Modern Spirit: The Group of Eight & Los Angeles Art of the 1920s

by Susan M. Anderson


Clarence Hinkle's Portrait of Gjura Stojana and Bohemian Los Angeles

Clarence Hinkle's Gjura Stojana reveals a vital, brooding young man with an upright bearing, strong neck, and deep, dark eyes. He poses with his hands on his hips, his eyes averted, and his head turned away from the viewer, permitting a three-quarter view of his ruddy features. He wears a bright-yellow shirt, off-white pants, and a brown leather headband. His eyebrows are thick and knitted together across his forehead. In all, Hinkle presents us with an exotic figure, someone who stimulates our interest.

Gjura Stojana was a painter, sculptor, muralist, world traveler, and poseur who was omnipresent among the circle of modernists in Los Angeles. While there are conflicting accounts of Stojana's birthplace and parentage, he was most likely Romani (or Gypsy) and arrived in the United States in 1903, using George Curtin Stanson as his legal name off and on until about 1929.[1] He resided in San Francisco, where he studied at the San Francisco Institute of Art from 1908 to 1909 and worked in the art department of the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1917 he moved to Los Angeles and then to the Hawaiian Islands to absorb native culture.[2] Soon after his return to Los Angeles in 1920, he had an exhibition of his work at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art.

Hinkle included his painting of Stojana in the Group of Eight exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum in 1927. This was the largest and most important showing of the group, who exhibited together sporadically throughout the 1920s in various venues throughout Los Angeles. The Group of Eight consisted of Mabel Alvarez, Henri De Kruif, Clarence Hinkle, John Hubbard Rich, Donna Schuster, E. Roscoe Shrader, Edouard Vysekal, and Luvena Buchanan Vysekal.

Although there is no hard evidence for it, the Group of Eight more than likely chose their name as a tribute to Robert Henri and The Eight, a group that came together only once, in February 1908, to show at the Macbeth Galleries in New York. Henri and The Eight, which included Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan, were dedicated to creative experimentation, and they embodied the idea of artistic individuality as a collective experience. They originally gathered out of frustration with the jury system at the National Academy of Design and elsewhere, which made it difficult for various modes of progressive art to flourish and be taken seriously. Henri, who led a native school of modernist realism in the wake of this exhibition, is generally considered to be an important catalyst for much of the ferment in American art during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

As with The Eight, the focus of the Group of Eight was creative experimentation and individual expression, rather than emulation of the formal experiments of European or American moderns elsewhere -- as was the case with the group of artists who clustered around Alfred Stieglitz in New York during roughly the same period and experimented with cubism and abstract painting. Henri extolled the virtues of direct experience and painting the life around one.

A curious mixture of bohemians and bourgeois professionals,[3] the Group of Eight taught classes at the regionally prominent Art Students League, Otis Art Institute, and Chouinard School of Art, and they were active in the diverse art circles that overlapped in Los Angeles in the 1920s. All were wholly dedicated to the life of the artist, were regionally and nationally recognized, and, with the exception of Alvarez, had training from major national art institutions, such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Art Students League of New York. Most of them had also studied abroad. In spite of being midcareer professionals, they continually explored new directions throughout the 1920s, bringing modernism to a wider public through their activities. By 1921, Shrader, Schuster, Rich, Alvarez, De Kruif, and Edouard Vysekal were also actively involved in the California Art Club, a strong indication that they were operating at all levels of Los Angeles art.[4] In spite of the conservative tendency of the club, it expanded their alliances with other artists and was a way for them to promote their more modernist styles. It is not clear whether any one artist of the Group of Eight was considered the leader of the group. Rather, they were colleagues and friends sharing common ideals that were very much in sync with those of Henri and The Eight.[5]

Henri had a real presence and following in Southern California beginning in the second decade of the century. Warren Hedges, a student of Henri's who assumed the directorship of the Art Students League in Los Angeles in 1907, may have been the artist's first regional proponent.[6] Rex Slinkard, who studied with Henri in New York in 1909 and took over the league's directorship in 1910, was also a strong supporter, along with Henrietta Shore and Bert and Meta Cressey. They were all members of the Los Angeles Modern Art Society, founded in 1916, and they accorded Henri and the other members of The Eight honorary status in the progressive group. Henri himself spent the summer of 1914 in La Jolla, where he made a series of single-figure portraits of ethnically diverse subjects set against brightly colored backgrounds using broad, loose brushstrokes. The series, which he exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum in the fall of 1914, initiated a regional trend for portrait studies, exemplified in Hinkle's painting of Stojana, which was different from the Ashcan aesthetic that caught on elsewhere in the United States. Henri also consulted on the organization of an exhibition of American paintings for the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego in 1915; the exhibition showed the work of George Bellows, Glackens, Sloan, Henri, and Childe Hassam, among others. Henri's regional influence was most likely renewed when he visited the Otis Art Institute and met with students and staff in 1925, two years after he published his extremely popular book The Art Spirit.[7]

