Aaron Sopher exhibition captures bygone Baltimore

January 10, 1991|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

Aaron Sopher took a caricaturist's delight in rendering scenes of Baltimore life in the thousands of drawings and watercolors he made during the middle decades of this century. But as well known as he was in his own lifetime, Sopher (1905-1972) is not a household name for most younger Baltimoreans. After all, the artist died eight years before Harborplace opened.

That's why the compact exhibit of Sopher's work at the Baltimore Museum of Art should prove of keen interest for those who remember and for those who just sort of wondered what life was like way back then.

Much of the Baltimore life Sopher chronicled in his quickly executed sketches no longer quite exists. Most nostalgic of all in this regard is "Evening" (ca. 1940s), a twilight view of an old-fashioned residential street that is brimming with activity: kids on roller skates, a woman scrubbing her marble steps lest anyone think her home less than immaculate, and a horse-drawn cart on a street with no automobiles. What's really striking about the picture is that these neighborly exchanges are taking place outdoors after dark under street-lamp light; today most residents would be more likely to huddle around TV sets watching reports of street crime on the evening news.

Also evoking a bygone Baltimore is "Department Store, #1" (ca. 1940s), which evokes the era when the Howard Street department stores offered everything from eye exams to watch repairs. Not to mention that this crowded store scene matter of factly depicts a degree of personalized customer service that has virtually disappeared from our mall landscape.

Like any good social satirist, Sopher knew where to find the most promising human gatherings. Several of his most delightful images were made at the very same Baltimore museum where the present exhibit hangs. In "Ninth Annual Maryland Show" (1941) there is, in a sense, both an art show on the wall and a human show passing in front of it, what with the top heavy matrons leading their businessman husbands past modern art they don't know what to make of. Likewise, in "Museum of Art #3" (1941), Sopher has fun showing a well-dressed crowd looking at paintings in which the female models have on absolutely no clothes.

Another social arena that kept his pen busy was the Pimlico race track. "At the Track No. 49" (ca. 1940s) features a couple of comfortably provided for Baltimore ladies immersed in betting activity. One woman wears a red hat that looks like a mutant floral growth, while the other wears a hat in which the feathers rise up like an angel's wings. There is a definite hardness to their facial features -- they've been around this track before -- and Sopher's audience also would have read moral comment into the fact that cigarettes are insolently jutting from these two feminine mouths. Although Sopher could, as here, be cutting with his commentary, as a rule he was not unkind. Certainly, his social vignettes are far gentler than the skewering that Daumier did of 19th century French society.

In much of his best work, including crowded scenes at the beach, Sopher relied on spare definitional lines for these ample bodied people. He felt no artistic need to unduly fill in with too much detail when a single deft line could define a double chin.

Sopher remained a constant witness of the changing times that hit with a blast in the post-War World II years, as in his rendering of '50s beatniks in a coffee shop. And in one of the later works, "End the War in Vietnam" (1967), which depicts a protest speaker addressing intent listeners, Sopher's illustrational skill brings a sense of dark foreboding to the scene.

"Aaron Sopher: Satirist of the American Condition" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Feb. 24. For more information, call 396-6310.

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