Editor's note: The following essay from the catalogue for the exhibitions Clarence Hinkle and Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight, on view at the Laguna Art Museum June 10 - October 7, 2012, was reprinted in Resource Library on June 23, 2012 with permission of the Laguna Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on June 20, 2012. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Laguna Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
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. 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. 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, 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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, 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."
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. 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. 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. 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." 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.
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..." 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. 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."
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!"
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.
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."
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. 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." 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. 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. 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.'"
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."
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."
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."
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.
Modern Spirit, Hollywood, and the New Woman
In the 1920s, Los Angeles was an international center for possibilities of another sort, in which fame, commercial success, and unparalleled health and beauty were the promise. While the Roaring Twenties marked a period of upheaval and rapid change internationally, nowhere was this more pronounced than in Los Angeles, where some 660,000 new residents poured into the city during the decade. The region was flush with money, the result of a boom economy fueled by the growing film industry, real estate speculation, and oil production. The affluence, flapper spirit, and growing interest in the arts caused a cultural boom as well.
Art schools and art clubs proliferated in Los Angeles, creating a nexus around the Westlake Park area of the city. This area, and the rolling Hollywood Hills to the north, served as the seat of the city's bohemia in the decades following World War I. Here artists, political activists, Hollywood studios, and gay subculture resided, interacted, and found the freedom to reinvent themselves. The Art Students League had opened in 1906, Otis Art Institute in 1918, and the Chouinard School of Art in 1921. By mid-decade there were several exhibition venues, including Newhouse Galleries, run by Dalzell Hatfield, Cannell & Chaffin, the Biltmore Salon, Stendahl Gallery, Kanst's Hollywoodland, the MacDowell Club, the California Art Club, and the Friday Morning Club, to name a few, along with the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art and the Southwest Museum. Los Angeles was a haven of cultural freedom dominated by the film industry, luring artists, writers, musicians, actors, and "the beautiful people." The Southern California sun, revered as healthy and rejuvenating, was part of the magnetic attraction.
Physical culture was in its heyday in America during the 1920s. A healthful body was equated with physical liberation and creative empowerment. The "healthy body culture" arose nationally in the wake of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic. Advertising and Hollywood films openly embraced it, and it manifested itself in an outpouring of narrative images, portraits, and nudes.
The rapid change in modern culture paralleled a quickening in the arts; artists sought a new painting language and metaphors to express the change. The dominant aesthetic was one of representation, in which developing modern culture was "cleansed, ordered, and distilled." This coping mechanism was equally at work in the plein-air landscapes of the traditional painters of Southern California, who clustered around the California Art Club and presented a vision of nature that was empty and silent. Fundamental to the region's modern movement was the idea that humankind could be restored by communion with nature.
Alvarez's In the Garden, for example, evinces a powerful faith in the sustaining power of nature, beauty, and youth. In it, a young woman with bobbed hair stands in front of a flowered background. She has pale, bare skin and the small, pouty lips popular in films of the day, though without the sultry vampishness. Recuperation is an implicit theme of the painting, with its restful, garden-like background recalling bold and stylized oriental wallpaper. Still, the young woman does have the disaffected, distant demeanor of the flapper and a slightly sad countenance. Her expression seems to echo the advice given by a writer in Vogue at the time that women should learn to "hover in a slightly detached, balloon-like manner above our perplexities." With the close-up, three-quarter view, we are able to examine the subject closely and inspect her beauty, which is childlike rather than womanly. She is unspoiled youth and beauty, and yet her reserved, introspective demeanor invites us to delve into her soul, ponder her thoughts, and accept her as more than just a pretty face. The iconic image expresses faith in the potentiality of youth, as well as disillusionment or loss.
In the Garden represents the right kind of healthy sexuality, reflecting a notion described in the 1920s as the "clean." Uncleanliness was "a lack of pride, a slackness in fiber and, most of all, the unmistakable aura of promiscuity." Physical forthrightness coupled with discipline was acceptable. Freudian ideas were widely discussed and popularized in the press, especially notions about the struggle between the libido and repression. The struggle in the 1920s was between liberated, natural sexual impulses and social conventions like marriage. Artists in Los Angeles were not above choosing free love over social convention; sexual experimentation, like artistic experimentation, was common -- but not usually flaunted.
Artists and writers used the word "clean" with surprising regularity throughout the 1920s to denote the honesty and directness of their expression. The overt realism of In the Garden, with its precise lines and polished volumes, is well suited to the idealized young woman who is pictured. The classical and restrained approach to form, the visual clarity and lack of detail, and the sense of order all express this notion of the "clean." These were devices of choice for American modernists everywhere. A revival of classicism was internationally popular, with Picasso making the transition from cubism to neoclassicism at about the same time in Europe. In New York, the proponents of neoclassicism included Thomas Hart Benton and Lorser Feitelson, who would move to Los Angeles in 1927.
Alvarez's In the Garden is "focused, abbreviated, and enigmatic," not unlike her Self-Portrait of 1923 (see p. 101), in which the artist confronts the viewer more directly. It calls to mind Luvena Vysekal's slightly ironic description of Alvarez in the Los Angeles Times: "A swarthy young woman, smudgy black hair, soft, smoldering eyes, full, warm, sensitive mouth; lithe and straight, and with it all, so restrained, so shy, so proper, so retiring, so considerate, so altogether nice."
Alvarez was taking classes in color theory from Macdonald-Wright during this period at Chouinard and the Art Students League; in terms of the color palette both portraits exhibit the subtle influence of her teacher. The Asian-inspired floral forms of In the Garden and the use of a black line around areas of color, such as the rim of the hat in Self-Portrait, are other hallmarks of Macdonald-Wright's style. The latter technique was an adaptation from Cézanne that was widely used by others, including Hinkle and other members of the Group of Eight. According to Alvarez's diaries, one night a few months before she started the self-portrait, she dropped by the Vysekals' home and ran into Macdonald-Wright. She wrote that he "gave me interesting criticism -- says to draw myself a lot instead of getting models." This practical advice to Alvarez, who was consistently paying models to come to her studio and had some twenty listed in her address book, caused her to begin a series of self-portraits. Macdonald-Wright's classes and the heady intellectual atmosphere of his milieu stimulated Alvarez's creative process as well, giving her more confidence and a finer aesthetic understanding. However, she rapidly adapted his teachings, without allowing her work to appear derivative.
American women received the vote in 1920, heralding new attitudes and new depictions of women in art. Alvarez's Self-Portrait and Luvena Vysekal's Esther express the vision of the New Woman, who was able to step outside her home and expand her horizons: confident, successful, and liberated. Indeed, the women artists of the Group of Eight -- Mabel Alvarez, Luvena Vysekal, and Donna Schuster -- epitomized the New Woman of the 1920s: they were vitally involved in art groups and art associations; they exhibited widely, were favorably reviewed, received regional awards, and sold their art to collectors and museums. They moved freely throughout the Southland within bohemia and the more bourgeois social circles of the California Art Club.
