Category: Museums

Gustav Klimt: At The Getty

Gustav Klimt exhibit poster at the Getty. Photo by Mark Vallen © 2012

"Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line" exhibit poster at the Getty. Photo by Mark Vallen © 2012

I had the good fortune to see Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line, at the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles, California.

It is the first exhibition devoted exclusively to the drawings of the Austrian painter and leading member of the Vienna Secession movement.

Marking the 150th anniversary of Klimt’s birth, the Albertina Museum of Vienna, Austria, loaned over 100 drawings by the artist to the Getty, where the works will be on display until September 23, 2012. A Getty staff person informed me that the exhibit has proven quite popular, with large throngs of visitors being a daily occurrence. There is little wonder as to why.

This may well be one of the more unusual “reviews” of The Magic of Line exhibit, since it brings the reader’s attention to specific histories regarding a certain number of Klimt’s important works, narratives that the Getty/Albertina inexplicably did not present to the public at large.

I felt compelled to write this article when confronted with captions the Getty provided for Klimt’s so-called Faculty Paintings, descriptions that merely stated the works had been “destroyed in 1945″, while the catalog book mentioned that the paintings had been “burned in a fire”. Amazingly, no further details were offered - but more on that later.

It is an understatement to say the dazzling paintings by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) are well known by many, especially his “golden paintings”; it is no surprise that droves would turn out for an exhibit of his art. But The Magic of Line, is not a celebration of the artist’s opulent canvases, rather, it is an examination of Klimt’s black and white drawings, many of which were studies for paintings. Some will no doubt be disappointed that there are but two small paintings in the entire exhibit, a diminutive gouache and watercolor titled The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater (1888-1889), and an oil study for Medicine, one of the large scale canvases comprising the artist’s Faculty Paintings that the Getty/Albertina asserted burned in a fire.

For those artists like myself who busy themselves with creating works of narrative realism, drawing as the very foundation of art is a fundamental principle, and in The Magic of Line one can see how that tenet guided Klimt’s hand in the making of his paintings. Many will be shocked to see Klimt’s academic background in the 1888-1889 sketches he drew as studies for Shakespeare’s Theater, a fresco he painted on the ceiling of the Burgtheater in Vienna. These six black chalk drawings, with highlights of white chalk, are precise, meticulous portraits; they are renditions of the human form that reveal the touch of a master artist.

Gustav Klimt. 1886/87. Black and white chalk. Study for "Shakespeare's Theater" mural, painted at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria.

Gustav Klimt. 1886/87. Black and white chalk. Study for "Shakespeare's Theater" mural, painted at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Austria.

I gazed intently at Klimt’s Shakespeare’s Theater drawings for some time, in awe of how he captured almost photographic realism with minimal effort; a three quarter view portrait or a “lost profile” captured with a few scant chalk lines - how well Klimt knew human anatomy!

That he eventually reduced his drawing style to the barest minimalism, makes his early drawings the best evidence that an artist must know the rules in order to break them.

Klimt’s eventual approach to drawing is exemplified in his five sketches of Mäda Primavesi, the nine-year-old daughter of Austrian banker, Otto Primavesi. The drawings were studies for an oil portrait executed in Klimt’s highly stylized manner; what makes the studies so remarkable is that they bear little resemblance to the finished painting.

Bereft of shading, modeling, and details normally associated with portraits, the artist’s scribbling nevertheless captured the essence of his young sitter. The lines in Klimt’s sketches are energetic, jangly, nervous, and broken. His squiggles have all the appearance of automatic writing - the strokes and dabbles unconsciously drawn at a séance by someone possessed. That such spareness showed the way to a fully realized and complex portrait is astonishing. Most of Klimt’s late drawings display this same quality.

Contemporary viewers see Klimt’s works from a modern standpoint, accepting his aesthetics and subject matter as pleasant and agreeable. His erotic sketches seem tame by today’s standards, reinforcing the notion that Klimt’s works were uncontroversial for his time, which was not at all true. What fails to come across in The Magic of Line is the outrage expressed by “polite society” towards Klimt’s art. A founding member of the Vienna Secession in 1897, Klimt and his fellow Secession artists meant to upend academic conservatism in the arts; the Secessionists wanted a “revolution” in art, but not one in any overt political sense.

I feel disquietude concerning the Getty/Albertina failing to put Klimt in the context of the reactionary Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867-1918) under which he lived. Austria-Hungary was an imperialist world power during Klimt’s lifetime, and its aristocracy was opposed by many bourgeois political factions hoping to unseat the aristocratic class - if only to step into their shoes. Industrialization, capitalist production, and technological developments changed the face of the absurdly outdated empire, and the Secessionists were part and parcel of the forces seeking reform.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire’s internal and external tensions could not help but impact Klimt and his fellow artists, though The Magic of Line neglected to point out how. The June 28, 1914 assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, led to the eruption of World War I (1914-1918) exactly one month later. The war claimed the lives of 37 million civilians and soldiers across Europe and brought about the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, Ottoman, and German empires. Klimt did not live to see the total ruin wrought by the conflict, but as his country rushed headlong into World War I, his work turned somber. None of this is mentioned in The Magic of Line.

These minor criticisms pale in comparison to the details that follow, the particulars of which drove me to write this article. The exclusions made in the exhibit are curious, begging the questions, who made them and why? For those reasons the focus of my commentary is an attempt at revealing omitted histories.

The Magic of Line exhibit and accompanying catalog contain omissions having to do with Klimt’s Faculty Paintings. Preliminary sketches for those paintings, plus an oil study for one of them - Medicine - comprise a key portion of the Getty/Albertina exhibit. Yet, when mentioning the ultimate fate of the Faculty Paintings, the exhibit’s wall text and book state that in 1945 the works were either “destroyed” or “burned in a fire”. The destiny of Klimt’s trio of paintings was far more complicated, and tragic, than that; the paintings were willfully destroyed by the Nazis at the close of World War II.

The following places Klimt’s Faculty Paintings in their proper historic context while tracing their chronicles, from being rejected by the University of Vienna, to their ultimate destruction by the collapsing Nazi regime.

Gustav Klimt. Black crayon and pencil. Circa 1900. Study for the mural, "Medicine". The mural was destroyed by the Nazis in 1945. Collection of the Albertina Museum of Vienna, Austria, on view at the Getty.

