Aaron Sopher, in his sketches, caught the city off guard

Jacques Kelly

February 01, 1991|By Jacques Kelly

One of Charles Street's past pleasures was the selection of Aaron Sopher drawings that so often appeared in the Purnell Art Gallery windows.

His quick sketches, as full of wit as they were brimming with humanity, seemed to catch Baltimore right at the home stretch. Sopher was everywhere, looking, laughing, drawing.

The artist (1905-1972) has been given a show at the Baltimore Museum of Art to coincide with a new history, "Aaron Sopher, Satirist of the American Condition," by Peter Hastings Falk. Some Sopher recognition is long overdue; perhaps we just took him for granted for too long. And Sopher was not the type to have employed a P.R. man.

And, from the 1930s until his death, Sopher gently sketched and caught the city off guard. He gloried in a busy late Saturday afternoon at the Belair Market fish stalls. A domestic argument on Greenmount Avenue, with a police wagon delaying a No. 8 streetcar, was prize subject matter. A 1950s drug store counter, with Coronet magazines, Dell books and banana splits, was just fine, too, provided all the seats were filled with patrons intent on sundaes, banana splits and grilled cheese sandwiches.

Aaron Sopher informed Baltimoreans they didn't look like the pages of "Country Gentlemen" or "Glamour." His people were the people you saw on the bus and at Howard and Lexington and in the line for confession at St. Alphonsus. They often were on the fat side and layered in unstylish clothes. But, if Sopher is satirizing Baltimore, you never want to smack him for his impudence. In fact, you wouldn't mind being the object of his pen.

Sopher predated John Waters in being fascinated with Baltimore hairdos. His 1940s matrons in the Pimlico grandstand are the stylistic grandmothers of Waters' beehived Francines.

Sopher once said, "Many people, jokingly, tell me they have always been afraid to meet me. They are afraid I will satirize them."

When Aaron Sopher went to Pimlico he forgot about the horses. He went to Pennsylvania Station and never got past its benches. At Memorial Stadium, there's no ball field. But, at each of these addresses, he's drawing people, fabulous people, constructed of squiggly, nervous lines. He worked fast. It looks effortless.

There's a 1930s sketch of a Chesapeake Bay excursion boat's deck, with napping day-trippers seated in rocking chairs, babies wailing away. In other sketches, a woman smokes a cigarette after lunch; a woman pushes a carriage down Fell Street; a gas lamp lights a teeming street scene in an old rowhouse neighborhood.

When Sopher went to the Civic Center for a cat show, he drew the felines' owners. If they just happened to resemble a Manx, well, he was merely holding the mirror up to nature.

I've often wondered where have all the Sopher drawings gone. The local art community never really seemed to fawn over him. The man seemed to turn them out so rapidly -- part of their charm. Obviously, some went to art collector Etta Cone, who bought 142 of them between 1937 and 1949. Her tastes ran to the more socially realistic.

"It is as natural for Sopher to draw as it is for another to talk," said Wilbur H. Hunter, former Peale Museum director and an early champion of the artist.

My only misgiving about the Baltimore Museum of Art show is that it left me wanting to see more and more Sopher drawings. An adjoining gallery, three times as large as the Sopher room, was filled with Rembrandt etchings. With due respect to the Dutch master, I'd rather some additional Aarons.

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