Since the second decade of the century, Los Angeles modernist groups such as the Los Angeles Modern Art Society and the California Progressive Group had not merely included women; women artists such as Henrietta Shore, Helena Dunlap, Meta Cressey, and Luvena Vysekal had been among their founding members. Progressive artists by necessity had established themselves outside the mainstream of art; the California Art Club, largely composed of artists who practiced a regional form of impressionism, had a monopoly on exhibition venues and actively opposed more progressive modes of expression. The exhibitions of the early modernist groups served a vital function as challenges to the dominance of the California Art Club and as dynamic nexuses for innovative new developments. Like other early modernists in Los Angeles, the Group of Eight started out retaining remnants of a complex mix of influences, including impressionism, post-impressionism, and the work of Henri. But by the mid-1920s they began to break out of that mold and toward more advanced modernist trends, focusing on portraiture, figure painting, still life, and genre scenes created in the studio.
Color and Metaphysics in the Natural Environment
In Edward Vysekal's painting The Herwigs a mother sits outside on a window ledge, rapturously bathed in the sunlight pouring down from above, with her naked child standing in her lap. The child reaches up toward a small bird feeder or wind chime that has been transformed by cubist rendering into a small, temple-like object floating above. Behind them stands the father with his arms outstretched in a gesture of blessing, or perhaps recalling Christ on the cross, while appearing to be leaning with his hands against a closed glass window -- as though he, too, is outside, with the Hollywood Hills spread out behind him. With the French window open, its front edge visible as a strong vertical to the right of the contemporary Holy Family, what we have is a sophisticated, impossible space.
Art critic Arthur Millier called The Herwigs "a landmark of figure painting in this region." It is also a masterful summation of some of the prominent directions appearing in the work of the Group of Eight and other Los Angeles artists of the 1920s. A mysterious, ambiguous painting with metaphysical overtones, it suggests that we are witnessing not a moment in actual time but an event of another order, in which one can be both inside and outside at the same time. The placement of what looks like an open tomb to the right of the family suggests spiritual rebirth and redemption. The art of the 1920s, which was personal and communicated great feeling, was not always meant to be understood in a literal sense. The representation of revelatory contact with the living world was pivotal.
The tilted perspective of the painting, which directs our attention to the loosely painted, cubist abstraction of the hills beyond, along with the tonic palette of yellows and oranges, indicate Vysekal was well versed in the work of Macdonald-Wright. Vysekal likely chose the key of yellow for The Herwigs in order to reflect a subject that, according to Macdonald-Wright's Treatise on Color, "is radiant, joyous, sunny, and of no great solidity." Millier noted that the glowing color had the effect of "spiritualizing" the painting. Vysekal mastered the layering of transparent washes to create a vibratory effect, as of colors being refracted through a prism. Macdonald-Wright practiced a similar approach, derived from his study of Cézanne's watercolors and Chinese brush paintings. Although Vysekal drew upon the teachings of Macdonald-Wright, like others in Los Angeles during the 1920s, his work was very different from his colleague's and never derivative. This was true of other members of the Group of Eight.
Macdonald-Wright was one of the first prophets of European modernism to have a deep and lasting impact on the art scene in Los Angeles. In 1920, with loans through Alfred Stieglitz, he had organized the Exhibition of American Moderns at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art, providing a look at influential American modernist painters from across the country, including Thomas Hart Benton, Oscar Bluemner, Andrew Dasburg, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Preston Harrison, Marsden Hartley, Konrad Kramer, John Marin, Man Ray, Morgan Russell, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, and others. The landmark exhibition furthered an incipient dialogue about European and American modernist movements.
Macdonald-Wright's teachings, first private ones and those offered at Chouinard from 1920 to 1923, then those at the Art Students League from spring 1923 to 1932, introduced a generation of artists to a range of styles -- such as cubism, expressionism, futurism, and synchromism -- as well as an interest in Asian art and philosophy. Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell had founded the synchromist movement in Paris in 1913, advocating abstract painting based on the analogy between music and color. He then became affiliated with Stieglitz in New York before returning to California in 1918.
During the 1920s, most of the Group of Eight at least briefly attended Macdonald-Wright's lectures or classes at either Chouinard or the Art Students League (and De Kruif taught with Macdonald-Wright at the Art Students League satellite in San Pedro in 1930). Two of the group members were close to the circle that surrounded the artist. Edouard Vysekal studied with him soon after Macdonald-Wright moved to Los Angeles and taught at the Art Students League before he took over its direction; Alvarez was a dedicated student who transcribed some of the lectures Macdonald-Wright gave at Chouinard and the Art Students League from 1920 to 1925.
Little is known about the private feelings or spiritual searching of the members of the Group of Eight, except for Alvarez. She documented in her diaries a sixteen-year dedication to the teachings of the writer, philosopher, and spiritual leader Will Levington Comfort in the pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. She made a series of symbolist paintings or "decorations" beginning in 1925 that are a rapprochement between her interests in meditation and Eastern philosophical ideas and Western modernism. They were also an effort to move away from easel painting toward muralism, design, and architectural decoration.
Vysekal was a midcareer artist with an interest in modernism prior to meeting and studying with Macdonald-Wright. Apparently his work was advanced enough by 1920 that when Macdonald-Wright held a showing of "Synchromist Painters" in the Vysekals' studio, his work was included along with that of Russell, Benton, William Yarrow, Preston Dickinson, and Macdonald-Wright himself. Vysekal had taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1912 to 1914, before moving to Los Angeles. Following that, he taught at the Art Students League for several years beginning in 1919, the same year he founded the California Progressive Group with Shore, Dunlap, William V. Cahill, and Luvena Vysekal. In 1922 he joined the Otis faculty and taught at that school until his death. Three others of the Group of Eight taught at Otis as well. Shrader, who had begun teaching there in 1918, became dean in 1923. Rich joined the faculty in 1921; Schuster in 1923. Hinkle, who had studios in Los Angeles and Laguna Beach, taught at Chouinard from 1921 to 1935.
The Group of Eight was not an Otis Art Institute phenomenon -- that is, it did not grow out of the artists' associations at Otis. Rather, Otis benefited from an established synergy that the progressive artists brought to the school. While the Art Students League may have been the most important nexus for modernist experimentation in Los Angeles, and Macdonald-Wright the most advanced regional modernist, the fact that he was a "one-man band" at the Art Students League signals a limited curriculum. Otis Art Institute, situated at the edge of Westlake Park in the former mansion of General Harrison Gray Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times, provided a vibrant, nurturing community and an extensive curriculum of fine and applied arts. It was a more traditional academy of art, offering a strong grounding in the art of the past and in academic technique. Shrader, who was dean, brought remarkable energy and engagement to powerful, community-building activities in Los Angeles through his studio home, his presidency of the California Art Club, and his devotion to Otis. But he was also deeply committed to creating an atmosphere conducive to modernist experimentation. Serious students of art were encouraged to float between schools and to be active in the various clubs in town, like the California Art Club, the California Water Color Society, the California Print Club, and others. The art schools and clubs in Los Angeles were intersecting universes that shared members, teachers, students, and models.