Hinkle's portrait of Stojana is loosely painted in quick, slashing brushstrokes, with a sense of urgency. Hinkle had studied at the Pennsylvania Academy under Thomas Anshutz, who had also taught many of The Eight, including Henri. Apparently Hinkle was highly regarded, as he was awarded the coveted Cresson Travelling Scholarship from the academy in 1906, allowing him to spend six years in Europe.[8] Anshutz was a great advocate of personal expression and individualism, bold color, and Cézannesque attention to surface design. Hinkle's use of color forms and strong contrasts, and realism tempered by expressionism, help convey Stojana's singular personality. Still, we are given mere hints of the sitter's psychic complexity; we know there is more to him than meets the eye. Hinkle has crafted a careful balance between openness and inaccessibility, vitality and reserve, liberation and convention. Though we are drawn in and become somewhat privy to the sitter's psychological makeup, Stojana's secrets are preserved.

Such figuration was central to national cultural expression throughout the 1920s. Although American figuration embodied liberation, it also exemplified restraint and could be "stilled, focused, weighty and sober." It was precisely in this edgy reconciliation between freedom and restraint that one can locate the modernity of this and other works of art of the era.[9]

Until recently, modernist realism of the 1920s, such as the Group of Eight's, was perceived as conventional. Certainly, the artists were grounded in traditional academic technique, and they placed great value on good draftsmanship; they combined modernist experimentation with these more conventional concerns of technique and representation. Yet, like the decade's film and literature, their art communicated the search for a national expression -- one that reflected a diverse American environment and the struggles of a newly modern society growing up in the wake of a world war. All of the group's artists were born between the late 1870s and early 1890s,[10] when radical ideas were emerging in the fields of science, politics, and art. These artists used the human figure, still life, and genre painting because they wished to have every means at their disposal to communicate the modern spirit.

There was a broader understanding of what modernism was in the early twentieth century, and not just in Los Angeles. Avant-garde European and American art and adventurous modes of realism were shown together in exhibitions and perceived as modernist. Current art scholars seek to broaden the boundaries again, realizing that critical theorists of the 1950s and 1960s limited the definition of modernist art to "a narrow set of practices emphasizing the formalist elements of abstraction."[11]

Stojana's name turns up frequently enough in the personal diaries of photographer Edward Weston, who was an advanced modernist, and of Mabel Alvarez, a member of the Group of Eight, to provide a picture of his personality and stature in the Los Angeles art world. Tracking his activities provides a glimpse into regional art, the milieu of the Group of Eight, and the bohemian activity that had begun in the Los Angeles area in the 1910s. Aside from the written documents, there are visual ones, such as Hinkle's painted portrait as well as a series of photographic portraits of the artist made by Weston and Margrethe Mather.[12] That both Weston and Hinkle chose to create portraits of Stojana is noteworthy; he was colorful and bohemian, and he provided something of a bridge between various modernist groups in Los Angeles.

In 1921, not long after Stojana returned from Hawaii, and around the time he was arranging a trip to the Far East, Weston and Mather made a series of about a dozen photographs of him dressed in various guises, some in front of an enormous mural that was most likely his own work. In one, Stojana is bare-chested, wearing a short sarong and straw hat; in another he leans against a rattan barrel in a studio setting designed to represent an exotic locale.[13] This was not long before the opening of the Cocoanut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, with its Moorish North African décor, tents, oasis waterfall, and palm trees.