Gustav Klimt. Black crayon and pencil. Circa 1900. Study for the mural, "Medicine". The mural was destroyed by the Nazis in 1945. Collection of the Albertina Museum of Vienna, Austria, on view at the Getty.

In 1894 Klimt received a commission from the University of Vienna for three massive canvases to adorn the ceiling of the Great Hall at the university, the Faculty Paintings.

Between the years 1900-1907, Klimt presented his paintings, Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence, to the University - but the works were scorned as obscene. More than eighty members of the University’s faculty expressed indignation over the “perverted” canvases.

Needless to say, the paintings were not hung in the Great Hall as originally intended.

Klimt tried to abrogate his contract with the university and pay back the commission money; even as the university refused to mount the canvases, it also declined to return the works to Klimt, asserting the paintings were the property of the state. The controversy was distressing for Klimt and he never again accepted a government commission.

Eventually one of Klimt’s devoted patrons, the industrialist August Lederer, purchased Philosophy, and Lederer would ultimately end up owning the paintings Medicine, and Jurisprudence as well.

August Lederer (1857-1936) and his wife Serena (1867-1943) befriended Klimt and became major collectors of his art; the two continuing to collect the artist’s works long after his death in 1918. The couple were part of Vienna’s dynamic Jewish community, where Klimt had found many patrons and collectors, not to mention models, portrait subjects, lovers, and intellectual counterparts. Vienna was a city where a great number of prominent and successful Jews chose to settle; but the darkest of nights would soon befall them.

On March 12, 1938, Nazi Germany invaded and “annexed” Austria in a campaign the fascists called “Anschluß” (political union). Hitler’s military occupation would last until March 28, 1945. In the immediate aftermath of the Nazi invasion, Austrian government officials and tens of thousands of Social Democrats, Communists, Socialists, and Jews were arrested. As the occupation intensified, those able to go into exile did so, but most of those targeted by the Nazis and their Austrian fascist collaborators were either killed or sent to concentration camps.

This photo taken by an anonymous photographer during the opening days of the Nazi annexation of Austria shows Nazi collaborators humiliating Jews by having them scrub sidewalks in Vienna. Photo from the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

This photo taken by an anonymous photographer during the opening days of the Nazi annexation of Austria shows Nazi collaborators humiliating Jews by having them scrub sidewalks in Vienna. Photo from the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Jews in Vienna were made to scrub sidewalks, their homes and businesses were looted, their synagogues destroyed. In May of 1938 the Nazis implemented “racial laws” in occupied Austria, stripping the Jewish people of their civil and human rights and forcing them to wear yellow stars.

The Nazis “encouraged” 130,000 Jews to emigrate, commandeering their property and depriving them of Austrian citizenship in the process; the Nazis considered their stolen Jewish property to have been “Aryanized”.

In 1938 the Gestapo seized a number of important art collections from Jewish owners, amongst these the holdings of the Rothschild family, as well as those of the banker Herbert Gutmann and the industrialist Oskar Bondy. Also commandeered were the collections of August and Serena Lederer, which contained a large number of Klimt’s artworks. August had died two years before the Nazi invasion, and after the Lederer collections were confiscated, Serena fled to Budapest.

Exhibit catalog for the "Gustav Klimt Ausstellung" (Gustav Klimt Exhibition) organized by the Nazis in occupied Austria in 1943. Catalog image courtesy of The Jewish Daily Forward/Monica Strauss.

Exhibit catalog for the "Gustav Klimt Ausstellung" (Gustav Klimt Exhibition) organized by the Nazis in occupied Austria in 1943. Catalog image courtesy of The Jewish Daily Forward/Monica Strauss.

Incredibly, Hitler’s appointed “Reich Governor” of Vienna, Baldur von Schirach, staged a major exhibit of Klimt’s artworks in occupied Vienna on February 7, 1943 - around the same time that he was deporting some 65,000 of Vienna’s Jews to death camps in Poland! The Gustav Klimt Ausstellung (Gustav Klimt Exhibition) was comprised of 66 paintings and 34 drawings by Klimt, most of which came from the Nazi confiscated Lederer collection.

In her article Klimt’s Last Retrospective, art historian Monica Strauss said of the Nazi exhibit: “Though nominally a celebration of what would have been the artist’s 80th year, the exhibition was more accurately a display of looted art.”

Given that the Nazis declared all forms of modern art to be degenerate, Schirach’s Klimt exhibit was certainly a deviation from official Nazi policy, but then, Schirach could afford to be eccentric. He was married to the daughter of Hitler’s official photographer, and up until 1940 he had been the appointed leader of the eight million strong “Hitler-Jugend” (Hitler Youth), the official Nazi paramilitary youth organization.

At the start of 1940 Schirach enlisted as a volunteer in the German army and served as an infantry officer in Nazi occupied France; later that year he was appointed Reich Governor of Vienna.

I should note that after the war Schirach was tried before the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal and found guilty of deporting 65,000 Viennese Jews to Nazi death camps in Poland; he was sentenced to 20 years in Spandau Prison.

At the close of Schirach’s Klimt exhibit, Hitler’s “thousand year Reich” was crumbling. The Soviets had won the Battle of Stalingrad against the Nazis - marking the turning point in World War II. The Nazis began to prepare for “total war” with the Allied powers and the Soviets, which led the Nazis to secretly warehouse their looted art treasures taken from all across Europe.

Some of the Nazis’ stolen treasures where kept in tunnels at the Altaussee salt mines located in an alpine village of Austria; most of the artworks in the mines were of Austrian origin - over 7,000 looted objets d’art were stored there. The plunder at Altaussee included the likes of The Astronomer by Vermeer, The Ghent Altarpiece by brothers Hubert van Eyck and Jan van Eyck, and The Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo. The Lederer collections, which included Klimt’s drawings and canvases for the Faculty Paintings, were transported by the Nazis from Vienna to Schloß Immendorf (Immendorf Castle), located in the Northeast of Lower Austria.