That Otis had an atmosphere that was conducive to experimentation and camaraderie was due in large part to Edouard Vysekal's presence at the school. Vysekal, "a colorful, fiery artist who favored velvet coats and flowing ties and brought a European flair to Otis," taught anatomy, life drawing, composition, and landscape painting. His syllabus at Otis encompassed classical art as well as the modernism of Monet, Seurat, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, and Macdonald-Wright. All the regional schools, including the Art Students League, emphasized drawing from live models in the academic manner. Vestiges of lectures Vysekal gave at Otis on anatomy in 1927 survive, giving a flavor of his teaching and personality. He considered life drawing to be an essential vehicle for portraying expressive ideas: "What decides the artist is the rare sensitivity necessary to distinguish between essentials and nonessentials. When I see a drawing one of the thoughts that comes to me is -- does it show marks of rare penetration? Could just anyone have done it? To see further than the outline takes knowledge, takes culture. Be faithful to your knowledge, use it."
Edouard Vysekal and his wife, Luvena, progressed together as artists and were both well respected. In 1922 and 1923, Luvena created a series of written portraits of prominent artists, critics, and dealers. Her writings, published anonymously in the Los Angeles Times under the pen name Benjamin Blue, indicate her high stature in the art world; they also show that the art community had reached a degree of development and sophistication in which the candid portraits might be recognized and talked about.
Luvena Vysekal's Benjamin Blue writings were revealing, incisive, and full of sarcastic wit. Perhaps none were as mean-spirited as the one she wrote on Macdonald-Wright, here briefly excerpted: "'Synchromie Cosmique' is one of his favorite dishes for breakfast, and he dotes on 'thematic romanticism.' He and Cézanne, you know, started the whole thing a going, only Cézanne lacked the 'broadly philosophic mind' to 'dynamically organize' the 'specific exterior' in its 'absolute finality,' therefore he can't be called the papa of synchromism, just its uncle. Even so, it should be emotionally gratifying."
A painting Luvena Vysekal showed in the 1927 Group of Eight exhibition, The Aesthete, exemplifies the artist's sarcastic wit in its mannered stylization of a man dressed in a Japanese kimono grasping a colorful fan in one hand and a single iris in the other. Arthur Millier called the painting "a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan." While the painting can be read as a mocking satire of a homosexual male, socially viewed then as "a harmless aesthete or mannish invert, it also seems to reflect everything that Luvena Vysekal disliked about Macdonald-Wright in particular.
The Group of Eight
The Group of Eight exhibited together for the first time at the Friday Morning Club in December 1921. They showed about ten small canvases or watercolors each; many were landscape studies, and they were nearly pocket size. The pochades of Henri, small panels carried in the pocket in order to quickly capture the color and composition of a scene, may have inspired their diminutive size. The small excursions into nature were resolved enough for critic Antony Anderson to write, "Many of them, indeed, are absolutely gem-like." This was most likely a Christmas show meant to entice quick sales; they may not have realized the potential for the group until later. Many of the exhibitions held by the early modernists, including Macdonald-Wright's Group of Independent Artists Exhibition in 1923, were sale shows in which the prices of the paintings were listed in the accompanying catalogues.
The artists exhibited together as the Group of Eight several times in 1921, 1922, 1927, and 1928. Coming together as a group lent them greater visibility and prestige than showing as individuals. Their exhibitions regularly received advance notices in the local newspapers, followed by extensive reviews after the openings.
The Group of Eight also socialized together at a dizzying pace. They frequented crowded Hollywood eateries like the Cat & Fiddle and the Pig 'n Whistle. It was not uncommon for them to hold large dinners in their studios, followed by unruly party games like charades or paradox. Dining on the roof of the Vysekals' garage, they would sit "talking in the dark -- all the stars out & lights twinkling below." In smaller groups they played bridge and mahjong, shared books and ideas. There were numerous sketching trips to Laguna Beach (down and back in one day!), where they visited Hinkle, who had established a second studio there in 1922.
The artists' second exhibition, held at Bullock's Seventh Street Bridgeway from January 23 to February 11, 1922, kicked off the group more formally. Edouard Vysekal designed an elegant emblem for the brochure cover showing an eight-limbed tree, with each branch ending in a hand holding a painter's brush. Anderson's observation that it looked like a walking stick insect set against a gold background is rather apt. On Sunday, a day before the opening, Alvarez and the Vysekals went to the Shraders' Hollywood studio home to address invitations. During the run of the show, the members met often and took turns looking after the exhibition, which was well visited by the public and located in a "lovely big room [with] rich oriental rugs." A Mr. Mitchell, who was the Arts Commissioner of Los Angeles, visited the show, inspecting it through his monocle. Anderson's review in the Los Angeles Times noted that the group "has some decidedly modern tendencies, the best of which is a penchant for lively color."
In the fall, the group met numerous times socially prior to their show's opening at the Franklin Galleries on December 7. Some were exhibiting in a group show at the Southwest Museum. The California Art Club had recently approached Shrader, inviting him to be club president in 1924. Alvarez and the Vysekals hung the exhibition at the Franklin Galleries. Of the opening, Alvarez wrote in her diary: "Went to Reception Group of 8 at Franklin Gal. with Riches. Rained. Quite a few people came to my surprise.... Pouring when we returned. Riches took Donna [Schuster] & strange girl home after leaving me."
The Franklin Galleries exhibition was the subject of a long article in the Sunday Los Angeles Times by critic Antony Anderson. Of the Group of Eight, he wrote: "It's a group of liberals. Some paint by formulas and some don't. A few flirt coyly with modern movements, but never outrageously so. They don't shock us. Others follow familiar paths in paint, giving the flirters a large and benevolent tolerance. There's variety in the exhibition at the Franklin." This supports the idea that they were individuals who came together not with a common aesthetic, but with a temperamental openness to new ideas.
In the same article, Anderson suggested that Macdonald-Wright's newly formed Group of Independent Artists and the Group of Eight were in competing camps vying for supremacy. While this statement may have made for good press, it was not entirely true, although some of the regional artists who exhibited with the Group of Independents, such as Nick Brigante, Ben Berlin, Boris Deutsch, and Peter Krasnow, did practice a more advanced form of modernism incorporating cubism and expressionism. Edouard Vysekal exhibited in both shows; Alvarez and Hinkle were at the time attending Macdonald-Wright's lectures at Chouinard, which appear to have been of wide interest to even established regional artists. For example, Dunlap, also a well-known modernist, attended the lectures as well.
