Bold Strokes, an exhibition of paintings by Quita Brodhead at the Woodmere Art Museum, proves that people can go far beyond the strictures of their environment, if they dare. It just takes courage and fortitude.
Quita Brodhead (1901 – 2002) was by birth a quintessential Philadelphian, bound by tradition in all things, including art. However, she broke out of that trap and, with the inspiration of the right art teacher — Arthur Beecher Carles at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) — plus annual European sojourns, moved from academic portraiture (see the two portraits of her father) to abstraction and conceptual art. She learned to open her eyes and let in life.
To understand her development as an artist it is best to begin with the paintings installed chronologically on the balcony of the rotunda gallery. Her initial adherence to figurative expression changes to a more innovative approach. Vase with Tulips (1934) is on the cusp of abstraction. Let your eyes travel from the upper left to lower right into a world of light and shadows in shades of reds and blues — color is everything.
Abstraction with Floral Bouquet (1940) seems a natural development. Now she is free: free to revel in shape and color as she sees it, creating her own world. She is an abstract artist, expressionist to the core.
The larger paintings downstairs in the Rotunda Gallery give us a sense of the full sweep of her oeuvre. Just step back and try to imagine the effect of these explosions of color and lines leading nowhere upon Philadelphians who embraced Andrew Wyeth and suspected abstract paintings were basically a pot of paint thrown in the eyes of the beholder.
In the beginning, Brodhead’s abstract paintings appear contained by right angles and triangles of separate compositions. By the 1960s, the compositions are looser, involving the entire canvas. Teide #2 (1961) is a more lyrical expression. This develops into a lighter toned palette with colors that seem to float on the surface, culminating in a quintessential simplification encompassing the basics of life as seen in Whence and Where To (2000), when she was 99 years old.
These 56 paintings illustrate one artist’s life journey through the 20th century: her visual reactions to traditional subject matter and her embrace of the new, especially the visual arts that originated in Europe. She opened her mind and eyes to that world. Despite being a petite female from staid Philadelphia, she became an artistic force, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
Select your own three favorite works and lose yourself in the joy of color freely expressed. My three are From the Aegean (1961), provided it is turned upside down as it was originally exhibited, Untitled (c. 1977), and Balance (1988). Enjoy!
(Above: Abstract #1, c. 1955, by Quita Brodhead [Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of the Brodhead Family, 2013])