Editor's note: The following essay. is reprinted with permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. An exhibition catalogue for the exhibit Figurative Connections: Selected Works by Eric Bransby (June 5-July 25, 2004) will be published in June, 2004. We express appreciation to Rebecca Yates, Editor, Georgia Museum of Art for bringing the essay to our attention. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

Eric Bransby: Draftsman and Muralist

by William Underwood Eiland

 

In his correspondence and in his biographical writings, Eric Bransby always capitalizes two words: "Figure" and "Wall." He thereby emphasizes his lifelong devotion to each. Believing like Michelangelo that the human form is the basis for the expression of both physical and emotional truths, Bransby creates figures that, in the words of Marianne Berardi, "vibrate with a kind of expressionistic restlessness."[1] Like Thomas Hart Benton and the Regionalists, Bransby's earliest works indicate a lifelong tendency to attenuate and animate the figure according to the inspiration of their common ancestors, the Italian Mannerists and El Greco. If, as Henry Adams notes, Bransby's figures are balletic, their forms pulsate to the irrepressible rhythms of some inner emotion, and they "dance" across their allotted fields in a stylized cadence of their maker's choreography.

Bransby's fascination with architecture is not confined to the structure of the space his murals will inhabit; he intentionally creates a parallel architecture in the murals themselves in which his figures, albeit restless, even agitated, are nonetheless at home. They twist, they turn. They reach and grasp and gambol and pose, but always within a rational, classical space: It could be said that Bransby filters the Renaissance emphasis on spatial organization through the art of the Italian Futurists. His habit of painting his murals on portable panels allows him to develop an individual architecture for each project, one that he can literally assemble within a space already perhaps dominated by balconies, arches, spandrels, or doorways. He invents architecture within architecture, in order for the figures to move along the wall and thus draw the viewer into the rhythm of the mural.

In true Florentine Renaissance fashion, Bransby emphasizes disegno, and every mural project or easel painting benefits from extensive studies so that he places his figures in a believable if idiosyncratic composition. Drawing, however, is not just a tool, not just an element in research for the final work. It is an end in itself, as necessary as the sinopie, or underdrawings, for the Italian Renaissance frescoes that he so admires. And, for the figure, drawing for Bransby must be from a model: "The figure is very much a design. I think in terms of rhythms, exaggerations." [2]

Born in 1916 in Auburn, New York, Eric James Bransby grew up in Pittsburgh and Council Bluffs, Iowa. His parents were natives of the British Commonwealth: his mother Lillian Holland Dowsett was born in New Zealand and grew up in London; his father Charles Carson Bransby, a preacher, was born in Manchester, England, but reared in Scotland. Eric began his study of human anatomy early in his life and independently of any teacher's guidance. In high school, having witnessed a performance of Tony Sard's puppets, he experimented with marionettes, constructing them from balsa and papier-maché and making them some eighteen-inches high. With a friend, he also built a small theater, complete with sets he designed and assembled. Although Bransby was later to study with with professional artists, these earliest self-taught lessons in anatomy and design resonate again and again throughout his work over the next six decades.

Aside from teaching himself the magic of puppetry and theater design, Bransby had no other training in the arts until he enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute in 1938. His parents, while indulgent, believed that after his first year he would get art out of his system and go on to study medicine, but he remained there for a full four years, following a curriculum modeled on that of the great European academies of art. The institute required each student to take drawing courses -- from the nude -- each year of their enrollment. In addition, students had to attend lectures in anatomy and were required to make drawings of the classical statues in the Nelson-Atkins Gallery of Art. In fact, the various assignments in drawing, mandatory for all students, were designed to underscore the centrality of a key subject in art: the human figure. Given the importance of the figure as a vehicle for expression, capturing the figure's shifting appearance and multiple meanings was a perpetual exercise that necessarily extended the boundaries of the classroom in the interest of understanding. Indeed, sketching in local burlesque houses was encouraged as a legitimate source of inspiration, and Bransby's student experiences there held him in good stead when later he drew and painted the strippers and prostitutes of Leadville, Colorado. Bransby, determined to take his study of the figure to a more knowing, scientific level and thereby perhaps to unlock the mysteriously intricate interplay of skin, muscles, tendons, and bones that is movement, sought and was granted permission to draw from cadaver dissections. Figure drawing and its exacting pursuit provided the foundation for Bransby's other studies at the institute, where he concentrated equally on painting and lithography and where he was fortunate to have distinguished teachers in both media.

Thomas Hart Benton, Eric Bransby's primary painting instructor, demanded that all his students begin work in egg tempera and eventually progress to "egg-oil emulsions and variations in oil varnish glazes."[3] Benton was no absentee teacher; frequently, he worked in the studio on his own canvasses, side by side with his students. However, before any of the students put brush to canvas, he or she had to present preliminary drawings, tone and color studies, and rough clay models: "This represented valuable training for one contemplating the field of mural painting."[4] Again, the model for instruction was the European academy, and Bransby found the time well-spent on the techniques of the Old Masters. Each year of the program, students had to take a course in compositional analysis, with studies of everything from Egyptian bas-reliefs to Baroque paintings.

Bransby would go on and have other distinguished muralists as teachers, but his training with Benton at the Kansas City Art Institute was in his words "quite accidental. I didn't know who Tom Benton was. I grew up in a little suburb of Omaha -- a very culturally-deprived little community. Nobody in the family was interested in art as such. I knew of Grant Wood. Iowa. And I'd heard the name Tom Benton but I didn't know anything about Benton. I didn't know he was at the Art Institute. I had originally planned to go to the Chicago Art Institute but I couldn't swing it."[5] Benton's teaching was rigorous and only reinforced Bransby's desire to draw full-size figures on the wall, in short, to become a muralist. Equally important in his training, Bransby was drawn to Benton's concept of an art for the People, "as opposed to a museum product ... The discipline imposed by the tempera technique, in an environment that encouraged an examination of the Renaissance and Baroque masters, provided a welcome alternative to the uncertain and seemingly unstructured world around us ... I was hungry for a structured approach to the production of a work of art." [6]

In the field of printmaking, Bransby's teacher, John de Martelly, was equally distinguished and exacting. The latter's emphasis on chiaroscuro and the richness of ink on paper appealed strongly to Bransby, who designed several political cartoons at this time for the Kansas City Journal Post, but his chief interest remained painting. When the Institute's board took the radical step of firing Thomas Hart Benton at the beginning of Bransby's senior year, his new painting instructor became Fletcher Martin. Bransby gained permission to join the Federal Fine Arts Program (Works Project Administration) and submitted drawings, lithographs, and the design for a mural project to Martin. This first of Bransby's murals, Westport Landing, was in egg tempera on canvas, but, years later, when the site for which it was painted, Paseo High School, was demolished, the mural disappeared. Bransby was the youngest artist in the program, but his champion was the young James Gantt, a former student of Benton's, who made sure that Bransby's status as a senior at the art institute did not present any problems with the WPA, which technically did not employ student artists.


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