It does appear that Macdonald-Wright's exhibition, which took place in February 1923 at the MacDowell Club, shortly before he took over the directorship of the Art Students League, garnered much positive attention and brought new artists into the modernist fold. A large exhibition of French modernism that showed at the Los Angeles Museum in 1923 with works by Bonnard, Cézanne, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Pissarro, Redon, Renoir, and Vuillard was probably also a factor. In 1924, when Shrader took over the presidency of the California Art Club, effectively putting himself at the center of the art establishment, the axis of power began to shift as well.
By 1925, the tide had certainly turned. Interest in modern art was active and lively, with newspaper critics giving favorable reviews to artists who explored modernist experimentation and broke with traditional plein-air painting. The Sixth Annual Exhibition of Painters and Sculptors of Southern California at the Los Angeles Museum featured enough modernism that Anderson claimed that "the stigma of provincialism" had been removed; he reported that Macdonald-Wright had won the coveted William Preston Harrison prize for a still life, Yin Synchromy. "It is, indeed, into the realm of pure esthetics that the artists of Los Angeles are advancing from the limbo of naturalism.... Expressionism is coming into its own," he wrote.
The Group of Eight did not exhibit together again until 1927, instead taking part in the organization, governance, and exhibitions of the Modern Art Workers, which included a range of modernists active in Los Angeles. The latter group exhibited twice in 1925 and again in 1926, and it combined members of the Los Angeles Modern Art Society, the Group of Eight, the Group of Independent Artists, and Easterners Thomas Hart Benton, Morgan Russell, Preston Dickinson, and Alfred Maurer. Showing with the group were the Vysekals, Stojana, Alvarez, Brigante, De Kruif, Dunlap, Hinkle, Shore, Delano, Karl Yens, Conrad Buff, Val Costello, Albert King, Ralph Stackpole, and others. The Los Angeles Times published a manifesto for the group that echoed the direction of Henri far more than the strident proclamations one associates with Macdonald-Wright. Although signed by Macdonald-Wright, it might almost have been written by one of the Group of Eight. It stated in part:
The Group of Eight's most important exhibition was at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art from July 20 to August 28, 1927. The artists were accorded small one-person shows of seven or more paintings, covering a period of years and culminating with their most recent work. The extant paintings from this exhibition show a smattering of stylistic influences, not surprisingly, as the artists incorporated works dating back to the second decade of the century. More than likely, this was an exhibition curated not by the museum but by the artists themselves.
Rather than the landscape abstractions of Laguna Beach that he was doing in large, slashing brushstrokes, such as Laguna Beach (p. 112), Hinkle elected to show portraiture. This begs the question: Was the Group of Eight after all a nearly decade-long homage to Henri? Or in Hinkle's case, did he just consider portraiture to be his greatest genre? His depiction of a local Laguna Beach artist and framer, Buck Weaver (location unknown), is a bold color painting with the pale, blue-violet ground the artist started using around this time, indicating that it may have been one of his more current works in the show. By contrasting the cowboy dressed in oranges and yellows against a somber background, Hinkle achieves a primitive intensity that mirrors the brash, forthright demeanor of his subject. The approach echoes that of one of his other portraits in the show, Gjura Stojana (p. 96), but he has heightened the contrast and expressionism, adding a potent black line around some of the color forms. A jagged black textural treatment in the abstract background echoes the defiance of the subject and signals Hinkle's delight in gesture, and paint as paint.
Rich's more conventional figure study The Brass Bowl, or Señorita Lusoriaga (p. 100), which was in the Group of Eight's Franklin Galleries exhibition, shows the regionally inflected influence of Henri in terms of its subject matter and stylistic approach. Rich had studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with the American impressionist Edmund Tarbell. He was adept at creating genre scenes of women in interiors with delicate brushwork and color, exuding a sense of quiet and soft light. Like other members of the Group of Eight, Rich went through many stylistic changes, as evidenced by Yellow Teapot, a painting in the key of red-violet that shows his awareness of Macdonald-Wright's color theories and compositional approaches. The depiction of the hills in the background creates a feeling that nature is a quiet power underlying the whole.
With its expressive sensuality and tropicalism, Edouard Vysekal's A Figure in Shadows alludes to the idea of communion with nature. It provides an example of the way in which artists depicting the nude figure in the 1920s melded classical ideals with modernist reduction. Mexican subjects were common in the region, due to its proximity to the border. The painting, which was in the 1927 exhibition, has Vysekal's signature tilted perspective combined with an almost imperceptible distant view of the city. The artist's untitled nude of a young woman wearing a kimono (p. 106) shows a more lyrical bohemianism and yearning as well as Vysekal's layered, wet-into-wet watercolor technique.
De Kruif, who was an etcher, watercolorist, and painter, was the only member of the Group of Eight to focus primarily on landscape. In the 1920s, he created halcyon views of Palm Springs and Red Rock Canyon in vibrant color that had the mystery and ambiguity of symbolist art, showing an affinity for the work of Rex Slinkard. Typical of his work at this time, Song of Autumn is executed in washes like a watercolor; it shows a nude standing at the edge of a pool of water that reflects a landscape beyond the viewer's sight. Perhaps a metaphor for another realm or order of meaning lying beyond the physical world, the painting also refers to the power of nature to restore harmony.
It is hard to say why Alvarez did not show Dream of Youth (p. 108), the symbolist "decoration" that she considered to be her most accomplished modernist attempt to date. She included her earlier Self-Portrait (p. 101), the bravura color painting reflecting her studies with Macdonald-Wright. Alvarez was focusing on a series of still lifes in her studio at the time of this exhibition; they were tabletop arrangements of flowers in vases. In Flowers, she placed the vase within a small enclosure, arranging the drapery in a seemingly haphazard manner but orchestrating the whole for maximum harmony. Alvarez created a lush but controlled composition, setting the high-keyed colors of the flowers against the muted, quiet tones of the drapery. The surface of the painting is lively and seems to pulse with life.
Still life was a popular genre for the Group of Eight, as it provided an opportunity to explore the potential of paint and modernist experimentation. Luvena Vysekal, who exhibited The Aesthete (p. 110), was also focused on still-life painting in the 1920s. Her Floral Still Life is a close-up, precisionist study of intense and vibrant yellow, orange, pink, and white flowers arranged in a green glass vase set on top of a deep-blue tablecloth. Like others of the Group of Eight, the artist was an advanced colorist and a modernist composer of rhythmic form and space.
Schuster, who was described by Luvena Vysekal as "emitting an effulgence of exuberance that exhausts the onlooker," had studied with Edmund Tarbell and William Merritt Chase; she was a competent figure painter in the impressionist manner. She also studied with Macdonald-Wright in the 1920s and experimented with more modernist trends. O'er Waiting Harp Strings, which was in the exhibition, expresses voluptuous rapture and longing, with an almost lurid juxtaposition of the complementary colors of yellow and violet. This bold painting, in which the color is orchestrated like music to evoke a certain response from the viewer, shows a young woman creating brilliant light effects overhead while plucking the strings of a harp. Schuster developed her color painting over the course of the 1920s, arriving at ever-more-unusual combinations and using long strokes of color to build up form, creating a rainbow effect, as in Stream in Yosemite.
