Kenneth Stubbs
(American artist, 1907-1967)

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Art Notes
Society of Washington Artists Opens 50th Annual Exhibition at Corcoran
Gallery Allots Double Space To Big Event
Out-of-Town Jury Gives Value to Selections

The Society of Washington Artists today opens to the public its 50th annual exhibition in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Because this exhibition marks the society's semi-centennial, special importance attaches to it, in recognition of which double the usual space has been made available and twice the usual number of works are included therein. Furthermore, this year, for the first time, an out-of-town jury not only made the awards but selected the exhibits and hung them.

This was bound to make a difference in the character of the exhibition, an outside viewpoint replacing that of the organization as a whole. The jury of selection comprised John Carlson, Reginald Marsh and William Gropper, the first notably conservative in tendency, the others exponents of the new school sometimes called "radical" or "progressive." About 700 works of art, paintings and sculpture, were submitted to this jury, and 158 accepted. Whether or not in this matter of selection the jury was limited by the material available or selection governed by majority rule, none may ever know, but the result is certainly a revelation of change from the accepted tradition of the past.

Speak Enthusiastically

Both Mr. Gropper and Mr. Marsh, at a dinner given at the Arts Club in honor of the jury, spoke with enthusiasm of finding so much interesting work being done here by artists whose names were quite unknown to them. Washingtonians visiting this exhibition will have the same experience, for, although participation was limited to artists of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, many of those listed in the catalogue are comparatively, if not totally, strange. While it is nice thus to welcome newcomers, it is regrettable to miss from the showing so many old friends--members of the society who, in the past, have made notable contributions.

Mr. Gropper said that, in his judgment, this exhibition compared with the best that were held in New York and elsewhere--and, in all probability, it is in character similar to many that are current today, for which reason it should be judicially studied and considered. In the past double decade, a great change has gradually come over art. Beginning in new York, it has spread over the length and breadth of our land, until now it dominates, as here, practically every general exhibition of contemporary painting.

Art Never Static

Obviously, we must ask ourselves what it is all about--whether a reflection of life or a factor in life's determination. Art has never been static, or it would long ago have perished; but, heretofore, the changes it has passed through have been external rather than fundamental; artists have done things differently, but have held on to old-established ideals. We have had impressionism, cubism, post-impressionism, surrealism and, recently, abstract and non-objective art; but the art of today is none of these, save as the shadow is a repetition of reality. It is rather a floundering without direct purpose--a striving for something but vaguely comprehended. The anchor of tradition being cast off, the frail boat in which the artist has embarked is tossed without direction by each passing wave.

It is difficult to interpret this new school--if such it may be called--or to evaluate its emanations. No one would wish to prevent, or curtail, freedom of expression, but when expression conveys no meaning, its value is gone.

Art, like music and literature, is not just a performance done for the performer's pleasure; it is two-sided. The artist paints to share his enthusiasm with another, the beholder; the author writes to be read, the musician composes or plays to be heard, and none of these would be content were it otherwise. Therefore, while admitting that the public has infinitely the smaller share in this partnership, it is fair to demand for this minority a certain amount of consideration.

Clings to Old Belief

For many years, art was a synonym for beauty. No longer is this true--even the very word, in certain art circles, is now anathema. But the public still clings to the old belief and craves the joy and consolation which beauty in art afforded and still affords in the works of the masters. Drama is often found in tragedy, but it takes a master so to interpret it that its nobler qualities become patent to all. Sheer ugliness and vulgarity can do nothing but depress and lower the level of living--hence civilization. Nature--the works of the great Creator--sets a standard which, up to now, artists have followed; but it is cast aside today, that the works of man in a mechanical world may be emphasized. The superficial and transitory has taken precedence over what may be termed the eternal verities.

Landscape painting as such has almost passed out of existence, save as background for gas tanks, factories, and the like; railway tracks take the place of roadways on the artists' canvases; slums and run-down neighborhoods that of shaded streets and dwellings occupied by those of refinement and taste. The same is true of men and women who are pictured. It is the vulgar and degraded, who, in most instances, are taken as models and set before us, not for the best that is in them, but for the worst. This is interpreted as being "socially minded," but surely the term "social" does not refer merely to those of the lower classes. The great artists of the past have interpreted the spirit of men and women of all classes to men of succeeding generations and so have immortalized them. Meunier and Millet undoubtedly did more to give honor and self-respect to the laborer than does the sculptor or painter of today, who represents him as a clumsy, brainless lout.

Looking back over the 49 exhibitions that the Society of Washington Artists has held, many works come to mind which must have enlarged understanding as well as brought pleasure to the beholders. Landscapes in which were found a true interpretation of the miracle-working illusion of light and air; figures painted veraciously but with sympathy and a certain nobility; pictures which stirred admiration and engendered ideals, which were produced furthermore with skill and more than a touch of genius. Obviously, it is the way a thing is done that signifies primarily, but there is also something to be said for selection and composition. There is nothing wrong with modernism save when wrongly applied. The great modernists were, in many instances, eccentric but well trained and greatly gifted. To copy their eccentricities does not put the imitator on an equal footing with them. It was despite these that distinction was attained. As Royal Cortissoz once reminded an audience, "Every young artist is not a ball of fire." But enough of generalities and background.