Weston, Mather, and Tina Modotti were all close to Stojana in Los Angeles. Johan Hagemeyer, who visited Weston from San Francisco in April 1923, recounted in his diaries numerous visits to Stojana's studio with Modotti.[14] Weston also talked about this period in his daybooks; under April 25 he wrote: "Together or with Tina or Margrethe -- sometimes all four of us -- we spent many vivid hours -- at Stojana's -- the Philharmonic -- once an evening with Buhlig listening to his reading of that amazing poem Waste Land by T. S. Eliot -- and looking over Billy Justema's drawings -- listening too -- to his reading -- That night it rained -- and returning to the studio still keyed to adventure -- we donned old hats and walked into the rain."[15] The artist Billy Justema, who was seventeen years old at the time and traveled in homosexual circles, was also an acquaintance of Alvarez's. Richard Buhlig was an experimental composer and pianist who would later tutor John Cage.[16]

In her biography of Modotti, Patricia Albers places Hinkle within this bohemian circle, saying he was a former friend from the Bay Area and took part in Modotti's all-night parties at her studio home at 313 South Lake Street. This is not surprising, considering that Hinkle lived at 303 South Lake Street from about 1918 to 1922. Stojana, who moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco the same year as Hinkle, may have known him from the Bay Area as well. Weston later recalled that his fellow partiers were "well-read, worldly wise, clever in conversation, -- could garnish with a smattering of French: they were parlor radicals, could sing I.W.W. songs, quote Emma Goldman on freelove: they drank, smoked, had affairs..."[17] While it is not possible to know which of these bohemian behaviors are specifically attributable to either Hinkle or Stojana, they suggest the flavor of the artists' milieu.

In the early 1920s, at the time of their portraits of Stojana, Weston and Mather shared a professional portrait studio in Tropico. Although they had many lucrative portrait commissions, they were mainly focused on advancing their modernist aesthetic. In the same way, although Hinkle and other members of the Group of Eight took on portrait commissions as a way to supplement their teaching income, portraiture had a distinct character of its own during this era. Photographic and painted portraits, or figure studies, such as those of Stojana, were not usually destined for the sitter, nor were they commissioned. They were the choice of the artist, and for the most part, it was the humanity of the subjects, not their social position, that was key.

In May 1923 Alvarez exhibited a self-portrait in the Fourth Annual Exhibition of the Painters and Sculptors of Southern California at the Los Angeles Museum; she won the prize for the best portrait or figure study.[18] In her diaries, she recounted how Stanton Macdonald-Wright, with whom she was taking classes at the Art Students League, had visited her studio to return a book she had lent him. He commented positively on her painting in his class the following week, saying that her paintings and De Kruif's were the "best things in exhibition." The next day, the museum's director, William Alanson Bryan, called to see if she wanted to sell the self-portrait to the museum, but she said no. A few days later, she visited Helena Dunlap, a close friend and mentor, and found Weston there taking photos of Dunlap. After the session, Weston visited Alvarez's studio. A couple of days later, Alvarez recounted going to the exhibition at Exposition Park again with Dunlap and Maxine Albro: "Then to Stojana's and saw his drawings and paintings. Several of the drawings very lovely like goddesses or fairy princesses. Served tea at 6 PM (spoiled our dinner). Stojana squatting on the floor serving it, in bright yellow shirt and blue green trousers and bare feet. Leather band around his hair."[19]

The passages from Alvarez's diary not only provide insight into the activities of Los Angeles artists but also relate to our discussion of Hinkle. Alvarez describes Stojana as wearing nearly the same set of clothes he wears in Hinkle's portrait; it may be that Hinkle completed the portrait during this period. From newspaper accounts, we know Hinkle exhibited it in the important First Pan-American Exhibition of Oil Paintings at the Los Angeles Museum, which opened in November 1925. It received a positive critical reaction: "To illustrate the point that art is a form of self-expression take some of the pictures in this most interesting show and study them with this idea as a guiding principle.... The most distinguished piece of portraiture is without doubt Clarence Hinkle's portrait of another great artist, 'Gjura Stojana'. With what swift vision and sureness he has seized what is characteristic and vital!"[20]

The Pan-American Exhibition was hugely popular, with 18,000 people visiting it on the first Sunday it was open to the public. Among other things, it was instrumental in intensifying the regional interest in Mexican art and culture. The notion of Mexico as an attractive retreat for artists and writers was pervasive; artists went there often on sketching trips or on longer sojourns in search of the exotic. The interest was also due to the residency in Los Angeles of such prominent Mexican artists as Francisco Cornejo.[21]