Shrader, perhaps the most conventional painter of the group, included Summer Morning and The Window Seat in the exhibition. Common themes in Shrader's work were his family life and the casual, outdoor lifestyle of Southern California occasioned by the nearly year-round sunlight. Summer Morning (p. 120) is a tranquil, loosely painted, post-impressionistic rendering of the artist's wife surrounded by the bounty of nature. Shrader had studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago under John H. Vanderpoel and with the illustrator Howard Pyle, and he was a nationally recognized illustrator when he returned to Los Angeles in 1917. His modernism was an art of synthesis and transformation, showing he was adept at merging precubist modernism with the regional plein-air approach.
Before the museum show, the Group of Eight had started meeting again in August 1926, with Hinkle bringing some interesting ideas to the group for discussion. In October, Schuster invited them to a party at her new remote hilltop studio home at 2672 Glendower Avenue overlooking Griffith Park, with its "marvelous view, sparkling light." Galka Scheyer's Blue Four exhibition opened at the Los Angeles Museum, which caused "quite a discussion over the 4 moderns." Around this time, Alvarez was invited to the office of architect Wallace Neff to talk about her designs for interiors; Neff told her he would discuss her ideas with Douglas Fairbanks. In November the Riches threw a party for Preston Harrison when he got back from a European buying spree, during which he secured fifty works on paper by European moderns for the Los Angeles Museum. In June 1927, the group began selecting and preparing their work for the exhibition, delivering it to the museum on July 19. On August 20, Alvarez had this to say about the opening: "Reception for Group of Eight...Pretty tired after it. Hinkle and Riches to supper. Showed Clarence my last little still lifes etc. Said I had something all my own -- no one else could paint that way & to hang onto it." The next day the Riches had Alvarez, the Hinkles, Shraders, and De Kruifs over for dinner. A few days later, Alvarez drove the Riches to Laguna in her Packard, where they juried an exhibition at the Laguna Beach Art Association.
In October 1928 the Group of Eight showed for the last time. Millier's review of the exhibition indicates that the group may have taken their experimentation to a new level; he stated that the "studio problems of aesthetics come somewhat between spectator and artist." They exhibited their work in the new galleries of the California Art Club. Aline Barnsdall had donated her home to the city of Los Angeles for the use of the club for fifteen years. It had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, with Rudolph Schindler as the supervising architect, and it had opened to the public in August 1927. The hope was that Hollyhock House would essentially be the "museum of contemporary art" for the artists of Los Angeles. The artists of the Group of Eight, all of whom (with the exception of De Kruif) were either officers or committee members of the club at the time, were instrumental in making it happen. With the opening of the institution in the modernist building, the California Art Club became a hotbed of modernist activity and the cultural center of Los Angeles; soon Richard Neutra and Franz K. Ferenz would also become active members.
In November, the club honored brothers Willard Huntington Wright and Stanton Macdonald-Wright at its annual dinner. Huntington Wright spoke about regional art, saying that California was the ideal place for the "mating of East and West." By the late 1920s, modern art in Los Angeles, as in other parts of the country, had in many ways won the fight -- although tremendous skirmishes would break out over the course of the 1930s. One senses that art was taking an in-breath, getting ready for a new direction.
By 1927, collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg and Galka Scheyer were resident in the city, and Jake Zeitlin had opened his first bookshop and gallery, At the Sign of the Grasshopper, at Hope Street near 6th. There was a growing interest in Los Angeles in modernist architecture and design, and at the Los Angeles Academy of Modern Art in Hollywood, Neutra was teaching architecture, and Feitelson, who had recently moved to Los Angeles, was teaching painting. The post-surrealism of Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg was on the horizon. So were the federal art projects and American Scene painting, which early on would reflect a complex mix of influences drawing upon the art of Henri and The Eight as well as Far Eastern art and philosophy. This younger group of regionally bred artists benefited from the teachings of members of the Group of Eight at Otis Art Institute, the Art Students League, and Chouinard, many under the tutelage of Hinkle. They attained exceptional skills in draftsmanship and modernist composition, design, and color. It was the talent of the younger generation in Los Angeles that gave birth to an entirely new art expression -- the animated film. Phil Dike, one of Hinkle's students at Chouinard, taught advanced drawing and composition to animators and became Disney's first color coordinator in 1935, the year the first animated cartoon was made in Technicolor. Dike spoke highly of Hinkle, later recalling, "We all think of him as a particularly gentle and elegant person, elegant painter and it's our feeling that he will be recorded one day as one of the outstanding California painters."
This brief study of the Group of Eight and their milieu is but an introduction to artists who are remembered for their boldness of color, their superior draftsmanship and design, their concern for essential form, and their ability to turn pigment into idea. To provide a fuller picture of the group, more work needs to be done on the individual artists and the development of their art. Their collective and individual histories have been obscured for long enough that little information about them is readily available. The Depression era of the 1930s and its wholly different focus -- a questioning of the relationship of art and the individual to the surrounding social and political context -- provided something of an historical rupture as well. As the twentieth century unfolded, the Los Angeles art world became increasingly authoritative, effectively marginalizing and obscuring the work of these early modernists and women artists in general. The growth of legitimizing institutions, galleries, and critics in Los Angeles did not necessarily mean that art became more independent and inclusive.
The opening of the California Art Club building at Barnsdall Park in 1927 signaled the canonization of an era that was swiftly coming to a close. As more research is done on the 1920s, a clearer picture will be drawn of this vibrant and pivotal decade that may have been the first "golden age" for Los Angeles art. This was a time of intense experimentation and interaction between various artistic and intellectual groups. There was a general sense of fascination for the new and of freedom from constraint. Most important, perhaps, it was a time when artists in Los Angeles were self-consciously forging a dynamic art community and a new art, not for any gain but just for the sheer joy of the adventure.
The modernist endeavor in Los Angeles during the 1920s was not an obstacle race in a vacuum, as it is often portrayed. Artists were far less isolated than has been assumed, and they had close contact with currents elsewhere. Although critics may have written about the art scene until around 1925 as a struggle between progressive and conservative camps, there was plenty else going on outside their limited field of vision. This study has only revealed the tip of the iceberg. There was indeed a striking conflict between the ambitions of regional artists and their possibilities for earning a living. This did contribute to a schism and competition between the modernists and the traditional painters of landscapes. As the conventional story goes, serious and seditious, regional modernists, led by Macdonald-Wright, were eager to distance themselves from conventional impressionism and the male-dominated California Art Club because of its associations with tourist art and its market-driven ethos. One senses that by the early 1920s, however, the Group of Eight, at least, couldn't be bothered with the distinction between modernist and conservative. Their bohemianism caused them to conduct their lives largely outside the domain of society's rules, freeing them to explore and create at will. They valued personal experience and individual expression over commercial success. Artistic and intellectual circles in Los Angeles overlapped, with artists of varying persuasions exhibiting together and supporting each other in a fluid atmosphere that was conducive to experimentation. Like the inimitable Gjura Stojana, the Group of Eight was essential to forging a bridge between groups in the region.