The Nazis warehoused stolen artworks for two reasons. “Degenerate” and “un-German” works were sorted out and sold on the international market for profit. Works the Nazis viewed as iconic of “Aryan superiority” were to be integrated into the Führermuseum, an immense arts complex and repository for all of the art plundered by the Nazis throughout Europe. Hitler wanted the museum constructed in the Austrian city of Linz, which he considered to be his hometown, but fortunately the institution was never built. The Nazi playwright and “Poet Laureate” Hanns Johst wrote a line of dialog in his play, Schlageter that has some relevance here: “Whenever I hear of culture I release the safety-catch of my Browning!” Those few words best embody Nazi thinking vis-à-vis the arts.

Schloß Immendorf (Immendorf Castle). The Austrian castle where a division of the Nazi SS destroyed the collections of August and Serena Lederer in 1945, including many works by Klimt. Black and white photo taken in 1936 by Seering H. Photograph courtesy of the ÖNB - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek ©.

Immendorf Castle. The Austrian castle where a division of the Nazi SS destroyed the collections of August and Serena Lederer in 1945, including many works by Klimt. Black and white photo taken in 1936 by Seering H. Photograph courtesy of the ÖNB - Österreichische Nationalbibliothek ©.

On May 7, 1945, the Nazis signed a formal declaration of surrender with the Soviets and the Allied powers. Barely a week earlier Hitler had committed suicide after the Soviets broke through Nazi defenses to attack Berlin.

To prevent Immendorf Castle and its cache of stolen art from falling into Soviet hands, a division of the Nazi SS placed explosives in the castle on May 8th and then detonated the demolition charges.

The blasts destroyed much of the castle and the ensuing fire burned for days. It was not just the Lederer collection that was obliterated; everything within the castle was destroyed, including significant paintings by Egon Schiele and the collections of the Museum for Applied Arts of Vienna as well as the collections of the Austrian Gallery.

The story of the Faculty Paintings did not end with their destruction at the hands of the SS. Starting in the mid-1980s some Austrians began a serious reconsideration of their nation’s past, resulting in a flood of critical research and articles. In 1985 Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin (1956-2006) began looking into the personal history of Kurt Waldheim (1918-2007), who was then seeking election as President of Austria and had previously served as the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981. Czernin and other Austrian journalists uncovered the fact that Waldheim had been a Nazi officer in a German army unit that had carried out massacres against Serb civilians in Yugoslavia during World War II. The facts did not prevent Waldheim from being elected President of Austria in 1986, but the story crippled his presidency while opening a path to further investigations into Austria’s Nazi past.

The 1998 New York Times article, Austria Is Set to Return Artworks Confiscated From Jews by Nazis, reported that the Austrian government bowed to international pressure in ‘98 by arranging the return to Jewish collectors of some 100 artworks held by Viennese museums. As Hubertus Czernin wrote, “The art was stolen by the Nazis and stolen a second time by the Austrian Government.” The NYT also quoted Konrad Oberhuber (1935-2007), director of the Albertina Museum from 1987-2000, saying the post-war Allied Commission “came to the museum” and “declared there were no problems with the provenance of drawings and graphics in the collection”.  However Mr. Czernin, the NYT wrote, “did not believe the commission had ever been at the Albertina.” The paper also quoted the Baroness Bettina der Rothschild, who said the Albertina had “a lot of our things.”

The Museum Security Network (MSN) has over the years posted many articles on the subject of art looted by the Nazis and the attempts to return those works to their original Jewish owners. Found on the group’s website is the research paper From ‘Legacy to Shame’ to the Auction of ‘Heirless Art in Vienna’: Coming to Terms ‘Austrian Style’ with Nazi Artistic War Booty, written in 1999 by Oliver Rathkolb, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. Rathkolb’s paper is an eye-opener when it comes to describing, in the author’s words, “the rather shabby habit of restitution after 1945″ that had been conducted by Austrian authorities.

In this photo, U.S. Generals Eisenhower (right), Patton (middle), and Bradley (left), inspect some of the looted paintings hidden by the Nazis at the Merkers salt mine in Thuringia, Germany. Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

In this photo, U.S. Generals Eisenhower (right), Patton (middle), and Bradley (left), inspect some of the looted paintings hidden by the Nazis at the Merkers salt mine in Thuringia, Germany. Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

After the May 7, 1945 Nazi surrender, Allied armies poured into Austria. The section of the U.S. army that searched for looted art treasures, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) unit, spearheaded a hunt across Europe for artworks plundered by the Nazis. The MFAA located hidden repositories of stolen artworks in Germany as well as in the salt mines of Altaussee and other locations in Austria.

In time the post-war U.S. authorities in Austria turned over the objets d’art to the new Austrian government, which did little to determine the provenance of the works, or arrange for the return of individual artworks and collections to scores of Jewish owners or their descendants. Many of these artworks - plundered from Jewish collectors - simply ended up in Austria’s museums, were some remain to this day.

Art historian Sophie Lillie has played an indispensable role in discovering and presenting the facts regarding art plundered by the Nazis having ending up in Austrian museums. Her 2003 book, Was Einmal War (What Once Was), documented the Nazi theft of Jewish art collections in Austria. Ms. Lillie provided substantial evidence that the Nazis stole 148 major collections; she also exposed the fact that artworks taken from Jewish owners by the Nazis ended up in the collections of major Austrian art institutions like the Leopold Museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and yes… the Albertina museum.

In February of 2009, ARTnews published The Mauerbach Scandal, an informative article about the ongoing work of Sophie Lillie and others who seek the return of cultural property once stolen from Austrian Jewry by the Nazis and now held by Austrian museums and private collectors. The ARTnews article stated that the Austrian government “made no effort to find the rightful owners of the objects until 1969″, and that government archival documents that could prove rightful ownership of art objects were opened “only in 1998, after the Federal restitution law was adopted by the Austrian parliament”. The ARTnews article concluded by saying that regarding Jewish ownership of paintings and art objects once plundered by the Nazis, Ms. Lillie “believes that the responsibility for concealing information about their ownership rests with the Austrian state”. ARTnews also noted that Austria’s Ministry of Finance, which had control over the “ownerless” artworks for years… did not return phone calls from the arts publication.

Given the track record of the Austrian state and museum system - it should come as no surprise that the Albertina Museum would fall silent on the ultimate fate of Klimt’s Faculty Paintings. To avoid even a whiff of controversy, perhaps someone “thought it best” to merely say the paintings were burned in a fire. It is after all a touchy subject that leads directly to the history of the Austrian state’s reluctance to return art treasures stolen by the Nazis from Austrian Jews.

