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If The Modern Spirit Moves You: The Legacy of the Group of Eight

The influential band of Los Angeles painters—and their ties to Laguna Beach—are part of a retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum.

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part review in which Laguna Beach Patch's Ryan Wirick takes a close look at the Laguna Art Museum's latest exhibitions. In this first segment, Wirick examines Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight. Next week, we'll post the second half, which focuses on Clarence Hinkle and Peter Bo Rappmund.

Additionally, clicking on the timing links in the story below will take you directly to the corresponding segments in a video Wirick produced. You can also view the video in full by clicking on the YouTube icon in the box on the right. -->

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You walk into California Gallery, and the vibrant colors already have you hooked. Perhaps, like me, the first thing you notice is The Herwigs (1928) on the opposite wall (@3:08 in the video), an oil on canvas by Edouard Antonin Vysekal, with its yellow undertone radiating through a scene that defies the rational mind. The fact that this is a portrait of an actual family bares no significance on your visceral experience. Who are these people to me?

A mother sits outside on a windowsill, sunlight washing over her and her naked baby in her lap who’s looking up, playing, reaching for what looks like a prismatic glass wind chime overhead. After a moment, you notice the father isn’t just relaxing with the fam, but rather, he is pressed against the other side of the glass, arms superhero-fit and spread apart, gazing down at his child through the glass. To make matters all the more peculiar, you realize that the window is actually open, and the father is clearly standing on the other side of the glass-that-shouldn’t-be-there. You then start to wonder about the wind chime, whether it’s not in the foreground, whether the child is actually reaching for the father, and the wind chime is actually a spaceship in the background—the other outside. It appears to be hovering, after all.

Among this other outside are cubical renderings of the Hollywood Hills. There is an abstract soupiness to the atmosphere contrasting the anatomically correct, masterfully-drafted figures. Obvious parallels to the holy family are made all the more obvious by the empty-tomb-looking feature behind the father. But then again, nothing in the scene suggests a recognizable period of linear time, so this couldn’t be a “modern” interpretation of the holy family. The father, isolated in a kind of parallel universe, appears more like a glimpse of Nietzsche’s “Overman,” like an interdimensional holy family wherein time and space are playing by an entirely new sets of rules. A glimpse into the future?

… and you ask yourself, “When am I?”

Setting:

Los Angeles in the Roaring 20s. The First World War has ended. The First Red Scare winds down. What now? Rampant disenchantment regarding the progression of civilization combined with a booming population. The prohibition of alcohol. The rise of bootlegging, speakeasies, automobiles, pollution. The discovery of underground oil fields. Rampant police-politician-mafia corruption. Flappers, the New Woman, the 19th Amendment passes. The rise of the Motion Picture Commission and subsequent censorship. Regional bohemianism. The first use of restrictive covenants in real estate history enforces the segregation of African-Americans to mostly the South Central corridor. The port of LA surpasses San Francisco as the West Coast’s busiest seaport. Population demands outgrow local resources as the once alluvial LA River no longer supplies enough water, and as a result, total reliance on the LA Aqueduct, the ongoing California Water Wars, and a rapidly dried-up Owens Valley (see Edwin Roscoe Shrader’s illustrations and article on the aqueduct in Scribner’s, May 1912; or better yet, see the movie Chinatown, 1974; or better yet, see Peter Bo Rappmund’s Psychohydrography, 2010, @1:07) ...

And yet even with the soil malnourished and progressively paved over with petroleum products and concrete, there remained one resource creatively reactive, perhaps even enriched, inspired, enlivened by the unwavering transformation happening all over Southern California, and that was the modern spirit of the city’s multiplicity of art movements, several of which converged throughout the decade in the hands of eight artists.

The Group of Eight, to be exact—the focus of the Modern Spirit exhibition running through Oct. 7 at the Laguna Art Museum—comprised of Mabel Alvarez (1891-1985), Luvena Buchanan Vysekal (1873-1954), Edouard Antonin Vysekal (1890-1939), Edwin Roscoe Shrader (1878-1960), Henri Gilbert De Kruif (1882-1944), John Hubbard Rich (1876-1954), Donna Schuster (1883-1953) and Clarence Hinkle (1880-1960), all of whom proved themselves uniquely prepared and willing to propel the art form into novel territory of expression on the canvas.

The young Los Angeles was new territory for the artists of the Group of Eight. Only Clarence Hinkle was California-born, and not in LA. The rest came from all over the US (except for Edouard, born in Bohemia, Czech Republic), with influences ranging from commercial advertisement illustrations to various impressionistic schools of technique, to plein-air. They trained and taught in—and in some cases founded—art schools like the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Pennsylvania Academy, the School of Illustration and Painting, Los Angeles School of Art and Design, Chouinard School of Art, and Otis Art Institute. By chance/fate/free will they made it to LA and joined, became presidents of—and, again, in some cases founded—groups like the California Water Color Society, California Art Club, California Progressive Group, Modern Art Workers, Art Students League, and the Laguna Beach Art Association. Bohemians and bourgeois professionals alike, they supported each other’s experimental adventures throughout the decade, advocating for modernism through exhibitions held all over the city, culminating in a 1927 show at the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art.

