quarter of Nine -Saturday's Children has been a personal favorite of mine - and still is. 

Stow Wengenroth, Quiet Hour, 1947

Quiet Hour
is suffused with the numinous feeling so evident in Men of Steel, but without the etched beams of light/grace. Instead, the feeling of spiritual presence suffuses the entire picture plane. This setting could be interpreted as a menacing or haunting scene,  a place of alienation or loss. Instead, Wengenroth counterbalances the empty streetscape with the beckoning glow of the house light pouring out a welcoming glow from the doorway.

"We'll leave a light on for you."

Is there a more comforting, reassuring sentence in any language than that? That's the feeling I get from viewing The Urban Scene: 1920-1950 at the National Galley, a truly wonderful exhibit.

I like to think that Wengenroth's Quiet Hour is scene that a returning World War II veteran would have appreciated. 

Here is the old neighborhood. There's our neighbor's car (a 1940 Studebaker Champion Coupe, if I'm not mistaken) reflecting the light of the street lamps on its hood and fenders. There's the tree I used to watch magically growing green in the spring, as it will do again in a couple of months. There's the light in the doorway of ...



Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved

Introductory image:
Howard Norton Cook (American, 1901-1980) Looking up Broadway, 1937 lithograph Image: 330 x 241 mm Sheet: 450 x 315 mm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams

Louis Lozowick (American, born Ukraine,1898 -1973) Allen Street, 1929 lithograph in black on wove paper image: 19.1 x 28.5 cm (7 1/2 x 11 1/4 in.) sheet: 28.2 x 40 cm (11 1/8 x 15 3/4 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Jacob Kainen

Samuel L. Margolies (American, 1897 -1974) Men of Steel, c. 1939 drypoint image: 378 x 300 mm, sheet: 476 x 381 mm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams

Clare Leighton (American, born England,1898 -1989) Breadline, New York, 1931 wood engraving Image: 298 x 200 mm Sheet: 444 x 293 mm National Gallery of Art, Washington, Reba and Dave Williams Collection, Gift of Reba and Dave Williams

Benton Murdoch Spruance (American, 1904-1967) The People Work - Evening, 1937 lithograph in black image: 34.61 x 48.26 cm (13 5/8 x 19 in.) sheet: 40.64 x 58.1 cm (16 x 22 7/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection

Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881-1962) Quarter of Nine - Saturday's Children, 1929  drypoint on laid paper plate: 25.1 x 32.7 cm (9 7/8 x 12 7/8 in.) sheet: 34 x 45.7 cm (13 3/8 x 18 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Addie Burr Clark

Martin Lewis (American, born Australia, 1881-1962) Yorkville Night, 1948 drypoint sheet: 10 7/8 x 14 3/4 in. (27.62 x 37.47 cm) image: 8 1/2 x 11 1/2 in. (21.59 x 29.21 cm)National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Bequest of Frank B. Bristow)

Stow Wengenroth (American, 1906-1978)  Quiet Hour, 1947 lithograph image: 8 3/4 x 15 in. (22.23 x 38.1 cm) sheet: 11 1/16 x 17 11/16 in. (28.1 x 44.93 cm) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Bequest of Frank B. Bristow)

Saturday, July 1, 2017

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal at the Morgan Library & Museum

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal 

Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
June 2 to September 10, 2017

Reviewed by Ed Voves

It is an odd sensation to look at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City and see the portrait of Henry David Thoreau looming overhead. Thoreau's questioning face is imprinted on a museum banner, advertising the new exhibit, This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal

The traffic flows up Madison Avenue past the Morgan in a steady stream of cars, buses, trucks. The breeze gives the museum banner a ripple now and again, imparting a sense of vitality to what after all is just a silk-screened image. Thoreau on his banner seems very much alive.

As we head toward the door of the Morgan, it's hard not to feel that Thoreau's eyes are appraising us, taking our measure.  Go inside the Morgan and you will find the original of the Thoreau portrait, a small daguerreotype about the size of a modern wallet photo. Those "all-seeing" eyes are there too.

Benjamin D. Maxham, Henry D. Thoreau, Daguerreotype, 1856.

Along with this daguerreotype, the Morgan curators have assembled a remarkable array of documents, chiefly volumes of Thoreau's Journal, and artifacts which illustrate the extraordinary flight of mind and the rather ordinary daily life of Henry David Thoreau.

This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal is the third biographical exhibit which the Morgan has devoted to a nineteenth century literary giant in under twelve months. These have been stellar displays of genius, starting with Charlotte Brontë in September 2016 and Emily Dickinson in January 2017. A fourth, examining Henry James and the Victorian art scene, recently opened and will be reviewed in Art Eyewitness in the coming weeks. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Exhibition banners, Summer 2017, at the Morgan Library.