Tate Modern Rejects “The Gift”

There are those who credit the Tate Modern in London for being in the vanguard of promoting and collecting “cutting edge” postmodern art. A 2010 installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is often mentioned in that context. Working with the Tate, Ai had assistants cover the entire Turbine Hall floor with over 100 million handmade porcelain sunflower “seeds”. What it all meant was open to interpretation, but for the next 48 hours the public was invited to frolic through the thick carpet of seeds, until the museum roped off the area because of hazardous ceramic dust.

In 2012 the Tate purchased ten tons of Ai Weiwei’s porcelain sunflower seeds, around 8 million individual seeds, for the museum’s permanent collection. The acquisition represented less than a tenth of the seeds used in the original installation. The Tate would not divulge the purchase price of their acquisition, but at a 2011 auction at Sotheby’s the white ceramic seeds were sold for £3.50 each (around $5.00).

"The Gift" - Liberate Tate. Installation/Performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Immo Klink.

"The Gift" - Liberate Tate. Installation/Performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Immo Klink.

In the latest, albeit unauthorized, installation at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, the artists and activists of the Liberate Tate art collective delivered an artwork titled The Gift to the Tate Modern on July 7, 2012; the gift being an enormous 54 foot, one and a half ton wind turbine blade. Over 100 Liberate Tate group members carried the leviathan blade, disassembled into three huge parts, to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.

Getting the blade past the panicked Tate security guards was difficult enough, but once inside the hall the group reassembled the blade under the watchful eye of museum guards and police officers.

Think of Liberate Tate’s wind turbine blade as a gigantic Duchampian style readymade, but one with a clear and timely message. The windmill blade, icon of renewable energy, is placed inside the Tate, recipient of major funding from the international oil company, BP. Conceptual art with an actual concept! There is no small irony in this, since the Tate has in its collection a replica of Fountain, the porcelain urinal Marcel Duchamp submitted to an exhibit organized by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917.

The Tate website describes Fountain with the following: “Fountain is an example of what Duchamp called a ‘readymade’, an ordinary manufactured object designated by the artist as a work of art. It epitomizes the assault on convention and good taste for which he and the Dada movement are best known.” The Tate understands “readymade” and “assault on convention” in a purely academic way, but fails to comprehend any contemporary real world application. Can anyone really explain why a urinal is a “work of art” but a windmill blade is not?

Liberate Tate art collective installation and performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012 Photo by Ian Buswell.

Liberate Tate art collective installation and performance. Tate Modern Turbine Hall. July 7, 2012. Photo by Ian Buswell.

The Liberate Tate art collective put forward their wind turbine blade as a “gift to the nation” under the provisions of the UK government’s Museums and Galleries Act of 1992. This requires the Tate to officially consider accepting the work as part of its permanent collection. Liberate Tate formally submitted their artwork as a gift to the nation in an official letter to Sir Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate. The letter in part read: “We gift this artwork with the intention of increasing the public’s understanding and enjoyment of contemporary art.” Liberate Tate spokesperson Sharon Palmer told the press:

“For more than 20 years Tate has been used by BP to present an image of corporate benevolence while the oil company has been involved in environmental and human rights controversies the world over.

We’re approaching an irrevocable turning point in our ability to address the climate crisis, so now is the time for Tate to look to the future and remove itself from the destructive heart of the fossil fuel economy. Liberate Tate has created this artwork using an icon of renewable energy with an express wish that Tate will have the courage to take leadership in addressing the threat of catastrophic climate change and end its relationship with BP.”

In a separate public statement, Communiqué #3 The Gift, Liberate Tate offered a rather poetic explanation of The Gift, and what motivated them to bequeath their giant wind turbine blade to the nation. An excerpt from the message reads as follows:

“Despite recent reports that our biosphere is approaching a ‘tipping point’ where ecosystems are close to a sudden and irreversible change that could extinguish human life; despite years of creative protest and thousands of signatories petitioning Tate to clean up its image and let go of its relationship with a company that is fuelling catastrophe; despite all these things, Tate continues to promote the burning of fossil fuels by taking the poisoned ‘gift’ of funding from BP. This is why today we have given you something you could not refuse.

The law of this island requires that all ‘gifts to the nation’, donations of art from the people, be considered as works for public museums. Consider this one judiciously. We think that it is a work that will fit elegantly in the Tate collection, a work that celebrates a future that gives rather than takes away, a gentle whispering solution, a monument to a world in transition.

Resting on the floor of your museum, it might resemble the bones of a leviathan monster washed up from the salty depths, a suitable metaphor for the deep arctic drilling that BP is profiting from now that the ice is melting. But it is not animal, nor is it dead, it is a living relic from a future that is aching to become the present. It is part of a magic machine, a tool of transformation, a grateful giant.”

Not surprisingly, just hours after the public and Liberate Tate’s members were cleared from the Turbine Hall by museum security, the Tate removed the 54 foot wind turbine blade from the hall to an undisclosed location. One can surmise that it was not even considered by the Tate Board of Directors for acceptance into the museum’s permanent collection.

Liberate Tate’s performance and installation was captured on film and posted on the VICE News website. Felix Goncalez and Stephanie Thieullent of You And I Films also documented the event in a short video they call The Gift.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

View of the Walker Landing Plaza between galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas USA. Photograph by Charvex/Wikimedia Creative Commons.

View of the Walker Landing Plaza between galleries at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas USA. Photograph by Charvex/Wikimedia Creative Commons.

During the month of May 2005 I posted an essay titled The Wal-Mart Museum of Art.

My article detailed the intentions of Wal-Mart heiress Alice L. Walton to found and build the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, the hometown headquarters of Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world’s largest retailer.

Forbes ranks four of the Waltons among the top dozen wealthiest Americans, with the family members collectively worth around $93 billion dollars. Alice Walton alone has a net worth of $20.9 billion dollars, and not surprisingly she serves as the head of the museum’s Board of Directors. The $800 million it took to erect the huge museum of course came from the Walton Family Foundation. Crystal Bridges opened this past November to much fanfare from the press, though this article will make note of a few things generally left unsaid about the new “world-class” art museum and its connections to the Wal-Mart empire.