Thanks to curator Susan M. Anderson, several pieces from that show have been brought back together for Modern Spirit, including O’er Waiting Harp Strings (1922 @3:21) by Schuster, The Aesthete (1925 @3:18) by Luvena Vysekal, Figure in Shadows (1927 @3:48) by Edouard Vysekal, Summer Morning (1921 @3:34) by Shrader, and of course, arguably the most famous of Hinkle’s portraits, Gjura Stojana (1925 @4:04).

From the start, what set the Group of Eight apart from many of their contemporaries were the individually unique variations of innovative experimentation explored throughout the group. Emulation was the furthest thing from their forte; they sought something new, a certain fluidity of style, and the creative freedom needed to get there. In 1922, E. Vysekal designed an emblem for the group, which was an illustration of a tree with eight limbs, and at the end of each limb was a hand holding a paintbrush. The emblem signifies both their individuality and a connecting force through the implicit power of nature (i.e., the tree).

In response to their first show that same year, Antony Anderson, art critic for the Los Angeles Times, remarked on their distinctive support for individuality:

“It is to be presumed that the group of eight have some fundamental theories of art common to the group, since they coalesce as a club of painters, but if any member suddenly decides to fly off on a tangent for our mystification and delight, it is again presumed that [she or] he is given perfect liberty to do so.”

Liberty meant never settling for the well-trodden path of the dominant trends of the day (e.g., plein air realism and naturalist landscapes), but it also meant never embracing modernism for the sake of embracing modernism. It meant embracing the freedom to explore unique expressions formed in the pairing of old conventions—like realistic portrayals of the human form—and new techniques, like Stanton MacDonald-Wright’s synchromist color theories; the freedom to dynamically and without allegiance to any one trend respond to a society in the midst of an unprecedented transformation.

Each of the artists in the Group of Eight responded in whatever ways felt right, from the more experimental work of E. Vysekal (Figure in Shadows, 1927 @3:48) and Schuster (Stream in Yosemite, 1928 @3:57), to the less abstract works of Shrader (Summer Morning, 1921 @3:34) and Rich (The Brass Bowl, 1922 @4:00)—all of whom taught at Otis Art Institute, where a wide range of techniques were encouraged but tempered by an emphasis on the pursuit of beauty and truth.

“Our main desire is the molding of character and we feel that this aim can be accomplished through an inculcation of a sense of values in color and form and through the appreciation of beauty in its various transformations,” said Shrader in 1923, followed by words that deserve to be put in bold based on how relevant they remain 90 years later:

“In these days of stress and hurry, I sometimes think that too little emphasis is laid on the necessity for ‘good form’—not only in the world of art, but in government, religion, industry and our social organizations.”

The three women in the Group of Eight reflect the manifestation of some of this “good form.” Donna Schuster—who, like Rich, studied under Edmund Tarbell and Frank Benson at the School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, before accepting a teaching position at Otis— Mabel Alvarez, and Luvena Vysekal, each in their own right represented the quintessential New Woman of the 1920s. Frankly speaking, these women owned it. Thirty years before television programs normalized the 1950s housewife stereotype, Schuster, Alvarez, and Luvena exhibited widely, sold work to collectors and museums, moved freely between the bourgeois circles of the California Art Club and the bohemian groups in the Southland alike.

Of the three, however, Schuster was by far the most free-spirited and independent (and tragically died the youngest when a canyon brushfire consumed her home and she reportedly went back inside to rescue her dog). Her oil painting O’er Waiting Harp Strings (1922 @3:21) shows a woman playing the harp, leaning into the instrument, becoming one with the instrument, anticipating notes, captured in a rapture of sheer impulse, instinct, passion, longing. It is an immediate shift in attitude compared to conventional portraits of women playing the harp from the 19th century and earlier, wherein the harp operators appear passionless, machine-like, more focused on perfect posture than the plucking of audible magic. In O’er Waiting Harp Strings, the magic that the woman’s locked into plays out in the juxtaposition of yellow and violet built up with long brushstrokes, creating a rainbow effect of synesthesia harmonics.

Like Schuster, Alvarez never married. Her painting In the Garden—spotlighted previously on Patch with depicts a 1920s flapper, as does Luvena’s Esther (1928 @3:36). Both of the women depicted are sullen, although Luvena’s strikes you as less self-assured—perhaps with good reason?—casting a silent gaze of worry that undermines her bright pink blush. Pink that is “pink” to the point and “bright” to the point of satire.