If This Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal enables us to focus on Thoreau's life through the prism of his journals, there is one factor that needs to be noted. This is not - primarily - a "life and times" exhibit. There are certainly references to the very troubled era in which Thoreau lived and to which he responded with the brilliant essay, Civil Disobedience, and hard-hitting speeches denouncing slavery.

Henry D.Thoreau's Journal, open to the entry for November 11, 1858. 

The Morgan exhibit, however, does not stray from Thoreau's journal entry for November 1, 1858, which provides the title and the theme for this splendid museum display.

Give me the old familiar walk, post office & all – with this ever new self – with this infinite expectation and faith.

Thus, the Morgan exhibit enables us to see through the eyes of the Concord/Walden Pond Thoreau rather than the Lyceum-circuit Thoreau. Yet, what amazing eyes those were!

Ellery Channing (1818-1901), Thoreau's great friend and walking companion, wrote that Thoreau's eyes were "the deepest set blue eyes that could be seen, in certain lights, and in others gray, — eyes expressive of all shades of feeling, but never weak or near-sighted..."

Henry D. Thoreau's t-square, protractor and compass, from the Concord Museum

Thoreau did a lot of looking and evaluating during his life. The tools of his "trade of life" are on display in the Morgan exhibition. These include his surveying equipment - t-square, protractor, and compass. Thoreau's spy glass is there too, bought for the hefty sum of eight dollars. Even Thoreau's sharp eyes needed some help in observing the avian population of Concord, Massachusetts.

If Thoreau earned his bread from surveying, making pencils, doing handy-man chores, he also devoted himself to gaining insight, of the world, of himself. This was his true vocation and This Ever New Self illustrates Thoreau's intellectual life with his personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita, his notebooks and volumes of his celebrated Journal, one of the crown jewels of the Morgan Library collection.

Henry D. Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods, 1854

A first edition of Walden; or, Life in the Woods is on display, as might be expected. In this remarkable book, we read one of Thoreau's great insights from his sojourn in the woods:

Who shall say what prospect life offers to another? Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?

Thoreau was an extraordinary man, to be sure. But most of his life was consumed with ordinary, everyday pursuits. If he achieved this "greater miracle" it was with his Journal rather than his spyglass.

Almost all of the exhibit artifacts on display in This Ever New Self are otherwise unremarkable, but for their place in the story of Henry David Thoreau.. 

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Henry D. Thoreau's desk, ca.1838, from the Concord Museum

Thoreau's desk, upon which he jotted down his thoughts in his Journal is one of the truly iconic objects of American culture. Made from Eastern White Pine and painted a rather sickly shade of green, it would hardly raise an eyebrow on Antiques Roadshow except for the man who wrote upon it.

The same could be said of Thoreau the man. He was redeemed by his thoughts, by the courage with which he plunged into his own psychic depths, rather than his deeds. His life was rather hum-drum and even the two years at Walden Pond hardly bear comparison with the privations of a Tibetan monk.

Thoreau's attitude to his fellow Americans occasionally fell short of the uncompromising standards of human conduct he propounded in his writings. 

In her wonderful book on Civil War-era America, Ecstatic Nation, Brenda Wineapple relates how Thoreau was introduced to Walt Whitman by Bronson Alcott in 1856, the year after Leaves of Grass was first published. Thoreau, watching the crowds on the streets of Brooklyn, "suddenly turned and asked, 'What is there in the people? Pshaw! What do you (a man who sees as well as anybody) see in all this cheating political corruption?'" 

That was not the kind of remark that would endear anyone to Whitman, who later declared that "Thoreau’s great fault was disdain—disdain for men (for Tom, Dick and Harry)."

Was Thoreau incapable then of the "greater miracle" he had written about, of looking "through each other's eyes for an instant?”

Perhaps the most significant words in Thoreau's exasperated question to Whitman were "cheating political corruption." From the "gag rule" that prevented discussion of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Congress to the political patronage system that operated at all levels of government, America in the decade before the Civil War was indeed a mass of "cheating political corruption." 

Thoreau's frustration with the seemingly ineradicable flaws in the American character was surely a factor in his dialog with Whitman. Then again, adjusting to life in NYC might have been more than Thoreau could handle. The Morgan exhibit displays a letter from an earlier visit in which Thoreau complained to his mother that “I walked through New York yesterday – and met no real and living person.” 