Should I ever find myself in Bentonville, Arkansas, I would most likely pay a visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. There is no doubt Alice Walton and family have purchased a superlative art collection. The museum houses works by the likes of Charles Wilson Peale, John Singleton Copley, Charles Bird King, Asher Brown Durand, Arshile Gorky, Thomas Hart Benton, Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keefe, Claes Oldenburg, and innumerable others from throughout America’s episodic history. It may be a conservative collection hung in a conventional setting, but there is no arguing its significance. It is also incontestable that the museum serves an unstated political purpose. I will set the pace for the remainder of this article by quoting from my original May 2005 post:

“Wal-Mart Inc. is hardly a credible or benevolent voice when it comes to the public interest, and delivering the nation’s art treasures into its gapping maw makes me shudder. While the corporate press and apolitical art critics fawn over the art world’s latest benefactor, they are likely to forget to mention the following… Wal-Mart Inc. has a terrible record when it comes to the mistreatment of its US employees, and a ghastly history of exploiting workers in other parts of the world. There is no better example of how politics is intertwined with art than the spectacle of an art museum being founded by a rapacious corporation well known for exporting US jobs overseas and profiting from foreign sweat shop labor.”

Writing for Bloomberg.com, Jeffrey Goldberg penned a December 2011 article titled “Wal-Mart Heiress’s Museum a Moral Blight“, in which he updates and extrapolates on the points made above. Goldberg referred to the Wal-Mart Museum as “a moral tragedy, very much like the corporation that provided Walton with the money to build a billion-dollar art museum during a terrifying recession. The museum is a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else.” He went on to write that the museum “is certainly the handsomest building ever built with Wal-Mart money. I suspect it is also the only building associated with Wal-Mart that is devoted solely to American-made goods.”

Here I must point out that the inaugural presentation of the Crystal Bridges Museum collection was co-sponsored by General Electric, Coca-Cola, and Goldman Sacks. Honestly, the museum seems not so much a gathering of historic and noteworthy American art as it does a monumental advertisement for America’s plutocratic 1%.

Contributing editor to Art & Auction magazine, Abigail Esman, may no doubt disagree with my assessment. In her article for Forbes, “How Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Exposes The Foolishness Of Occupy Wall Street“, Ms. Esman wrote of Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridge Museum as a “love letter, as it were, to her community and to America”, saying that “there remain those so wedded to the whining of the so-called 99 percent that they remain blinded both to the philanthropy and to the significance of the project.”  Esman’s attacks against the “Occupy crowd” are simply diversionary and do not address the social role played by Wal-Mart and its cultural appendage, the Crystal Bridges Museum. She maligns the Occupy movement by saying “What matters to them is simply the fact that Ms. Walton has the money to do any of this in the first place - and this, evidently, is an emblem of pure evil.” It is not the family’s affluence that is problematic, it is the question of how they acquired their wealth and the ways in which they utilize it.

I realize that worshipping monetary success has become a cult religion in the United States, but please, let us not delude ourselves.

According to a 2007 report from the Economic Policy Institute (ECI) titled The Wal-Mart effect, the mega-corporation imported $27 billion dollars worth of products from that shining citadel of democracy, the People’s Republic of China; those imports, according to the ECI, “eliminated nearly 200,000 U.S. jobs in this period”. The ECI report also stated that “Wal-Mart has aided China’s abuse of labor rights and its violations of internally recognized norms of fair trade behavior by providing a vast and growing conduit for the distribution of artificially cheap and subsidized Chinese exports to the United States.”

I can only add that the U.S. trade deficit with China has increased exponentially since the 2007 ECI report, and that Wal-Mart continues to eliminate even more American jobs by ramping up its imports from China. That is some “love letter” to America. One wonders how the follies of a few misguided adherents of the Occupy movement could even begin to compete.

In my original May 2005 article I mentioned that Wal-Mart defiled the ancient metropolis of Teotihuacán by opening one of its super stores in the city’s archeological perimeter after months of protests by the Mexican people who saw the store’s location as an affront to Mexican culture and history.

Located just outside of Mexico City, I visited the ancient indigenous site in 1991 and climbed to the top of its magnificent pyramids dedicated to the Sun and Moon; the ruins of the old city are massive and breathtaking, and indigenous people continue to see Teotihuacán as a sacred place. When viewing the grounds it is difficult not to agree. Seeing a Wal-Mart store less than a mile from those ancient pyramids is as unacceptable an experience as seeing the big-box store on the grounds of the Vatican or near the great pyramids of Egypt - especially knowing the Wal-Mart 7 1/2 acre lot is undoubtedly covering priceless artifacts.

In a 2009 dispatch titled, “Teotihuacán Gets Mickey-Moused“, author John Ross wrote that; “Priceless artifacts uncovered during store construction were reportedly trucked off to a local dump and workers fired when they revealed the carnage to the press.” Those who imagine Wal-Mart as an advocate for the arts should think deeply about the mega-corporation paving over an archaeological zone belonging to one of the world’s most celebrated ancient cities. While Wal-Mart’s reckless cultural insensitivity regarding Mexico’s Teotihuacán is stunning enough, an even bigger story is currently playing out at the time of this writing.

On April 21, 2012, the New York Times published a report titled “Vast Mexico Bribery Case Hushed Up by Wal-Mart After Top-Level Struggle“. The story detailed how Wal-Mart’s largest foreign subsidiary, Wal-Mart de Mexico, “orchestrated a campaign of bribery to win market dominance” in Mexico, paying “more than $24 million” in bribes and kickbacks to corrupt officials both in and out of government. The story came to light in 2005 when a former Wal-Mart executive leaked information regarding the crooked business practices. When Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas was informed of the subsidiary’s criminal behavior, it launched its own supposedly impartial investigation. According to the New York Times:

“Wal-Mart dispatched investigators to Mexico City, and within days they unearthed evidence of widespread bribery. They found a paper trail of hundreds of suspect payments totaling more than $24 million. They also found documents showing that Wal-Mart de Mexico’s top executives not only knew about the payments, but had taken steps to conceal them from Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. In a confidential report to his superiors, Wal-Mart’s lead investigator, a former F.B.I. special agent, summed up their initial findings this way: ‘There is reasonable suspicion to believe that Mexican and USA laws have been violated.’ The lead investigator recommended that Wal-Mart expand the investigation. Instead, an examination by The New York Times found, Wal-Mart’s leaders shut it down.”

