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Oscar Bluemner: A Daughter's Legacy
Landscapes of everyday modern society -- mills, factories, small farms, unkempt suburbs -- portrayed in brilliant colors and a variety of media, filled Stetson University's Duncan Gallery of Art beginning January 23, 2004 for one of the most comprehensive exhibits of the work of Modernist painter Oscar Bluemner ever presented.
Described by the artist as "the intimate landscape of our common surroundings... the things and scenes most closely interwoven with the progress of life," the drawings and paintings are so evocative of present-day life in the northeastern United States that they could have been done in the last decade. But Bluemner (1867-1938) was one of the first Modernists, reaching his peak in the late 1920s to mid-1930s. (right: Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938, Montville (Movement of Space and Form, New Jersey), c.1914-15, watercolor on paper, 15 1/4 x 20 1/4 inches, Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection, Stetson University, DeLand, FL)
Many of the works included in the exhibition, titled "Oscar Bluemner: A Daughter's Legacy," were not seen since the artist's death in 1938. They are part of more than 1,000 pieces of Bluemner's work bequeathed to Stetson in 1997 by his daughter, Vera Bluemner Kouba.
The 86 pieces, from every period of Bluemner's production, ranged from pencil and charcoal studies, annotated by the artist, to major works in watercolor and oil. They were selected by Curator Roberta Smith Favis to demonstrate the depth and breadth of the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection, as well as of the beauty and quality of the artworks.
"The extraordinary quality and haunting beauty of Bluemner's work vividly affirm the central role he is increasingly accorded among the early Modernists," says Dr. Favis, a professor of art history at Stetson University who undertook an extensive three-year historical investigation of the artist and his work while preparing for this exhibition.
Often overlooked in his lifetime, Bluemner now is widely acknowledged as a key player in the creation of American artistic Modernism, with better-known colleagues such as Georgia O'Keeffe and John Marin. Through modern artistic language, his depictions of the industrial hinterlands of New Jersey and Massachusetts combine political and social sympathy for the workers who toiled there with the most modern artistic language. The characteristic touches of glowing red in his paintings and his interest in color theory earned him the nickname "The Vermillionaire."
Vera Kouba, who believed her father had been overlooked in the art world, was with the artist at his death and became the custodian of a large part of his artistic legacy. She preserved these works in her modest home in DeLand, where she had retired with her husband, Rudolph Kouba, in the 1970s. Since Oscar Bluemner was a strong advocate of the connection between music and the visual arts and Mrs. Kouba once hoped to be a concert pianist, the couple was drawn to Stetson through their love of music and appreciation of Stetson School of Music concerts. When her husband died in the early 1990s, she looked for ways to preserve and enhance her father's legacy after she was gone. She chose Stetson's Duncan Gallery of Art as the depository for this important legacy. Before her 1997 death, she attended two small exhibitions of her father's work in the Duncan Gallery.
Oscar Bluemner came to the United States in 1892 from his native Germany, and first continued an architectural career begun in Europe. By the early 1900s, under the influence of the Modernist artistic circle of Alfred Stieglitz, he increasingly turned to drawing and painting, and gradually abandoned architecture. An extended trip to Europe spurred a dramatic modernization of his style. Back in the U.S., he took part in the Armory Show, the Forum Exhibition of 1916, the first Whitney Biennial, and had solo shows in Stieglitz-sponsored galleries and elsewhere in New York City. Although his work was well received by many critics, sales were poor, and he often lived in poverty.
Strongly influenced by the Neo-Impressionists, he rejected their more scientific ideas in favor of emotional and spiritual ideas about color. He once said, "I paint my attitudeI would be a composer, but being all retina, I saw it (his environment) all as color."
Anti-German sentiment prompted by World War I led Bluemner to relocate from New York City to New Jersey, where he repeatedly moved his family in search of cheap lodging. When his wife died in 1926, he went to live with his son in Braintree, Mass., and supported himself with assistance from the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) arts project. In 1935, he was severely injured in an auto accident, and never resumed painting. His eyesight failing and in deep depression, he committed suicide three years later.
Future exhibitions at Stetson will highlight different aspects of the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection. Stetson hopes eventually to build a study center to house the artworks and the archival materials, and then to mount rotating exhibitions, says Dr. Favis.
Dr. Favis earned a doctorate and master's degree in art history from the University of Pennsylvania after completing her undergraduate art history degree at Bryn Mawr College. Her most recent book, Martin Johnson Heade in Florida, was published this year by the University Press of Florida. She is the author of numerous catalog essays and articles, including "Painting 'The Red City': Oscar Bluemner's Jersey Silkmills," (American Art, Spring 2003).
A smaller version of the exhibition will travel to the Luther W. Brady Gallery, George Washington University, Washington, DC, where it will be shown May 12 through June 30, 2004.
Editor's note: RLM readers may also enjoy reading the biography by William Henning, Jr. on Oscar Bluemner from the Hunter Museum of Art website.
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The Duncan Gallery of Art is located on the campus of Stetson
University in the heart of downtown DeLand, FL on the first floor of Sampson
Hall, which faces Holler Fountain and is adjacent to Elizabeth Hall and
the School of Music's Presser Hall. Florida's oldest and one of its most
prestigious universities, Stetson University is situated in Central Florida,
between Daytona Beach and Orlando. Please see the Gallery's website for
hours and admission fees.
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