Art of the State

A Baltimore Museum of Art exhibit catches up with the works of some familiar and some not-so-familiar Maryland artists from the post-Impressionist era forward.

May 01, 2002|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Throughout the art world, the period from roughly the turn of the last century to the 1970s was a period of uncertainty and confusion, when traditional standards were being challenged and institutions were not always able to keep up with the rapid pace of developments - a situation, in short, not so different from that of today.

Maryland artists, as a new exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of art demonstrates, were not immune to these upheavals. In response, they contributed a rich legacy to their state and region, adopting the lessons of modernism to describe the rapidly changing world around them and the daily life of its people.

That legacy is currently the subject of the charming new exhibition at the BMA: Maryland Artists from the Collection, 1890-1970.

The show highlights works by more than a dozen Maryland artists spanning the period from post-Impressionism to the modern era. The list includes relatively familiar names such as Eugene Leake, Herman Maril, R. McGill Mackall, Jacob Glushakow and Amalie Rothschild as well as lesser-known figures such as Grace Turnbull, Charles H. Walther, Edward Rosenfeld and Alice Worthington Ball.

As a group, these artists suggest the many styles and approaches that characterized Maryland art during the period.

Some, such as Glushakow and Rosenfeld, painted the urban scene in the realistic style of George Bellows and Edward Hopper, capturing the heady freedom and lonely alienation of city life. By contrast, Alice Worthington Ball's The Sunny Side of the Street is an impressionistic study of light and color that endows the city with a magical intimacy.

Clark S. Marshall, S. Edwin Whiteman and Mackall (who also painted large murals in a realist style) were inspired by the region's rural landscapes, which they painted in a late Impressionist style modified to suit American sensibilities. Others, such as Leake and Maril, recorded their personal, emotional responses to nature in broad expressionistic swaths of color.

This show suggests that to the degree they had access to view modernist styles, Maryland artists were enthusiastic experimenters who eagerly embraced the new techniques and modern vision. Many of them had studied in Paris and New York before arriving in Maryland to take up their careers, and they brought with them an appreciation of the momentous changes that were transforming the art world of their era.

Not always welcome

Their innovations, however, were not universally welcomed. In the late 1930s, Walther was dismissed from the faculty of the Maryland Institute College of Art for his ardent embrace of nonobjective art.

Walther's Reversible Composition (1938-39), one of two works by the artist in the show, shows the influence of the Italian Futurists and the Russian Constructivists, as well as Klee's famous Twittering Machine (1922). Though Walther's composition was painted decades after the style first emerged, it was considered dangerously radical in Depression-era Baltimore.

Walther eventually became so frustrated with the conservatism of the institute that he founded the Society of Baltimore Independent Artists, which held its own nonjuried exhibitions for artists interested in modernist approaches.

Yet other Maryland artists thrived on the support provided by the school and the museum. Indeed, one fascinating aspect of this show is the role played by the Maryland Institute (and the BMA) in the evolution of Maryland art during this period. Almost all the artists in the show were at some time either students or faculty members at the school, and a number of them also served on the museum's board or on important museum committees.

Leake and Mackall had distinguished careers as educators at MICA. Leake served as president from 1961 to 1974, and Mackall was head of the fine arts department there. (Mackall also founded the fine arts department at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland).

Amalie Rothschild was a graduate of MICA and a trustee of the BMA; Maril also served as a trustee, as did Thomas Cromwell Corner, a celebrated local portrait painter of the first half of the 20th century who is represented in the show by a large, affectionate portrait of his father that reveals the artist's indebtedness to Whistler.

A microcosm

These institutional relationships suggest a fertile creative tension between Maryland artists and the institutions that supported them. Some of that tension was probably bound to exist between the conservatism of the academy and the younger artists' enthusiasm for the new.

Yet in retrospect it is also probably true that the situation in Maryland was not different from what had happened elsewhere (if MICA in the 1920s was like the old French salon, then the Society of Baltimore Independent Artists was an evolution of the Salon de Refuses). Such parallels are interesting because they suggest that the evolution of 20th-century art in Maryland recapitulated in microcosm the course of modern art elsewhere.

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