In light of the corruption scandals Wal-Mart now finds itself embroiled in over its dirty business dealings with crooked Mexican officials, one must consider something John Ross wrote in his aforementioned article. Ross brought up Arturo Montiel, the former governor of the State of Mexico and Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politician who in 1994 granted Wal-Mart the permits allowing construction of its store on the grounds of Teotihuacán. Mr. Montiel was driven from office in 2005 due to charges of corruption, including influence peddling, using public funds for private purposes, and amassing a personal fortune through bribery and other illegal means. In its 2012 expose, the New York Times conducted extensive interviews with Sergio Cicero Zapata, a former Wal-Mart de Mexico executive that ran the company’s real estate department since 1994. The NYT wrote that:

“Mr. Cicero recounted how he had helped organize years of payoffs. He described personally dispatching two trusted outside lawyers to deliver envelopes of cash to government officials. They targeted mayors and city council members, obscure urban planners, low-level bureaucrats who issued permits — anyone with the power to thwart Wal-Mart’s growth. The bribes, he said, bought zoning approvals, reductions in environmental impact fees and the allegiance of neighborhood leaders.”

One may wonder about the extent of Wal-Mart’s bribery in Mexico and if its long reach got to former governor Montiel, “helping” him to issue those permits for the Teotihuacán Wal-Mart. In a follow-up article by the New York Times dated April 22, 2012, the paper noted that a leader from one protest group, Emma Ortega Moreno of the Civic Front for the Defense of the Teotihuacán Valley, charged that the 1994 permit process was rigged. Moreno asserted that “Wal-Mart started building without permits, the licenses came later. When there are banknotes, you know that they can work wonders.” In the same article the paper mentioned the U.S. government’s “1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars U.S. companies from bribing foreign government officials or companies to secure or retain business.”

As the world’s largest retailer the company certainly has no shortage of expendable cash, and it can just as easily purchase foreign government officials as it can procure a fabulous art collection and an $800 million dollar museum in Arkansas to house it. Both projects serve political expediency, but only one can be cast as benevolent. There is an old saying South of the Border, “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States.” Wal-Mart’s relationship with Mexico seems to exemplify that truism.

If Wal-Mart using its considerable financial resources to buy market dominance and political influence in Mexico does not offend you, then consider the following. On April 30, 2012, the New York Times published a report concerning how the corporation:

“has adroitly used millions of dollars in campaign contributions, charity drives, lobbying campaigns, and its work for popular causes like childhood nutrition and carbon emissions to build support in Congress and the White House. It also uses these methods to increase its ‘favorable’ ratings, especially with liberals. And as Wal-Mart’s top lobbyist explained to investors in 2010, the company thinks the strategy has worked. ‘Across the board, our reputation with elected officials is improved, not only here in the U.S. but around the world,’ the lobbyist, Leslie Dach, boasted as he ticked off poll numbers that he said demonstrated the company’s improving public profile. That popularity, he said, ‘makes it easier for us to stay out of the public limelight when we don’t want to be there.’

(….) For years Wal-Mart had reliable allies in the Republican Party, while it struggled to develop support among Democrats. But in recent years it has joined with the Obama administration on a number of its initiatives, including President Obama’s health care plan, environmental safeguards and childhood obesity. At the same time, it has aggressively lobbied the administration and Congress on dozens of policies affecting its business operations, including global trade, taxes, immigration, business regulation and waste disposal standards.”

Wal-Mart certainly wants the “public limelight” when it comes to their new museum, but when it comes to exporting America’s industrial base to China, bribing shady Mexican government officials for special treatment, or buying favor with U.S. politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties… not so much. No matter how sophisticated the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art might be, nothing can conceal the pernicious crimes of Wal-Mart.

Review: Four Los Angeles Exhibits

I started 2012 by taking in four exhibits in the Los Angeles area; Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation and The Colt Revolver in the American West at the Autry National Center, as well as Places of Validation, Art & Progression and The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures at the California African American Museum.

What unites these seemingly unrelated exhibits are the deep insights they provide into the American experience. This review is to encourage those in the Southern California region to see the shows for themselves if possible, and barring that, to do further research on the artists mentioned.

Art Along the Hyphen: The Mexican-American Generation

Starting with the Autry National Center, the Art Along the Hyphen exhibit (which ended Jan. 8, 2012), presented the work of six Mexican-American artists who created art in Los Angeles in the post-WWII era of the 1950s and early 1960s; Alberto Valdés, Domingo Ulloa, Roberto Chavez, Dora de Larios, Eduardo Carrillo, and Hernando G. Villa. That these artists are still unknown, even to aficionados of Chicano art, is a testament to the influence of art establishment gatekeepers. It was not just elite art world racism that kept these and other Mexican-American artists out of the museum and gallery systems, it was also the totalitarian supremacy of abstract expressionism that held them in check. The artists in the Art Along the Hyphen show were committed to narrative figurative realism, and that put them squarely at odds with an art establishment obsessed with abstraction.

"Braceros" - Domingo Ulloa, 1960. Oil on masonite. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Braceros" - Domingo Ulloa, 1960. Oil on masonite. Image courtesy of the Autry.

The paintings and prints of Domingo Ulloa (1919-1997) were the most politically charged in the Autry exhibit.

The artist was unquestionably influenced by the 1930s school of Mexican Muralism and social realism; Ulloa in fact studied at the Antigua Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City, the same art academy attended by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.

Born in Pomona, California, Ulloa was the son of migrant workers, and after serving in World War II he came under the influence of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - Popular Graphic Arts Workshop), the famous Mexican political print collective. Every bit as didactic and radical as his contemporaries in the TGP, Ulloa’s art focused on the social ills of American society; racism and social inequality, police brutality and imperialist war.

In 1963 Norman Rockwell painted a canvas he titled, The Problem We All Live With. It was a depiction of a 6-year-old African-American girl named Ruby Bridges being escorted through a racist mob by U.S. Federal marshals to the just desegregated William Franz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The real life incident occurred on Nov. 15, 1960, when a large crowd of white racists gathered in front of the school to protest against integration. Armed Federal marshals had to guard the tiny black girl against the angry throng as it chanted “Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate!” Rockwell’s painting appeared as a double page spread in Look Magazine in 1964, it was a controversial image that would capture the attention of Americans, but Domingo Ulloa had painted a similar canvas six years prior to Rockwell’s original painting.