We do know a few other things about the Group of Eight and about regional art during the 1920s as a result of this study. The Group of Eight was the longest-lived artist group with an exhibiting affiliation in Los Angeles during the 1920s. The artists won acceptance and acclaim in both conservative and modernist circles because of their command of advanced painting techniques and draftsmanship, while at the same time exploring the potential of modernist color and form. They addressed some of the crucial issues facing developing modern society in their art, and they spoke to some of the pressing issues that were revolutionizing art in America. This was a period in U.S. history when traditional certainties, boundaries, and identities were called into question. The rich intellectual and bohemian life of the Group of Eight lent the artists the aesthetic sensibility and freedom to revel in a search for self during an era in which ideas about identity were changing radically.
The idea that communion with nature could restore humankind was a nationwide direction for art and culture that was particularly salient in Southern California. Although nature was a strong presence in the art of the Group of Eight, it was filtered through a sense of self. The artists focused on the restoration of the human spirit mainly through portraiture, figure painting, genre scenes, and still lifes. However, rather than aspiring to portraits and figurative images that laid bare the souls of their subjects, the Group of Eight created iconic images that were a careful balance between openness and inaccessibility, liberation and restraint. Their art metaphorically expressed the dualities of restoration and encroachment, self-definition and conformity, mirroring both the gains and losses of their generation. They observed a careful balance between subjectivity and objectivity.
Innovative experimentation and fluidity of style were the rule for the Group of Eight, who individually had the sense that they were always on the threshold of something new. In the fulfillment of their modernist endeavor, they had many important allies, but the first was Henri, who was something of a regional patron saint as well as a national catalyst in the development of American realist modernism. Second was Macdonald-Wright, one of the leading international modernist thinkers of the era, who awakened regional artists to more advanced forms of modernism and contributed to the analytical and emotional use of color in the region. The artists' bohemianism and exchange across artistic circles contributed to a plethora of styles in Los Angeles, to syntheses or juxtapositions that did not necessarily exist in other places and so have been difficult to recognize and define.
The Group of Eight saw themselves as participating in and contributing to an international modernist project, establishing an important new art with a modern spirit. As Arthur Millier, writing in the Los Angeles Times, foresaw: "While the art productions of our own day are often puzzling to us, so great is their diversity of style, it is highly probable that they will hold an interest for future generations unparalleled among the art epochs of history, for they express the crucial years of the greatest change in conditions the race has ever experienced." The Group of Eight's enduring contribution to American modernism is their visual celebration of the burgeoning bohemian life they found around them and their belief in the future of Los Angeles art.
1. There is conflicting information about Stojana's birth date, birthplace, the nationality of his parents, and his place of entry to the United States. One of his passport applications, that for November 20, 1916, states that he was born in Ulmer, Austrus, on April 2, 1885, and was a Slav by birth. He emigrated from Naples, Italy, to New York in 1903 and was naturalized in San Francisco in 1913. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.; Passport Applications January 2, 1906-March 31, 1925; Collection Number: ARC Identifier 583830/MLR Number A1 534; NARA Series: M1490; Roll 1713. However, the information is slightly different on other passport applications, ship manifests, census records, etc., information that was provided by Stojana himself. His close friend Annita Delano had this to say about Stojana: "He was a Gypsy from Roumania that I knew, or from one of those Balkan states, and a very creative person." "Southwest Artist and Educator, Annita Delano," Transcript of oral history with James V. Mink, completed under the auspices of the Oral History Program, UCLA, 1976, vol. 1, p. 388.
2. Beth Gates Warren, Artful Lives: Edward Weston, Margrethe Mather, and the Bohemians of Los Angeles (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011), 216. Stojana, who may have gone to Hawaii with his wife Elizabeth Stanson as early as 1918, returned from there on the SS Manoa in 1920, according to a ship manifest. National Archives and Records Administration, A3510:30. The 1920 census listed his place of residence as Honolulu, Hawaii, with his birthplace as France, along with that of his parents. His race was listed as "Octoroon." 1920 U.S. Federal Census, Koolaupoko, Honolulu, Hawaii Territory, Roll: T625-2035; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 143; Image: 424.
3. This is how Elizabeth Kennedy has described The Eight, and it seems a very apt description for the Group of Eight as well. Elizabeth Kennedy, "The Eight: Modern Art of One Kind and Another," in The Eight and American Modernisms, ed. Kennedy (Chicago: Terra Foundation for American Art, 2009), 13.
4. Antony Anderson, "Art Club Elects," Los Angeles Times, December 5, 1921, p. 17. Hinkle and Luvena Vysekal were also members of the California Art Club but were not elected to the board or on the jury of selection.
5. However, it is clear that Alvarez at least had the greatest respect for Hinkle and looked to him as a mentor of sorts. The other artists she held in high esteem during the 1920s were Stojana, Helena Dunlap, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright.
6. Will South, "The Art Students League of Los Angeles: A Brief History," in South, Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, and Julia Armstrong-Totten, A Seed of Modernism: The Art Students League of Los Angeles, 19061953 (Pasadena, Calif.: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2008), 3.
7. Antony Anderson, "Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, September 20, 1914, pt. III, p. 5; Virginia Woods, "Society: To Compliment Celebrated Artist," Los Angeles Times, September 15, 1922, pt. II, p. 8; "Master Portrait Painter Vacations in Southland," Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1925, p. 8. For more on early modernism in Los Angeles, see Susan M. Anderson, California Progressives, 19101930 (Newport Beach, Calif.: Orange County Museum of Art, 1996); and Sarah Vure, Circles of Influence: Impressionism to Modernism in Southern California Art, 19101930 (Newport Beach, Calif.: Orange County Museum of Art, 2000). Vure offers a thorough study of Henri's influence in the region.
8. Clarence Hinkle, 1880-1960, a Memorial Exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, exh. cat. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1960), n.p.
9. Teresa A. Carbone, "Body Language: Liberation and Restraint in Twenties Figuration," in Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties, ed. Carbone (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2011), 16.
10. Luvena Vysekal, however, was born in 1873.
11. Marian Wardle, "Thoroughly Modern: The 'New Women' Art Students of Robert Henri," in American Women Modernists: The Legacy of Robert Henri, 1910-1945, ed. Wardle (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, 2005), 1.
12. Weston and Mather cosigned the photographs, all dated 1921. See Beth Gates Warren, Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston: A Passionate Collaboration (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 2001), 28.
