Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Place Under The Sun - Paintings of Walter Ufer & E. Martin Hennings at the DAM

How appropriate that the Denver Art Museum currently has an incredible exhibition showcasing the paintings of Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings.  This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Taos Society of Artists in which both these men were members along with other favorite artists of mine; Sharp, Blumenschein, Couse, Dunton and Higgins.  
German- American artists, Ufer and Hennings were life long friends.  Both were among the hundreds of foreign students who attended Munich art academies between 1910 and 1915.   They first met in Chicago as aspiring young painters.  After Munich, they established their careers in New Mexico.
When Chicago and New York critics first saw the works of the Taos artists, they criticized them as being unrealistic and overly exaggerated.  They were not aware of what the light and landscape were like in northern New Mexico with its vivid colors, brilliant blue sky, earthen adobe architecture and Pueblo and Hispanic cultures.
Their Audience by Ufer (1919) is the first painting that grabbed my attention when we went into the gallery.  Ufer painted in the alla prima style. Wet-on-wet or alla prima (Italian, meaning at first attempt) is a painting technique in which layers of wet paint are applied to previously administered layers of wet paint.  This technique forces the artist to work quickly.  It is interesting that Ufer did not make any sketches of his models first but rather put all his energy into the painting.     
I love the bold colors, the floral borders on the rebozas (shawls) and the gorgeous sky.     
Announcements by Hennings (1924).  He carefully planned his works by making several sketches, orchestrating its composition, the placement of color, the lighting...  Once completely designed, he goes to work on the canvas with his models.  Hennings painted in a German version of Art Noveau called Jugendstil, a style of art that is inspired by natural forms and structures in flowers, plants, trees and curved lines. Great bold colors against the late afternoon shadows on the mountain behind the men.  Hennings probably painted this as a response to the government's attempt to take over the Pueblo people's land and outlaw their ceremonies.
Ofreta para San Esquipula by Ufer (1916).  Soon after he arrived in Taos,  he began adding elements of the region's Indian and Hispanic culture into his landscapes. Above is the sanctuary of Chimayo, outside of Santa Fe.  The darker line where the adobe walls meet the earth makes the Sanctuary seems to have risen from the ground.
Her Daughter by Ufer (1917).    A portrait of the two women and the landscape shows great detail in their dress, the landscape and particularly the designs on the pots that the women carry on their heads, a bold statement that Ufer recognizes the pottery as works of art.  This is one of my favorites of his.
Going East by Ufer (1917).  This is one of the most important pieces that Ufer painted of a group of people making their annual pilgrimage to the sacred Blue Lake.  The sky is spectacular.  That afternoon lighting with the shadows really emphasizes a forward movement, a group on a mission to their pilgrimage.  Congress had just announced that they were declaring war on Germany.  This pilgrimage is symbolic of the US troops heading east to Europe.  In 1918, he later wrote, "Art is dead in Taos this year.  Nobody doing much. War is in the air."  Not only did the war effect his work, the Spanish Flu reached Taos that summer.
Hunger by Ufer (1919).  It was rare that Ufer would explain the symbolism in his art but he did for Hunger.  He wrote, "Has nothing to do with Indian life but means the world at large."  The title refers to the hunger caused by World War I, mentally, spiritually and physically.  This painting was awarded the first Altman prize at the National Academy of Design.
Luzanna and Her Sisters by Ufer (1920).  Being a plein air painter, this interior scene is very unusual.  Young sisters sitting in and around the window with a view through the window of the landscape with a wagon and horse.  Also, the wallpaper is very uncharacteristic of the area.  It's like looking through a peep hole into the life of these young girls.
Near the Waterhole by Ufer (1921).  I like the perspective that Ufer used in composing this painting, an elevated view with another figure that has a pot on her head in the lower right corner.  The way he painted the sand, rocks and sage brush makes them really come to life.
The Fiddler of Taos by Ufer (1921).  This fiddler with the one leg was well known to the Taos community.  The bold sky sets off the grim face of the fiddler as the two children peer over the wall.
Luncheon at Lone Locust by Ufer (1923).  He won his second Altman prize for this painting.  Interesting texture on the adobe wall with the shadows of the pergola.
Bob Abbott and His Assistant by Ufer (1935).   Ufer had diminished finances, a dependency on alcohol and emotional instability, his work began to suffer considerable. By 1924, his painting lacked the luster of his earlier works.   But in the winter of 1935, he did produce one of his greater works.  It is a sort of a self-portrait.  His car, like Ufer, had seen better days but with hope that it might run again. 
In New Mexico by Hennings (1917).  A conversation takes place with the woman in the doorway with the man on the far left, Frank Samora, his favorite model, handyman and honorary member of the Hennings's family.
By the Stream by Hennings (1917).  The riders and horses are set in a tranquil setting with the large cottonwood trees in the winter light.
A Friendly Encounter by Hennings (1922).  Magnificent Aspen trees are just glittering in the sun.
Through the Greesewood by Hennings (1922) is one of my favorites that truly captures the radiant landscape of New Mexico with the way the afternoon lighting illuminates the greesewood and how the mountain range has taken on a deep purple with the voluptuous winter sky above.  And then there are the Indians on their horses peacefully making their way through the brush.
The Twins by Hennings (1923).  He began painting local characters of the west, portraying them as larger-than-life figures.  Brothers Jake and George Baumgartner were a perfect example of "pioneers of the west".   This was a new direction that Hennings was taking in his paintings, a bolder less pastoral or romantic view of the southwest.
The Goat Herder by Hennings - 1925-1927.    The shapes of the goats are complimented by the rolling mountains behind them as the sheep herder looks on.  There is a certain softness and serenity to this scene.
Mexican Sheepherder by Hennings - 1925.  Magnificent use of back lighting with this large stature of a man with his shotgun cradled in his right arm.  His direct gaze seems to draw the viewer right into the painting.  
The Rabbit Hunt by Hennings (1925).  He selected a more modern group of men for his hunting scene, not hunters dressed in buckskin clothing bearing bows and arrows.    The rider is wearing a sweater and tie along with his traditional moccasins.  He preferred to portray contemporary life, not imagined scenes from the past.  Great composition from the Pinto's coloring, to the softness of the sagebrush to the striped blanket draped on the back of the one Indian.
The Rendezvous by Hennings - 1925.  Interesting on how the gnarly trees, nature, supersedes the Indian motif.  This particular painting reminds me of Ernest L Blumenschein's painting, Landscape with Indian Camp - 1920.  Both painting where the trees dominated the scene.
Walter Ufer and E. Martin Hennings in Paris, 1913.  
It is interesting that in this photo to see the woman in the background between the two men is dressed in a corseted outfit where the woman walking towards the men on Ufer's side is dressed in a loose fitting suit, an influence by Coco Chanel.  A sign of the times, things were changing.  Chanel was credited for liberating women from the constraints of the corseted silhouette and popularizing a sporty, casual chic attire. 

A Place Under the Sun is a magnificent exhibition!

A Place Under the Sun
Denver Art Museum
The exhibition ends on April 24, 2016.


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