"Racism/Incident at Little Rock" - Domingo Ulloa, 1957. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Racism/Incident at Little Rock" - Domingo Ulloa, 1957. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

In 1957 Ulloa painted Racism/Incident at Little Rock, which was based upon real life events that took place that same year in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 1957 a federal court ordered the State of Arkansas to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which outlawed racial segregation in America’s public schools. Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas and a Dixiecrat (a right-wing racist Southern Democrat) resisted the court decision by calling in Arkansas National Guard soldiers to prevent African-American students from entering “white” schools. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower pressured Faubus to uphold federal law and use the Guard to protect black students, but Faubus instead withdrew the troops entirely, leaving black students exposed to attacks by white racist lynch mobs.

When nine black students attempted to enter Little Rock High School on September 23, 1957, thousands of enraged whites assaulted them with stones and fisticuffs. This clip from the 1986 PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize details the incident. At 7.55 minutes into the video you will see footage that I viewed on national television in 1957 at the tender young age of four; the indelible imagery changed my life forever. Although only a four-year-old, I wanted to rush to the victim’s defense. Ulloa attempted to capture all the horror of that ugly affair on his canvas.

Ulloa’s painting is dramatically different from Rockwell’s, and it goes without saying that Ulloa’s vision did not appear in Look Magazine. In Racism/Incident at Little Rock there are no government agents deployed to rescue black school children, there are only six youthful black students surrounded by a howling pack of phantasmagorical monsters. The adolescent African-Americans in the picture huddle together, the oldest of them looking stoic; they have no one but themselves to rely upon. Ulloa’s canvas was inspired by The Masses, a 1935 lithograph by José Clemente Orozco; one could say that Ulloa perhaps borrowed a bit too much from Orozco, or he was simply paying homage to the master. Ulloa’s paintings at the Autry showed that he had not entirely escaped the orbit of the Mexican Muralists; his heavily textured brushstrokes and color palette bearing a striking similarity to that of Siqueiros.

"Don Pela Gallos" - Alberto Valdes, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

"Don Pela Gallos" - Alberto Valdes, 1980. Acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy of the Autry.

The works of Alberto Valdés (1918-1998) caught my eye. His delicate semi-abstract paintings were filled with vivid color and Pre-Columbian iconography; dreamlike apparitions, mythic creatures, indigenous warriors, and fantastic landscapes.

A small portrait of a fierce imaginary Aztec warrior held me spellbound; painted in muted hues of red and yellow, the face filled the entire diminutive picture plane.

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was an obvious inspiration to Valdés. A handful of Valdés’ paintings achieved a mystical quality where reality melted into intricate webs of translucent primary colors. However, I think Valdés for the most part agreed with Tamayo that a “non-descriptive realism” would counter the “bourgeois” escapism of abstraction. The enigmatic Don Pela Gallos is indicative of Valdés’ opulently painted visions.

The Colt Revolver in the American West

While at the Autry to see Art Along the Hyphen, I decided to visit the museum’s newly opened Greg Martin Colt Gallery, were the exhibit The Colt Revolver in the American West can be found; I knew a rare poster by artist George Catlin (1796-1872) was part of the exhibit. Starting in 1830 Catlin was the first American artist to travel beyond the Missouri River to visit and document indigenous people; over a six-year period he ended up painting more than 325 portraits of individuals from eighteen tribes, some of which had never seen a white man before.

Colt Single Action Army revolver. This lavishly engraved .45 cal pistol belonged to Captain Manuel Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers in 1929. Gonzaullas was the first Latino to become a high ranking officer in the Texas Rangers. First introduced in 1873, the Colt 45 became known as "the handgun that won the West." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Colt Single Action Army revolver. This engraved .45 cal pistol belonged to Captain Manuel Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers in 1929. Gonzaullas was the first Latino to become a high ranking officer in the Texas Rangers. First introduced in 1873, the Colt 45 became known as "the handgun that won the West." Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

In 2004 the Autry hosted an unforgettable exhibition titled George Catlin And His Indian Gallery that showcased 120 paintings by the artist. The exhibit was originally organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which houses the greater part of Catlin’s works in its permanent collection. Ever since first learning of Catlin when I was a teenager, I have maintained a keen interest in his works, and so was eager to see his poster in the Colt exhibit.

Detail of historic poster designed by George Catlin for Colt firearms. Circa 1851. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Detail of historic poster designed by George Catlin for Colt firearms. Circa 1851. Photo by Mark Vallen ©.

Samuel Colt constructed the very first rotating cylinder fed handgun in 1831 at the age of sixteen, a prototype of which is on display in the Autry exhibit. He patented his invention in 1835, and his innovative revolver grew increasingly popular with hunters, frontiersmen, and settlers. Around 1851 Samuel Colt commissioned Catlin to do a series of paintings showing the artist using Colt rifles and pistols during his travels. Catlin’s paintings were reproduced as lithographs, a common practice at the time, and distributed to promote the Colt line of firearms. A total of six different lithographic posters were produced, but only Catlin the Artist Shooting Buffalo with Colt’s Revolving Pistol, is on display at the Autry. Apparently Catlin was one of the very first American artists to promote a commercial product.

While the Autry asserts Catlin’s poster depicts the artist firing a “Dragoon revolver”, I think otherwise. The Colt Dragoon was first produced in 1848, years after Catlin made his 1830-1836 excursions through territory inhabited by the original Americans. The handgun Catlin depicted himself using in the poster looks very much like the model No. 5 Colt “Paterson” Revolver manufactured by Samuel Colt in Paterson, N.J. in the year 1836, a year that fits the time frame of Catlin’s actual travels. In 2011 a rare 1836 Colt “Paterson” sold at auction for $977,500, a world record price for a single historic firearm sold at auction.

Places of Validation, Art & Progression

The California African American Museum (CAAM) offers Places of Validation, Art & Progression, an exhibit tracing the development of artistic expression in the Los Angeles African-American community from 1940 to 1980. On view until Feb. 26, 2012, this large and somewhat unwieldy exhibit covers an important period for L.A. and the United States. The post-war struggle to achieve full human and civil rights for African-Americans, and the social engagement in the arts that accompanied that effort, is a central focus for much of the work in the exhibit.