13. The photographs are in the collections of the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
14. Warren, Artful Lives, 285-88.
15. Nancy Newhall, ed., The Daybooks of Edward Weston, Vol. I, Mexico (New York: George Eastman House, 1961), 10.
16. Warren, Artful Lives, 258-59.
17. Patricia Albers, Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 6465. Hinkle most likely lived alone at this residence for a year or so before marrying Mabel in 1921.
18. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, May 20, 1923, sec. III, p. 19.
19. Mabel Alvarez papers, 18981987. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Diary Entries May 13-23, 1923; May 27, 1923:microfilm roll 8/266. Numerous times throughout the diary, Alvarez mentions Dunlap, who often gave her advice about the trajectory of her career, and more than once invited Alvarez to travel with her. Alvarez, Diaries: March 22, 1922:8/202.
20. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, March 21, 1926, p. 37; see also unmarked clipping in Hinkle scrapbook, "Points of View on American Show."
21. Margarita Nieto, "The Mexican Presence in the United States, Part I," Latin American Art (Fall 1990): 30-31.
22. Alvarez, Diaries: March 19, 1922:8/201; March 26, 1922:8/203; August 15, 1922:8/240; January 18, 1925:8/465.
23. Ibid., May 24, 1925:8/492.
24. Ibid., August 16, 1925:8/511.
25. Ibid., October 4-5, 1925:8/522.
26. There was most likely exchange between Shrader and others at Otis with the Schindler circle far earlier than this. Karl Howenstein, who was well versed in art and psychoanalysis, was the managing director of Otis for a brief time in the early 1920s while Shrader was dean. Howenstein lived in Schindler's guest house and was a close friend. For more on Schindler and his Kings Road salon, see Robert Sweeney, "Life at Kings Road: As It Was, 1920-1940," in The Architecture of R. M. Schindler, ed. Elizabeth A. T. Smith and Michael Darling (Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 2001). Also see the Otis Art Institute archives at http://www.otis.edu/life_otis/library/collections_online/otis_history.html; and Conrad Buff, interview by Elizabeth J. Dixon, 1964, Oral History Program, UCLA, 122-24.
27. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, "An Open Letter from a Modernist," Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1925, p. 35.
28. Weston, Daybooks, June 3, 1925, p. 120 (letter to Tina Modotti).
29. "Southwest Artist and Educator, Annita Delano," vol. 1, pp. 388, 514; Margaret Leslie Davis, Bullocks Wilshire (Los Angeles: Balcony Press, 1996), 55-56.
30. Alvarez, Diaries/Journal, February 26, 1925:8/388. Alvarez was seemingly influenced by the work of Stojana in taking this new direction toward muralism and design for architectural spaces.
31. Richard Cándida Smith, Utopia and Dissent: Art, Poetry, and Politics in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 59.
32. For a succinct discussion of the development of Los Angeles during the 1920s, see Kevin Starr, "Los Angeles 1900-1930: The Great Gatsby of American Cities," in Vure, Circles of Influence, 9-24.
33. For a discussion of the history of gay culture and bohemianism in Los Angeles, see Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
34. Carbone, Youth and Beauty, 26, 29. Carbone acknowledges Christopher Wilk, "The Healthy Body Culture," in Designing a New World, 1914-1939, ed. Wilk (London: V&A Publications, 2006), 250-52.
35. Carbone, Youth and Beauty, 11.
36. Ibid., 13, 15. Alvarez, who was born in Hawaii and was an avid gardener, documented several paintings with flowered backgrounds in her diaries: "There is hardly anything as delicious as gardening on a beautiful morning. . . . There is a lifting of the spirit, a singing within." Alvarez, Diaries, March 1, 1922:8/381-82.
37. "Our Enemy, the Wrinkle," Vogue, January 1, 1921, p. 49; quoted in Carbone, Youth and Beauty, 95.
38. Carbone, Youth and Beauty, 16.
39. Ibid., 19.
40. This experimentation sometimes extended to homosexuality as well. Alvarez was very open-minded and had several gay friends. According to Glenn Bassett, a close friend of Alvarez and Trustee of the Alvarez Estate, she aided Morgan Russell, who was a cross-dresser, in the purchasing of his feminine undergarments. Glenn Bassett, "Mabel Alvarez (18911985): A Personal Memory," http://www.mabelalvarez.com/about/bassett.htm.
41. Carbone, Youth and Beauty, 29.
42. Will South, Mabel Alvarez: A Retrospective (Newport Beach, Calif.: Orange County Museum of Art, 1999), 6.
43. Luvena Vysekal, "Counterfeit Presentment XII," Los Angeles Times, September 17, 1922, sec. III, p. 28; quoted in Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, Love Never Fails: The Art of Edouard and Luvena Vysekal (Pasadena, Calif.: Pasadena Museum of California Art, 2011), 55.
44. Vure, Circles of Influence, 86.
45. Alvarez, Diaries: February 2, 1922:8/191.
46. California awarded women the vote in 1911, nine years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
47. Wardle, Thoroughly Modern, 14.
48. The California Art Club began to lose its dominance over the art scene and the Los Angeles Museum in 1920, with the inauguration of the first annual exhibition of the Painters and Sculptors of Southern California.
49. More work needs to be done on the career trajectories of the individual artists of the Group of Eight before definitive statements can be made about their contributions to the development of modernism in Los Angeles. Until then, their work can best be described as modernist realism.
50. Arthur Millier, preface to Edward Vysekal Memorial Exhibition (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science, and Art, 1940), n.p.
51. Stanton Macdonald-Wright, "A Treatise on Color," in Stanton Macdonald-Wright (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Press, 1967), 25.
52. Millier, Edward Vysekal Memorial Exhibition, n.p.
53. For an excellent discussion of Macdonald-Wright's legacy in Southern California, see Julia Armstrong-Totten, "The Legacy of the Art Students League: Defining This Unique Art Center in Pre-War Los Angeles," in South, Yoshiki-Kovinick, and Armstrong-Totten, A Seed of Modernism, 3351.
54. Macdonald-Wright had been raised in Santa Monica from age ten. After establishing himself in Paris in 1913, at age twenty-three, as a pioneer of modern art, he returned to Los Angeles in 1918. For the most complete discussion of the artist, see Will South, Color, Myth, and Music: Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Synchromism (Raleigh, N.C.: North Carolina Museum of Art, 2001).
55. I did not find evidence to support Shrader's attendance at the lectures or other interaction with Macdonald-Wright. On De Kruif, see Marian Yoshiki-Kovinick, "Henri De Kruif (18821944), Painter and Printmaker," in South, Yoshiki-Kovinick, and Armstrong-Totten, A Seed of Modernism, 101.
56. Will South, "The Art Students League of Los Angeles: A Brief History," in ibid., 4.
57. The form the series took was inspired by Alvarez's interest in the modernism of Slinkard, Justema, and Stojana.
58. On Vysekal, see Yoshiki-Kovinick, Love Never Fails. Vysekal made several paintings in the early 1920s with titles that referred to Macdonald-Wright's color system, such as Brick Yard (Violet Major).
