Milwaukee Art Museum: "American Originals"
July 2nd, we went to the Milwaukee Art Museum to see the current
travelling exhibits, two shows combined under the "American Originals"
The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs, features forty of this very
imaginative American designer's furniture and decorative art pieces.
This is the first major museum exhibit of Rohlfs' work, and will travel
to four other venues after Milwaukee.
Charles Rohlfs was an interesting individual. He was a highly regarded
student in his artistic and drawing classes, and worked for many years
as a successful draughtsman and designer. He was also a
semi-professional actor, and was married to successful author Anna
Katharine Green Working on such pieces as castings for stove parts, he
acquired a deep knowledge of materials and techniques that he put to
good use in his decade-long career in the furniture business. Rohlfs was
distinctly what we would now call a "designer", with his unique style
and branding. His items, as we could see from catalog pages included in
the exhibit, were "high end" and were carried by retailers such as
Marshall Field. The combination of price and idiosyncratic style
probably were reasons why the line wasn't widely popular and Rohlfs
ultimately pursued other work, but he left a fascinating body of work.
Many of his pieces, such as a rotatable desk, combine innovative
functionality with fanciful, almost fairy-tale, design elements.
Although Rohlfs denied being influenced by others, his flowing organic
design motifs have a distinct Art Nouveau flavor, while other pieces
have a definite Arts and Crafts connection with the use of visible
structural elements, distinct woodgrains, and details such as the use of
clamshell slices as lampshades. Rohlfs himself seems to have been an
influence on others, since his chairs with their rhomboidal seats and
tall narrow backs found their way into the design repertoire of Frank
Lloyd Wright. We were glad that the exhibit included some interior
photographs of Rohlfs' homes in the Buffalo, NY area, since we had fun
speculating what a whole house furnished with the fanciful designs might
look like. There were several pieces we would have gladly taken home
with us, including a plant stand and a "coal scuttle" (which would have
made a nice end table) for Georgie, and for me a desk with a large
uncluttered top and a matching hutch that hung above it attached to the
wall with sturdy chains.
This exhibit was fascinating to both of us, and particularly to Georgie
who both grew up and went to school in Buffalo and knew nothing about
him: but such things as furniture weren't in fashion for art studies
then, and Rohlfs has been unjustly neglected until just now.
The other portion of the exhibit is "The Eight and American Modernisms".
The MAM's page for the exhibit says:
"The Eight and American Modernisms explores through more than fifty
paintings and approximately thirty works on paper the under-appreciated
stylistic complexities of eight artists-Arthur B. Davies, William
Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice B.
Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. The artists, recognized as
painters of urban realism, are now emerging as the first generation of
early American modernists.
"The Eight, as they came to be called, caught the attention of the
American art world with one astoundingly successful exhibition in New
York's Macbeth Galleries in 1908. In their prime and on the verge of
success, the artists were seen as challenging the academic preference
for the genteel tradition of "art for art's sake," which had dominated
the American art establishment for many decades. The exhibition traveled
to major art institutions on the East Coast and in the Midwest and was
the first and only by The Eight. Ever since, the conventional assessment
of The Eight's artistic partnership has focused primarily on the themes
of urban "realism" in their work rather than on their stylistic
individuality, which Henri praised as an imaginative freedom that
follows "no unity in any cult of painting." This exhibition expands the
scholarship on subject matter to highlight the distinct formal qualities
of each artist's work. The Eight and American Modernisms is built from
three outstanding collections of art by these American originals, joined
together on the centennial of The Eight's premiere tour."
The exhibit samples the works of the artists throughout their careers
both before and after the 1908 exhibition, and, almost as importantly,
the biographical information tells more about the individuals'
contributions to the art world in less visible ways, as educators,
organizers, and collectors of others' work. Robert Henri, for example,
taught Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and George Bellows, among others,
at the New York School of Art, and was one of the organizers and
supporters of the famous "Armory show" of 1913 (properly, "The
International Exhibition of Modern Art"), as was fellow member of the
Eight, Arthur B. Davies. This is a very significant event, since the
Armory show introduced Impressionist, Fauvist and Cubist works to the
doubtful American public, even though Henri and other members of the
Eight who began their careers in journalistic illustration, were
This exhibit is of particular interest, showing as it does the last
great flowering of Realistic painting, which had as underpinning a solid
artistic manifesto of showing life as it was without being prettified.
Henri was a fine portraitist who was just as likely to paint hoboes as
society matrons. His lifelike nudes were sometimes denounced as
pornographic due to their frankness and lack of "classical" trappings.
(These would hardly merit a raised eyebrow in this jaded age--.) John
Sloan was not shamed to portray Burlesque artists (referred to as
"French Vaudeville") and in his painting of a contemporary nightclub,
you can almost smell cigarette smoke and whisky drifting out of the
picture. On an other hand, it's kind of fun to pick out the creeping
European influences, particularly notable in the works of George Luks,
where we were able to pick out a Lautrec-influenced piece, and ones with
strong flavors of Degas, Pissarro, Renoir, and Monet.
Both exhibits are well worth seeing, and, since there is no additional
charge for these shows, good value for money as well. We were very glad
to have taken them in.