Concomitant with political shifts in the U.S., Black artists in the 1960s began to explore Africa as an aesthetic wellspring, in addition to taking on a critical examination of Black life and history in America. A good portion of the art on display is in the figurative realist tradition, but the CAAM exhibit also demonstrates how Black artists in the avant-garde used conceptual and installation art in a decidedly political way; here, Betye Saar’s Sambo’s Banjo comes to mind.

The work is a mixed-media assemblage composed of a banjo carrying case displayed to stand open, the outside of the case painted with a contemptibly stereotyped image of a Black man with huge bulging eyes and enormous blood red lips. An examination of the case interior reveals that in the area where the circular body of the banjo would rest, a diminutive “Little Black Sambo” toy figure dressed in red, white, and blue hangs from a tiny noose. Above, in the thin part of the case were the banjo’s fretted neck would be situated, a small black metal skeleton is arranged next to a historic black and white photograph of an actual lynching. A piece of wood carved and painted to look like a large slice of watermelon sits in front of the tableau formed by the banjo case. Altogether, Saar’s assemblage forms a chilling picture of American racism.

"My Miss America" Ernie Barnes. Oil on canvas. 49 x 37 inches. 1970.

"My Miss America" Ernie Barnes. Oil on canvas. 49 x 37 inches. 1970.

The exhibit contains three works by Charles White (1918-1979), an artist whose works exerted a powerful influence upon me in the early 1970’s.

Three works by White are on display, a small linoleum cut and a larger and quite extraordinary etching, the triad completed by a sizeable oil painting titled Freedom Now. These three works alone give enough reason to visit Places of Validation, but the CAAM exhibit offers many other treasures.

One of my favorite works in the exhibit is by Ernie Barnes (1938-2009), who was born in North Carolina during the brutal years of White supremacy.

In 1956 the eighteen-year old Barnes visited the North Carolina Museum of Art while on a field trip; when he inquired of a docent where he might find the museum’s collection of works by Black artists, he was told “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Barnes would develop into one of America’s premier Black artists and in 1978 would return to the same museum for a successful solo exhibition of his art.

On display at the CAAM is My Miss America, Barnes’ heroic depiction of Black womanhood. Painted in 1970, the canvas portrays a woman made rough by years of drudgery and sacrifice; dressed in a plain red cotton dress she hauls two heavy brown bags with her coarse hands. It is evident the working woman is part of America’s permanent underclass, yet, she exudes the dignity and nobility that evades those thought to be “above” her. The title Barnes gave to his canvas was not based on the notion of woman as trophy, rather, it is an affirmation of the strength, integrity, and leadership of women. If there is a “Miss America”, Barnes showed us where she is to be found.

The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures

In another wing of the CAAM one can see the works of Mexican artist Miguel Covarrubias (1904-1957). It brings together the artist’s paintings, lithographs, drawings, sketches, and illustrations for books and magazines portraying people of African heritage in the United States, Haiti, and Cuba; but the exhibit also includes portraits the artist made of people while traveling through North, East, and West African countries. Gathered under the thematic banner of  The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias: Driven by color, shaped by Cultures, the exhibit’s primary focus are the works Covarrubias produced in the mid-1920s as an observer of the Harlem Renaissance.

"Rumba" Miguel Covarrubias. Lithograph. 1942. This, and other superlative lithographs by the artist are on view at the CAAM exhibit.

"Rumba" Miguel Covarrubias. Lithograph. 1942. This, and other superlative lithographs by the artist are on view at the CAAM exhibit.

With a grant from the Mexican government, the 19-year old Covarrubias traveled to New York City in 1924 where he  became immersed in African-American culture. He met and befriended Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other notables from the literary scene, and regularly frequented Harlem’s many Jazz clubs. He produced an endless stream of drawings and other artworks that depicted African-Americans in church, on the street, and going about their everyday lives; to my mind few non-African-American artists up until Covarrubias had ever been given to such a positive examination of Black Americans. By 1927 a number of these works were published in book form under the title of, Negro Drawings, and more than a few of these original works are included in the CAAM exhibit.

A remarkable painter, printmaker, curator, writer, theatrical set and costume designer, anthropologist, and radical humanist, Covarrubias is mostly known in the U.S. as an illustrator and caricaturist whose celebrity caricatures graced the covers and inside pages of publications like Vanity Fair, Fortune, and The New Yorker in the 1920s and 1930s. But when it came to his depictions of African-Americans, he said the following: “I don’t consider my drawings caricatures. A caricature is the exaggerated character of an individual for satirical purpose. These drawings are more from a serious point of view.”

"Black Woman with Blue Dress" Miguel Covarrubias. Oil on masonite. 1926. Collection of the Library of Congress.

"Black Woman with Blue Dress" Miguel Covarrubias. Oil on masonite. 1926. Collection of the Library of Congress.

One especially striking painting in the exhibit is Covarrubias’ Black Woman with Blue Dress, an oil on masonite study of a fashionable young woman. One must assume she was a denizen of one of the Jazz clubs the artist haunted, her cool gaze and “Flapper” attire the mark of an urban sophisticate.

The reproduction of the painting shown here does not begin to do the original justice; Covarrubias made full use of the transparent characteristics of oil paint, his vibrant portrait looking ever so much like a backlit panel of stained glass. Next to this painting, another similarly sized and composed oil portrait stood out conspicuously, a masterful interpretation of a young woman in a deep red dress.

The portrait of the Black woman in the red dress continues to enthrall me, though I did not get the title or date of the painting. The woman wearing a bobbed Flapper hairdo so angular it seemed architectural, was portrayed in silhouette against a background the color of ripe lemons. Thrown into shadow and her beautiful ebony skin painted in the darkest of hues, her features appear hidden, until a closer look reveals that her eyes are staring back at you. Covarrubias’ close-up portraits of North African women are similarly eye-catching and arresting studies that will have me visiting the exhibition a second time before its closing.

I cannot speak highly enough of  The African Diaspora in the Art of Miguel Covarrubias, it is one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen in Los Angeles, if only for the fact that the artist’s fine art prints and oil paintings are so little known in the United States. Regrettably the museum offers no printed catalog of this important show, not even an informative pamphlet. The superb exhibition runs until Feb. 26, 2012.