59. According to Janet Blake, Hinkle was also scheduled to teach at Chouinard when he returned from a trip to Europe and Canada in November 1931 and taught until 1935. See "Chouinard Art School Opens Soon," Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1931, p. C3.
60. Sarah Vure feels that Otis's imperative was a return to order following World War I, as evidenced in a statement Shrader made in 1923: "Our main desire is the molding of character and we feel that this aim can be accomplished through an inculcation of a sense of values in color and form and through the appreciation of beauty in its various transformations. In these days of stress and hurry I sometimes think that too little emphasis is laid on the necessity for 'good form' -- not only in the world of art, but in government, religion, industry and our social organizations." "Thousand Works of Art Shown in Three-Day Exhibit of Otis Art Institute Opening Friday," Monrovia News, June 13, 1923; quoted in Vure, Circles of Influence, 60.
61. Julia Armstrong-Totten believes that it was Edouard Vysekal who was responsible for the ready exchange of students between Otis Art Institute and the Art Students League.
62. Mary Jarrett, The Otis Story of Otis Art Institute since 1918 (Los Angeles: Alumni Association of Otis Art Institute, 1975), 9; Yoshiki-Kovinick, Love Never Fails, 43.
63. Edouard Vysekal, "Fourth Anatomy Talk, Friday, October 27, 1927" at Otis Art Institute. I am very grateful to Jean Stern for lending me these lectures from his personal collection.
64. See Yoshiki-Kovinick, Love Never Fails, 5263, for a selection of the Benjamin Blue writings.
65. Luvena Vysekal, "Counterfeit Presentment XX," Los Angeles Times, November 12, 1922, sec. III, p. 20; quoted in Yoshiki-Kovinick, Love Never Fails, 55.
66. Arthur Millier, "Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1927, p. C28.
67. Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, in association with the National Portrait Gallery, 2010), 33. This excellent catalogue illustrates the differing ways that gay men have been viewed over time, showing how homosexuality has become increasingly politicized. The gay film star William Haines (1900-1973) was often referred to as "the Aesthete."
68. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1921, pt. III, p. 14.
69. Alvarez, Diaries: May 13, 1922:8/215.
70. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1922, pt. III, p. 23. For an image of the cover of the brochure, see Alvarez Papers, Smithsonian Institution, VIII, #5, 759.
71. Alvarez, Diaries: January 2226, 1922:8/18889; February 20, 1922:8/191.
72. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1922, pt. III, p. 23. The Group of Eight also exhibited in March 1922 in the Woman's Club, Pomona.
73. Alvarez, Diaries: September 6-December 7, 1922:8/244-64.
74. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1922.
75. Alvarez, Diaries: January 17 and 27, 1923:8/23639. It is difficult to say whether Hinkle and Dunlap frequented the lectures or just dropped in from time to time. Alvarez's diary entries throughout the 1920s show that Macdonald-Wright was clearly a supporter of Alvarez's, who was a devoted student and attended his classes over several years.
76. Beginning at least as early as December 1921, Shrader, Schuster, Rich, Alvarez, Edouard Vysekal, and De Kruif were officers and chairs of committees of the California Art Club.
77. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, April 12, 1925, p. 34.
78. Ibid., October 4, 1925, p. 35.
79. Arthur Millier, "Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1927, p. C28.
80. Alvarez began to note Hinkle's use of this "gray" background beginning in 1925 and also started to experiment with it herself. Alvarez, Diaries: August 6, 1925:8/508. According to a biography written for the Blue Coyote Gallery on http://www.askart.com by Philip Jones, great nephew to Harold Buck Weaver (18891961), he was born in England and worked his way around the world as a jockey, sailor, gunslinger, and broncobuster. He lived in San Francisco (possibly during the same time as Hinkle) and various other places, including in the desert with the Hopi and Navajo, and in Laguna Beach.
81. More study needs to be done of the consequences to Los Angeles art following Galka Scheyer's Blue Four exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum in 1926. For instance, it may have contributed to an undertone of melancholy or "edge" to Hinkle's art of the later 1920s, when his paintings became evermore an expression of a state of mind.
82. Antony Anderson, "Of Art and Artists," Los Angeles Times, December 10, 1922.
83. Luvena Vysekal, "Counterfeit Presentment," Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1922.
84. It is documented that Schuster studied with Macdonald-Wright from 1928 to 1930 in Leonard R. de Grassi, Donna Norine Schuster, 18831953 (Downey, Calif.: Downey Museum of Art, 1977), n.p. However, she most likely studied with him earlier, as evidenced by her work of the early 1920s. Armstrong-Totten believes it was prior to 1923.
85. On Shrader, see Janet Blake and Phil Kovinick, The Art and Life of E. Roscoe Shrader (Los Angeles: George Stern Fine Arts, 2010).
86. Alvarez, Diaries: August 8, 1926:8/511; October 5, 1926:8/525; October 10, 1926:5/827; November 14, 1926:8/535; June 22, 1927:8/595; July 19, 1927:8/602; August 20, 1927:8/610; August 25, 1927:8/611.
87. Arthur Millier, "Art and Artists: Group Exhibits at Art Club, 'The Eight,' Showing Their Paintings Together Over Period of Years, Maintain Adventurous Reputation in Present Display," Los Angeles Times, October 21, 1928, p. B17. The Group of Eight also exhibited in January 1928 at Bullock's, Los Angeles.
88. As officers of the club and teachers at Otis, Edouard Vysekal and Shrader in particular were tremendous advocates for the development of the art community in Southern California. Alvarez, too, was actively involved in the building fund campaign to create a new exhibition opportunity for artists in Los Angeles, which resulted in Aline Barnsdall's donating her home.
89. Alvarez, Diaries, November 15, 1928:8/632.
90. It was in the 1930s, perhaps, that the lines were drawn between artist groups in Los Angeles.
91. See Susan M. Anderson, "California Holiday: Regional Culture and the Natural Environment in Southern California, 1930-1945," in California Holiday: The E. Gene Crain Collection (Laguna Beach, Calif.: Laguna Art Museum, 2002).
92. Oral history with Phil Dike, June 9, 1965, conducted by Betty Hoag for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
93. See Smith, Utopia and Dissent, for an excellent discussion of the emergence of modernism in California.
94. Arthur Millier, "Art and Artists: A Los Angeles Collection,"
Los Angeles Times, January 29, 1928, p. C8.
About the author
Susan M. Anderson is guest curator for Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight.
Resource Library editor's note:
To view Resource Library's article for the exhibitions please click here.
Resource Library readers may also enjoy California Art History.
For further biographical information on artists mentioned in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on June 23, 2012 with permission of the Laguna Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on June 20, 2012.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Marni Farmer, Director of Communications, Laguna Art Museum for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
More from Resource Library:
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