Drawing the Line Art: Charcoal Club digs in its heels and its easels against the abstract, modernist movement. It sketches what it sees, or it sketches nothing at all.

November 07, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

If you think abstract and realistic artists regard each other as brothers under the skin, just different folks with different brush strokes, think again. Better yet, visit the Charcoal Club's weekly life drawing sessions. For only $5 you can spend three hours drawing a live, nude model.

But if you are inclined to draw the young woman in such a way that both eyes wind up on the same side of her head, or in a burst of creative expression supply her with toes that look like piano keys, you will put your fellow sketchers out of sorts.

For this is an art club -- the second oldest in the United States -- that "eschews the abstract," as one member puts it. Always has.

How deep does this divide plunge?

Consider this: On Sept. 16, 1995, about 20 Baltimore artists were burned out by a fire that gutted the Clipper Industrial Park. The artists, many of whom do abstract work, asked around for help to get back to work again. When the solicitation arrived at the headquarters of the Charcoal Club nearby, Bill Wilson, watercolorist and club president for over 20 years, read it out to the members. He recalls their response:

" 'To hell with 'em!' they said. 'Don't give 'em nothin'!"

The Charcoal Club's war against the modern has endured since the "modern" -- that is, the abstract, non-representational, or what was once avant-garde -- made its explosive appearance in this country. That was in 1913, with the spectacular Armory Show in New York. It introduced works by Matisse and Duchamp, Cubist artists and Dadaists, virtually every strain of new European art of the times. Paroxysms of outrage seized the traditionalists, including members of the Charcoal Club.

In 1913, the club had already been in existence 30 years. It was founded in 1883 by a group of artists who wanted to draw from live nude models, as they did then in Paris, a place and state of mind very far removed from Baltimore.

Through the decades the Charcoal Club resisted the advance of the abstract with bitterness and disdain. Ridicule and humor have also been tried, especially through the character of I.L. Glutz.

Glutz, once described as "the man who founded modern art and wished he hadn't," is one of the Charcoal Club's many legends. He sprang from the imagination of Lawrence Sagle in the 1930s and became the club's favored foil against all friends of the abstract.

Never seen in the flesh, Glutz was supposedly an elusive, Baltimore-born genius who worked in the style of Braque and/or Picasso, more or less. He knew all the avant-garde artists, and once made a brush for Matisse out of his own chest hair. Glutz paintings were discovered mysteriously once or twice a year, usually in attics or alleys around Baltimore. They were sold at Charcoal Club art shows, sometimes for as much as $3.

Glutz, the story goes, began his career painting signs for delicatessens. Thus, most of his work involved food, paintings such as "Red Mullets in Love" and "Self With Two Hot Dogs."

Asked whatever happened to the Great Glutz, Wilson, his face as straight as he could keep it, says: "He died in Paris. He starved to death. He was too dedicated to eat the peaches and pears of the still-life he was painting. They found him after a while. There was a smell."

A drawing session

It's Thursday night and about 20 club members and paying guests are bent to their work at the Meadow Mill Center in Woodberry. The music of George Gershwin rolls pleasantly through the gray-walled studio. The only other sound perceptible is the scratch scratch of pencil on paper. The artists are deployed in a crescent, so that each one has a different perspective of the naked young woman striking a pose that will last only 10 minutes.

A few sculpture students have come in and set up their little platforms. They work with a seeming desperate speed to knead and push their clay into a form resembling that of the model before Jerry Doyle's alarm clock goes off.

Doyle, 68, is the club treasurer. He prepares the capacious studio for the weekly life sessions, arranging the tables, turning up the heat for the model of the evening. A former art teacher in the city schools, he runs a life class at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and draws a live model three times a week. He thinks it is the essential exercise in art.

"If you can draw the human figure you can draw anything," he says. If you can't draw, he believes, you can't paint.

Wilson, 69, a retired advertising executive, has positioned himself directly opposite the model. He is a morose-looking fellow with curly gray hair and beard and a subterranean sense of humor. He betrays no disagreement with his colleagues' mean refusal to help the Clipper Industrial Park abstractionists. Yet he does seem more flexible on the matter of non-representational art than some other club members.

"Some people can put splats of color side by side on a canvas in a pleasing manner," he admits. "Some people who can't really draw can paint well."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.