Shows Rail Siding

Turning to the current exhibition--whether one finds it indicative of progress or retrogression, none can deny it variety and interest, or set aside the fact, painful or pleasurable, that it is typical of today.

Among the prize winners in this display were two artists well known in local art circles and beyond their boundaries--Nikolai Cikovsy, a member of the faculty of the Corcoran School of Art, and Oke Nordgren, who is employed by the Corcoran Gallery. The winning pictures, in both instances, were subjectively associated with railway tracks. Mr. Cikovsy's canvas, to which The Evening Star prize was awarded, sets forth a railway siding by the water, a box car occupying the center of the composition, red clay pipes and the figure of a workman lending color and human interest. The title is "Contemporary Scene." As always in this artist's paintings, the color is exceedingly pleasing and good. "City by the Tracks," by Mr. Nordgren, to which went the society's $100 prize for the most outstanding work in the exhibition, is presumably of Washington and painted from across the tracks in the Southwest section of the city, but might equally well be any city. It is not colorful but shows a rather remarkable handling of a very complicated composition.

To the writer, more impressive is Mr. Nordgren's large canvas in the next gallery, entitled "Picnic in the Catskills," in which a broad landscape is rather handsomely rendered and the picnic party in the foreground admirably welded into the composition. Likewise, even more agreeable in color is Mr. Cikovsky's still life, "Bread and Wine," which also hangs in the second gallery and is broadly and knowingly rendered. His figure of a woman, in the first gallery, is a strong piece of simple, representative painting--a work which takes high place.

Wins Bliss Prize

The Robert Woods Bliss prize for landscape painting went to Lois Mailou Jones of the art department of Howard University for a picture of "Indian Shops at Gay Head" (doubtless Marthas Vineyard), which has the charm of color if not of composition, but does not manifest the artist's exceptional gift and skill as does her painting of the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, by which she is also represented.

Mitchell Jamieson, wh is best known for his water colors, won the Thomas Saltz prize for figure painting by a very elaborate composition, "The Firing Squad," which, while well composed, is rather clumsily rendered, a little suggestive of Daumier's "Uprising" in intent but falling far short in reality. While purposely very dramatic--as, for example, is Kipling's "Danny Deever"--it fails to stir the emotions, hence fails of achievement. To keep such a subject from becoming a mere illustration--and poor at that--is a task which, almost from its inception, is doomed to failure.

It is interesting to note that, whereas the tendency of the present-day school is to decry emphasis on subject, the illustrative picture is more common in the current exhibitions than for many years. To this exhibition, Carl Nyquist has sent a painting of a group of workmen reading or listening to a "war bulletin" and a second canvas picturing four women and as many babies on the piazza of a country cabin, a dreary group, graphically set forth.

Ann Keebler's "Negro Funeral," in which the deceased is seen ascending not the golden, but well-carpeted, stairs as a spiritual revelation, is almost in a class by itself, having only as a rival "Her Romance" by Jeanne Begien, in which one sees the equestrian figure of a lover--cowboy or soldier--revealed in a rainbow to a demure maiden riding horseback along a rather dreary road.

Circuses, with their gay red and yellow tents, are to the fore, and there is a life-size head of a clown, by Donald Coale, which, while somewhat reminiscent of the work of certain well-known painters, is simple in treatment and impressive.

American Primitive

The vogue for the American primitive is seen to have had its influence--as, for example, in the painting of "Child with Dog's Bone," by Betty Lane; "Vermont Country Church," by G. Watson James, Jr., and "Winter Sports," by Clara Hanna.

Richard Lahey, principal of the Corcoran School, is represented by a large still life which might well be entitled "Study in Gray"--an elaborate piece of painting, done, it would seem, for the sheer interest inherent in the doing, the surmounting of untold difficulties.

At Best in Portrait

Robert Franklin Gates of the Phillips Gallery School is at his worst in a picture of a group of red-brown factories in a rather drab landscape, and at his best in a small portrait of a woman standing. The latter is a little canvas readily overlooked but very beautifully painted.

Eugen Weisz, best known, as is Mr. Gates, for his water colors, is represented by a study of a nude, rather academic but subtle and sympathetically handled, showing not only command of medium but artistic sensitiveness to both form and color,

Benson B. Moore and Robert E. Motley are represented by landscapes in what today may be termed the old manner--representative, realistic and pleasing in composition. Mr. Benson's is of "The Canal in Winter," Mr. Motley's of "Pennsylvania Wheat Field" in harvest time.

The president of the society, Rowland Lyon, shows only a single small canvas--"Bradford Street"--high in key, clear and very pleasing in color, extremely simple in treatment, a modest but a very acceptable contribution.

