How we got this way:
The 20th Century, revisited
ANNE R. FABBRI
Its misleading title notwithstanding, “Villa America” isn’t a show about architecture, so you won’t have to trudge through galleries of scale models under plastic vitrines and indecipherable black-and-white drawings. No, this is an exhibition of 77 gems of American art (paintings plus two small sculptures) from the first half of the 20th Century, culled from one of America’s best private collections, Myron Kunin’s in Minneapolis.
“Villa America” is named after the house owned by the wealthy artist George Murphy during the 1920s in southern France. It was the social center of artists and writers, including American ex-pats such as Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and the site of legendary parties I wish I had attended. Murphy, who left only 12 paintings, painted the house name on a wooden sign so everyone could find his place on the Riviera. It is one of only two paintings by him in the show.
The title also describes the breadth of Kunin’s collection. You can run the gamut from figurative to abstract art and note the Surrealists, Precisionists and Satirists invading the scene.
All the well-known names are included, plus a few that slipped under the popular radar. And the big surprise is the overwhelming American character of the works: Their influences (mostly) might have originated in Europe, but through the mysteries of synthesis, the art changes into our own uniquely American visual approach to life.
“I’m not a good reader; I’m a good picture-looker,” explained Kunin, now a retired businessman who had dutifully succeeded his father as chairman of the Regis Corporation. As the business expanded, so did the wall space, and with it a 30-year project to assemble a representative collection— now more than 600 pieces— from an era that marked our emergence as a nation with its own identity, as opposed to a weak carbon copy of Mother England’s. Many artists in the show might have lived it up in Paris for a few years, but their art still looks American. Why?
Violence yes, nudes no
Since the exhibition is hung thematically, I asked myself that question while walking through the galleries. Nudes, generally females, are the largest category, and the one that’s apt to make Americans uncomfortable. Even in these post-Victorian times, scenes of violence remain acceptable; but breasts, buttocks and genitalia are debatable (forbidden in Art in City Hall exhibitions and a no-no in the art reviews of the daily papers). Nude Reclining (1921), by the Philadelphia artist Arthur B. Carles, highlights the glowing flesh of a languid figure with an almost abstract mélange of crimson bedding and purple drapery. Her hands, feet and facial features disappear in the depths of color. This is one of the few nude paintings conveying an unabashed delight in the human body. It is sensuous, all about sex, and wholesome.
The American way: Good vs. bad
“Edna Smith (The Sunday Shawl)” (1915), by Robert Henri, depicts a young woman whose clothes have fallen to her hips. She looks unconcerned and almost virginal. Other nudes make you feel like a voyeur, as if you shouldn’t be looking at them. "Maine Coast" (1926), by Peter Blume, changes sex into a dirty thing, dark and threatening, viewed by you and the face in the upstairs window. Strong, contrasting colors and stolid forms, lacking subtlety or shading, root the painting in American culture. Man is either good or bad and probably bad.
“Star Burlesque”(1933), by Reginald Marsh, shows a stripper going through her act. But the leering, ogling faces in the masculine audience are far more interesting than she is. She is a lifeless, mechanical performer; they are alert, ready to pounce. No wonder males are sometimes referred to as wolves.
“Figure A (Geometrical Patterns)” (1913), by Morton Schamberg, one of two surprises among the nudes, recalls Matisse’s sculptures of a female back, further abstracted into cubist blocks. It’s a direct product of New York’s influential 1913 Armory Show, which opened American eyes to what was happening on the Continent. The other surprise is Andrew Wyeth’s “The Huntress” (1978). Chronologically, it’s about 30 years too late to qualify for this exhibition. But it’s so good and so sensuous that it almost compensates for some of Wyeth’s schmaltzy productions.
Homoerotic male images
As usual, and probably befitting American mores, this show offers no frank evocations of the beauty of the male nude body. Instead, homoerotic portrayals of males, such as “Madawaska – Acadian Light Heavy” (1940), by Marsden Hartley, and “Aspects of Suburban Life: Main Street,” by Paul Cadmus, are presented in different categories. American artists, especially the predominating males in this collection, were not inclined to elaborate on Michelangelo’s or the Greek sculptors’ glorification of the male form.
Self-portraits and other individuals’ portraits reveal unexpected psychological insights, probably more than intended. Was Stuart Davis really the tortured individual of his self-image? Grant Wood, best known for his “American Gothic,” claimed that his best ideas for art came to him while milking cows in Iowa, so he returned there. When you’re looking at Wood’s “Return from Bohemia” (1935), he appears more determined than happy to have all those disapproving Midwesterners observing him. Self-portraits must be done in front of mirrors, and Oscar Bluemner’s 1933 version makes sure you are aware of this: The lettering, above his head, with the date in Roman numerals, is shown backwards. And the sexual orientation of Paul Cadmus might be questioned after viewing his self-portrait.
Coal mine boss, coal miner’s widow
Although much American contemporary art is far removed from Social Realism, vestiges of it appear in every Whitney Biennial and other large exhibitions. “Death of a Miner” (1949), by Ben Shahn, could have been a prophecy of this year’s news, including the elegantly dressed coal mine owner/boss and the sorrowing widow. Has nothing changed? On a happier note, I felt as if I could hear the jazz being played in Elmer Nelson Bischoff’s “Hangover Club” (1916).
The exhibition was organized by the Orange County Museum of Art in California and curated in Philadelphia by Robert Cozzolino, Curator at the Pennsylvania Academy and a strong advocate for its present venue. Labels indicating those artists who were students or teachers here at the Academy add relevance to the show. No one can deny Philadelphia’s influence in art.
“Villa America” is a not-to-be-missed experience. It is worth the trip from anywhere. We might have reached the 21st Century but the 20th remains relevant.
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