The Art Of Resistance

At its Lafayette Street art school, the Schuler family passes on its unshakable belief in the classical tradition.

April 16, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

In sculpture class, the art students stand in front of wooden pedestals delicately molding the features of human faces in wet clay.

The busts are remarkably lifelike. Two eyes, a nose and a mouth -- all where they should be -- and expressions that make the faces look like real people, not department-store dummies.

Clear north light streams down from huge skylights. Below, the students work under the patient tutelage of an instructor who offers quiet advice and encouragement as he strides across the studio floor inspecting their work.

It is a scene out of time, as if the atelier of some 17th-century Dutch master and his apprentices had been magically transported to metropolitan Baltimore. And in a way, that is what it is.

Welcome to the Schuler School of Fine Arts, where the traditions of the old masters are carried on as they were centuries ago, with barely a nod to fashion or the triumph of 20th-century modernism.

"This is a school where we all think the same," says Ann Didusch Schuler, who founded the school with her husband, Hans Schuler Jr., more than 40 years ago.

Before that, the couple had taught for many years at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where Hans Schuler Jr.'s father, Hans Schuler Sr., also had taught and served as director from 1925 to 1951.

The Schulers prided themselves on being from a long line of German artists and artisans spanning at least six generations in Europe and the United States. Ann's family, the Didusches, also had an illustrious history as artists in Germany.

But by the late 1950s, fashions in art and art education were changing. The formal traditions in which the Schulers had been trained -- drawing, anatomy, perspective -- increasingly were called into question by a younger generation enthralled by modernist abstraction.

"We were just heartbroken to see it all go," Ann Schuler recalled. "They only wanted us to work with the abstract, not with the tradition we had been trained in. So we decided to start our own school."

All in the family

Schuler and her husband wanted to continue to train students in the tradition that had been handed down by their forebears. They started in 1959 in a house that had once served as Hans Schuler Sr.'s studio, at 5 E. Lafayette St. The elder Schuler built it in 1906, and in 1912 he built a house adjoining the studio for his family home. The first Schuler School students attended classes in those buildings, and the school has remained in the Lafayette Street location ever since.

Today Ann Schuler, 82, is the white-haired doyenne of the classical-realist style in Baltimore and head of an unusual art school that is still very much a family affair.

Though Hans Schuler Jr., a painter and sculptor, died last year, the couple's daughter, Francesca Schuler Guerin, 49, teaches sculpture at the school; their grandson, Andrew Schuler Guerin, 25, teaches painting; and Schuler's nephew, Frederic "Fritz" Schuler Briggs, 63, teaches drawing and watercolor.

The work of all Schuler artists is regularly exhibited in Baltimore. The family's next big show will be this summer, when the school presents its annual student-faculty exhibition on June 4. In past shows Ann Schuler has contributed still-life oil paintings in the style of the Dutch old masters, while daughter Francesca has exhibited portrait busts. Schuler's grandson Andrew has shown still lifes, portraits and trompe l'oeil oil paintings, while nephew Fritz weighs in with sensitive watercolor seascapes and harbor views.

None of the Schulers seems particularly concerned that his or her kind of art is out of step with the world of contemporary art museums, dealers and collectors.

"When you grow up in a family that's been in this kind of art for generations, it's just more what you like," says Francesca, who grew up in her parents' studio and was drawing and painting by the time she was 2. "A lot of it was just by osmosis."

And some Schulers think their brand of art may be making a comeback, despite the art market's century-long romance with abstraction.

"If you look at the art magazines, they're showing more realistic art these day," Andrew says. "In fact, many of our former students are doing very well. I don't think modern art is leaving, but representational art may well be coming back in vogue." Both Francesca and her son Andrew point to the record prices paid at auction last year for the classical-realist-style paintings collected by Baltimore's Haussner family.

"Just think that for thousands of years we've had representational art, and that for this tiny blip of time we've had abstract art," Francesca argues. "You have to wonder whether it will last. We're going to do what we're going to do. I never try to figure out what the market wants because that's useless."

"Anyone who wants to be an artist should have the basic skills," Ann Schuler says. "Having the basic skills gives you many more options, without which you are limited as to what you can do."

'All art is abstract'

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