 William James Hubard, Henry David Thoreau, 1837

Yankee and Harvard man though he was, Thoreau was equally unsparing towards the political apathy and expediency of his fellow New Englanders in the struggle against slavery. This attitude, of course, is what landed him in Concord Jail for a night in 1846.

Incredibly, the lock and key that kept Thoreau incarcerated were preserved when the Concord Jail was demolished in 1871. The lock had been made in Birmingham, England. It was used from 1788, when the jail opened, until 1871. New Englanders have well-deserved reputation both for frugality and a sense of history. A gentleman named A. Gardner Heywood saved the lock and key and gave these talismans to the Concord Antiquarian Society.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Steel lock and key from Middlesex County jail, ca. 1788

As extraordinary as this act of preservation is, it was Thoreau's action that transformed the lock and key into relics in the saga of American democracy. Thoreau wrote in Walden that: 

One afternoon [July, 1846], near the end of the first summer when I went to the village to get a shoe from the cobbler's, I was seized and put into jail, because, as I have elsewhere referred, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house.

Thoreau spent but a single night and was released next morning. A mysterious person paid his poll tax, probably his Aunt Maria. A proper New England lady, she was scandalized to have a member of the family in prison. Thoreau was so annoyed at losing the moral high ground that a prison sentence conferred that the town sheriff had to force him to leave.

It's amazing that a semi-comical incident like Thoreau's night in jail should have resulted in the writing of Civil Disobedience, which in turn influenced Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and many other freedom fighters of the twentieth century.

Gandhi and Dr. King espoused a non-violent form of civil disobedience. How ironical, that Thoreau should have championed John Brown, the Abolitionist who tried to purge America "with blood" to rid the nation of the evil of slavery. Did Thoreau, in the last years of his life, stray from the path of righteousness, the path he inspired others to take later?

Less than a year before he died in March 1862, Thoreau posed for a new type of photograph called an ambrotype. This occurred on August 21, 1861. A month earlier, the Battle of Bull Run, Virginia, had ended in the rout of Union forces. The Civil War was on and a purging with blood was indeed taking place.

Edward Sidney Dunshee, Henry D. Thoreau, Ambrotype, 1861

And there was nothing Thoreau could do or say or write that would make any difference. By the time that Thoreau sat for this ambrotype, he was dying - slowly - from tuberculosis. You can see death creeping across his gaunt, weary face.

How different from the daguerreotype of 1856, which Thoreau had posed for to satisfy the request of an admirer in Michigan. Calvin H. Greene had sent Thoreau five dollars for two of his books and the portrait photo. Thoreau complied, sending the books, the daguerreotype and $1.70 in change.

By 1861, Thoreau had nothing left to give. Even the gleam in his eyes was gone. Only the words of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, of Walden and of Civil Disobedience remained as his legacy.

No greater gift than these words could Henry David Thoreau have bequeathed to his countrymen and to freedom-loving people around the world and across the centuries.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved 

Introductory Image:
Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017) Exhibition banner forThis Ever New Self: Thoreau and His Journal, Summer 2017, at the Morgan Library and Museum.

Benjamin D. Maxham (American, 1821-1889)  Henry D. Thoreau, Daguerreotype, Worcester,
Massachusetts, June 18, 1856. Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Exhibition banners, Summer 2017, at the Morgan Library and Museum.

Henry D. Thoreau (American, 1817–1862) Journal notebook for November 9, 1858–April 7, 1859 (open to the entry for November 11, 1858). The Morgan Library & Museum; purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1909.

Henry D. Thoreau’s t-square, protractor, and compass, from the Concord Museum; gift of
Cummings E. Davis or George Tolman, before 1909; Th12, Th12c, Th13.                                       

Henry D. Thoreau (American, 1817–1862) Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854. The Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Gordon N. Ray, 1987

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Henry D. Thoreau's desk. Eastern white pine, painted green, Concord, Massachusetts, ca.1838. Concord Museum; gift of Cummings E. Davis, 1886; Th10

William James Hubard (American, 1807–1862), Henry D. Thoreau, Cut paper silhouette 
portrait, Cambridge, 1837. The Neil and Anna Rasmussen Collection.

Anne Lloyd (Photo 2017), Steel lock and key from Middlesex County jail, ca. 1788
Concord Museum, gift of Cummings E. Davis, 1886; M2081

Edward Sidney Dunshee (American, 1823–1907) Henry D. Thoreau, Ambrotype, New Bedford, Massachusetts, August 21, 1861. Concord Museum; gift of Mr. Walton Ricketson and Miss Anna Ricketson, 1929; Th33b