An artist among the people

Alyssa Gabbay

January 08, 1991|By Alyssa Gabbay

LAST SUMMER, with some free time on my hands, I spent a few afternoons walking up and down Charles Street with a sketchbook and a pencil. As people caught my eye, I drew them. I sketched a homeless man named Junior at 34th Street. I sketched a couple of nurses on their lunch break outside of the Homewood Hospital Center. I sketched people walking their dogs in Wyman Park Dell. I tried, with every stroke, to capture the vitality I saw before me.

The late Aaron Sopher, a Baltimore satirist who is the subject of a retrospective opening today at the Baltimore Museum of Art, was a master of this difficult art. Over the 40-odd years of his career in Baltimore, Sopher drew thousands of city inhabitants at work and at play. Wielding a specially drew thousands of city inhabitants at work and at play. Wielding a specially made pen -- typically his only instrument -- he caught Baltimoreans as they did their laundry, bought groceries, placed bets at the Pimlico Race Course.

He did this without a trace of sentimentality. As author Peter Falk notes in his newly published book, "Aaron Sopher: Satirist of the American Condition," the artist "wore no rose-tinted glasses." Whether it was the second chin of a dowager or the greed in the eyes of a businessman, he portrayed what he saw with unflinching honesty.

Sopher's greatest challenge, indeed, would have been to depart from reality in his art. He once turned down a plum advertising job from a department store when the store officials requested that everyone in the ads be "pleasant and happy looking."

Often a harsh social critic, Sopher, the son of an East Baltimore tobacco shop owner, frequently depicted the insensitivity of the rich. One of the best examples of his social satire is a 1930s drawing showing a boisterous businessman walking past a man on crutches and another in rags. His head held high, a cigar thrust in his mouth, the businessman appears to have not a care in the world.

Art, ironically, was another favorite target for Sopher's piercing wit. Like many a social realist, Sopher believed that artists should try to portray every aspect of the world in their work -- the ugly as well as the beautiful. Consequently, artists such as Matisse, Mondrian and Kandinsky, who secluded themselves in their studios and painted only beautiful, idyllic visions, came under his fire.

"The world needs and is entitled to an artist's complete expression and not merely the expression of the charming corners of his mind," he once wrote.

He looked more favorably upon artists such as Picasso, Grosz and Masson -- artists who dealt with the unpleasant aspects of life. These artists, he wrote, were "great citizens of the world" in addition to being great artists.

Many of his drawings poke fun at museum goers who paid heed to the work of "ivory-tower painters," as he called them. In one typically satirical drawing, a puzzled-looking couple stands before a Mondrian-like painting in a museum. They appear to be studying the painting carefully in an effort to unlock its secrets -- but without much success. The drawing clearly implies that the painting is not worth the bother.

A diffident, quiet man, Sopher consistently rejected the concept of the artist as a godlike figure. As for his own career, he "had no lofty artistic aspirations," as Peter Falk reports in "Aaron Sopher." As a student at the Maryland Institute, Sopher cut classes to sketch people on buses and streetcars -- an action which cost him his diploma.

In later years, he shied away from the elite gallery scene, preferring to exhibit his work in restaurants, libraries or theaters where they could be seen by many. He even downplayed his art, saying once, "I think the last thing people need is a picture."

Despite these attitudes, Sopher enjoyed a great deal of success. Well-known Baltimore collector Etta Cone purchased more than 100 of his drawings and watercolors and compared him to the famous 18th century British caricaturist, Thomas Rowlandson.

Sopher's work won numerous prizes, but there's every indication he cared more for being among people, sketching them, then garnering prizes and recognition. He once wrote that when he drew, he was ". . . not yet part of the crowd. And still I am part of the crowd -- and in a way alone. It is something between the communal and the solitary or something of both." His method of drawing was perhaps a way of combating the loneliness inherent in being an artist.

His drawings teach us much about what it is to be an artist -- and a human being.

Alyssa Gabbay is a Baltimore writer and artist.


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