From Clara R. Saunders has come a spring landscape painted with great simplicity and lightness of touch--a souvenir of Nature's annual miracle.

In a painting of two yellow boxcars on a siding--"Shifting"--Roger Rittase has rendered for our delectation a very charming sky. His "Red Tank" also is colorful but less well pulled together in the matter of tone and color values.

Figures abound in this exhibition and run in scale from the little portrait by Mr. Gates already mentioned to a colossal canvas representing Nelson Rosenberg in painting garb, much more than life size--the work of May Ashton, who also shows a rather modernistic still life, flowers of many kinds in a much-crowded vase, drooping.

"Patricia," by Mary Jane Corr, which won an honorable mention, is somewhat stylized but very well rendered; "Nonna," by Catherine Vagoni, while perhaps less finished, has character and spirit, and Mary C. Core's Negro girl, "Junein," is charmingly expressive despite the fact that it, too, ventures into the realm of the occult.

Still Life

There is quite a little still life in this exhibition, and among the best such works are "Pewter Pitcher" and "Summer Still Life," by Nelson Rosenberg; "Scarlet Ibis," by Wilma Dinowitzer; "Blue China Ladle," by William N. Thompson, and "Apples and Sunflowers," by Esther Lyne.

Wilma Dinowitzer also has contributed a painting entitled "Quartette, Library of Congress," which, as a piece of satire, is extremely clever.

It is difficult to know whether to class "Monday Banners," by Elizabeth Muhlhover, as still life or a city picture. The "banners" are colorful clothes hung on Monday wash lines in back yards of somber dwellings glorified by a blossoming fruit tree--all very meticulously and accurately recorded, a new departure for this painter of flowers in keeping with the spirit of the time, an adventure into "pastures new."

Conservative, spirited and very pleasing is Norma Bose's painting, "Santisima Trinidad," freshly painted and good in both color and composition. Unique and rather of another world than that of today is Kenneth Stubbs' portrait, "Catherine," skillfully rendered with picturesque background and accessories.

All this sounds promising--and perhaps it is--but if one would not the change that has come over the face of art in the half century since the Society of Washington Artists was founded, let one cross the atrium of the Corcoran Gallery and make a brief survey of the canvases in the permanent collection produced by American painters during these 50 years. It is not only good, but a great advantage to be able to make such a comparison at this time.

In this field, too there has been change--and of perhaps a more drastic nature, but, at the same time, more within the accepted tradition of the plastic arts. During recent years, sculptors have, to a large extent, turned from bronze to stone as medium and, suiting expression to medium, have employed greater simplicity than heretofore. Cutting in stone or carving in wood, the sculptor approaches his subject from outside, whereas, when the intent is to cast in bronze, the theme takes shape from within, being built up rather than cut away. If equally well done, there is nothing to choose between the two methods. Again, it is all in the way the end is achieved, the skill, imagination and understanding of the artist.

Sculpture Prize,

The first prize in sculpture in this exhibition went to a little dachshund, "Schnapps," by Dorothea S. Greenbaum, now of this city, but formerly of New York, secretary of the Sculptors' Guild and chairman of the Committee of Sculpture for National Art Week, to whom, by the way, the Widener Memorial Medal in sculpture of the Pennsylvania Academy has just been awarded for a small nude.

Honorable mention went to Russell A. Houston for "Noon Prayer," and also to Howard Svenson for a group, "Refugees."

These three pieces run the gamut. Mrs. Greenbaum's dog is conservative and very sensitively modeled; Mr. Houston's "Noon Prayer" is rather impressionistic, with emphasis on lump mass and plastic form, simplified; Mr. Svenson's Refugees" is supposedly humanistic, but soulless, repulsive. Les so, however, than his head of a dying man, "After the Air Raid."

There are some excellent heads--two by Julie Manierre-Mann, one by Ethel P. Hood. Eleanor Mullikin shows a pleasing sketch of a "Holy Family," which is far from conventional, and Mary B. Fowler an engaging statuette of "Girl With Lamb." There is a giraffe, "The Silent Aristocrat," by J. Andrews; a hilarious group of hillbillies with fiddle, accordion and inevitable jug. "Coming Round the Mountain," by William Luther McDermott, to say nothing of a Madonna in marble like a calla lily in full bloom, the work of Frank Zucchet; a good nude by Gladys Caron and a charming fountain figure--a chubby irresistible child--by Fauta V. Mengarini, who has done in this country, as well as in her native Italy, much distinguished work.

Finally, there is a figure by Helen Gaulois Carter very much in the style of Lembruch, but of a kneeling man, very attenuated, and in expression utterly forlorn, which she herself has entitled "What Is Man That Thou Art Mindful of Him?"--appropriate to the last degree. Here again, the visitor may note trends and draw his own conclusions--the layman remembering his share of responsibility as well as his freedom of judgment and choice.

Leila Mechlin, Washington Star, February 2, 1941, page F-6