Alvarez made a practice of visiting Stojana from time to time. In March 1922, she recounted going to the MacDowell Club to see an exhibition of Weston's photographs, where she ran into Weston and his wife: "Says he will send me Stojana against painting background! because I liked it." A few days later she mentioned that while Stojana was in Java and Bali, Mrs. Stanson visited her with the baby (apparently Stojana's wife still used the legal name he had adopted upon his arrival in the United States). In August that year, Alvarez wrote: "Went to Vysekals to see Stojana -- Was in a sarong painting on big picture. Showed his drawings on gold paper." Here again, Alvarez described the very scene that Weston and Mather had captured, leading one to speculate that they may have made their portraits of Stojana in the Vysekals' studio. In January 1925 Alvarez visited Stojana again, writing: "Thrilled with his wood carvings. Some with gold and color. Interesting possibilities for house and garden."[22]

According to Alvarez, on May 24, 1925, she went with Dunlap to the Lyceum Theatre building (the location of artists' studios and the Art Students League, at Spring Street between 2nd and 3rd Streets) to form the Modern Art Society (most likely a reconstituted Los Angeles Modern Art Society, which had been founded in 1916 by Dunlap, among others). Stojana was voted president, Alvarez vice president, and Edouard Vysekal treasurer.[23] By August, Alvarez reported indignantly: "Meeting at Wrights. Stojana goes his sweet way without asking our advice. Changed name of society back to Modern Art Workers, etc. Vysekals came home to supper with me. Had big pow wow about new club. Think it won't last long."[24] The day before the opening of the show at the Hollywood library, they all met at Shore's house for dinner. The opening was a success, and it featured a talk by Macdonald-Wright. It was followed by another, larger show of the group at the Los Angeles Museum in March 1926.[25] R. M. Schindler designed the cover of the catalogue for the exhibition. By this time, the circle of modernist artists and architects that was centered at Schindler's Kings Road address had been drawn into the orbit of the California Art Club and the Group of Eight.[26] Macdonald-Wright's manifesto for the group, published in the Los Angeles Times, read in part: "We feel the time is ripe to get a more cosmopolitan atmosphere into the art life here, build up some real vitalizing competition, and tear down a few 'taboos.'"[27]

In June 1925, during the period when Stojana and Alvarez were presiding over the Modern Art Workers, Weston wrote a letter to Tina Modotti: "George Stojana last night. We met at arm's length, we kissed on parting. I cannot hold a grudge against such a person, -- anyhow the parting gesture was his. There were no explanations. A trifle worn was George, and older, much of his past work destroyed, -- he would show me but five wood carvings in relief, fine things."[28]

In fact, we know that Stojana would be integral to the movement in Los Angeles in the late 1920s to integrate the arts into architecture. Annita Delano, who was also a friend of Stojana's and who exhibited with the Modern Art Workers and had taught at Otis Art Institute, was instrumental in getting him a major commission to complete a forty-foot mosaic mural for the jazzy, Art Deco Bullock's Wilshire store in 1929. His mural conveys the energy and dynamism of 1920s design and shows the influence of Art Deco and the Bauhaus, perhaps through Galka Scheyer, whom he would have known through Delano. Stojana apparently slept on a small cot in Bullock's throughout the completion of the mural, in order to "live his work."[29]

The modernist search for integration in the arts created a regional interest in designing furniture, rugs, clothing, textiles, and wall decorations. Alvarez, who had been interested in muralism since at least 1913, began to call her new series of spiritual paintings "decorations" beginning in 1925, and she started to design ceramic tile work. "The trouble is," she wrote, "easel painting seems so useless to me now. I keep thinking of decorations, carved in wood, perhaps with color -- carved stucco, & colored tiles for gardens.... We must have more artist craftsmen and California is just the place to develop new ideas. The opportunity is all around."[30]

All this activity serves to illustrate the ways in which bohemian artistic circles in Los Angeles overlapped, with artists of varying persuasions exhibiting together and supporting each other in a fluid atmosphere that was conducive to camaraderie, experimentation, and risk. It is evidence of the broader understanding then of what modernism was. In Los Angeles, avant-garde European artists such as Macdonald-Wright, advanced American photographers like Weston, and adventurous realists such as the Group of Eight exchanged ideas freely and were perceived as modernist. In this egalitarian creative environment, the Group of Eight and other early Los Angeles modernists valued personal experience and individual expression over commercial success, and they partook of a bohemian intellectualism that was mostly at odds with the blatant materialism of the Southern California boom economy.


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