In 1922 and 1923 Luvena wrote a series of character sketches of prominent artists in Los Angeles, published in the Los Angeles Times under the pen name Benjamin Blue. They were widely read. She wrote of the free-spirit Schuster as “emitting effulgence of exuberance that exhausts the onlooker.” She wrote of Alvarez:

“A swarthy young woman, smudgy black hair, soft, smoldering eyes, full, warm, sensitive mouth; lithe and straight, and with it all, so restrained, so shy, so proper, so retiring, so considerate, so altogether nice.”

Alvarez, who like Schuster never married, was also a writer in her own right (albeit self-published). Her diaries and journals have been invaluable in piecing together this complex history. What she wrote about the opening of their climactic 1927 show reveals a glimpse of the support shared between members of the Group of Eight; support with an emphasis on the individual’s journey of liberation to discover their own unique something. Alvarez wrote:

“Reception for Group of Eight … Pretty tired after it. Hinkle and Riches to supper. Showed Clarence my last little still lifes etc. Said I had something all my own—no one else could paint that way & to hang onto it.”

Luvena’s own unique something was her carnivalesque wit found in her writings and some of her paintings, particularly The Aesthete (1925 @3:18), which is a deliberately over-the-top portrayal of a gay male (possibly the celebrated screen actor of the silent era, William Haines, who was often referred to as “the Aesthete”), dressed in a Japanese kimono, holding a colorful fan in one hand and, with less-than-subtle theatrics, a single iris in the other. It has been said this painting reflects Luvena’s criticism of MacDonald-Wright’s synchromist color theories; criticism that is all the more blatant through the voice of Benjamin Blue:

“’Synchromie Cosmique’ is one of his favorite dishes for breakfast, and he dotes on ‘thematic romanticism.’ He and Cézanne, you know started the whole thing a going, only Cézanne lacked the ‘broadly philosophic mind’ to ‘dynamically organize’ the ‘specific exterior’ in its ‘absolute finality,’ therefore he can’t be called the papa of synchromism, just its uncle. Even so, it should be emotionally gratifying.”

With her usual, pointed jocularity, Luvena voices her disenchantment with MacDonald-Wright’s color theories for the entire Los Angeles Times readership to dissect. Those theories may have aided in her progression as an artist, but they were no destination for Luvena. Perhaps she felt wary of those theories one day defining her work—or anyone’s work besides MacDonald-Wright, really. Perhaps she saw the perpetual fragmentation of the arts in a broader context, and could then see MacDonald-Wright’s contribution for what it was: a contribution, another fragment.

John Hubbard Rich, who like Luvena experimented with synchromist color theories, agreed. In 1921, he may or may not have suggested to art critic Antony Anderson that MacDonald-Wright was—and/or his devout followers—a “faddist”:

“Modern art is the product of painters of the present day and not just of the extremists, who are the faddists in all lines, the styles which they produce will not last. The true and the beautiful will always be lasting in art, and the creation of these two qualities in lasting form is the true mission of art.” This emphasis on the “true and the beautiful” corroborates the group’s emblem of a tree with eight branches that turn into hands holding paintbrushes, for the tree is the true and the beautiful, that which will always be lasting, a unifying energy.

Everyone in the Group of Eight responded to the transformation of Los Angeles, and society in general, in their own ways. Some challenged the ascendancy of a theory (new and old) and each other, others reflected the transformation through the subjects of their work. For instance, Hinkle’s portrait of the young, brooding, world traveler Gypsy, sculpture, muralist, living testament to the bohemian subculture, Gjura Stojana (1925 @4:04). And many decided to jump ship and set up camp somewhere less developed, closer to nature, more beautiful. Places like Laguna Beach.

Hinkle and his wife built a home and studio in Laguna in 1922. In 1926, Schuster acquired a second studio-home off Thalia Street, which she dubbed “the Pill Box.” De Kruif too, who won a competition in 1919 to design the Laguna Beach Art Association’s first emblem, lived and worked off Magnolia Street for a time.

The only member of the Group of Eight who focused only on landscape, De Kruif infused his work with symbolist expressions that mirrored his interest in spiritual ideas and meditation. A Song to Autumn (1924-1925 @3:54)—made during the same winter he lived inside a thatched hut in the California desert—depicts a nude woman standing at the edge of a pond or lake, her feet hidden beneath the reflective surface. Similar to E. Vysekal’s The Herwigs (1928 @3:08), the painting suggest a transcendent realm that parallels the physical world, as the reflections in the water reveal a landscape beyond the viewer’s field of vision (i.e., the top of the painting). The scene also substantiates a belief held by many—if not everyone—in the Group of Eight, and that is the power of nature to restore harmony, not just to the Earth, but to the artist’s perception of/relation with/feelings about nature.

“The truth of what the artist feels about nature,” said De Kruif, “is of more significance than what he sees objectively.” Clarence Hinkle agreed when, in 1944, he professed, “art is not copying nature, but what you make out of nature.”

The Aristotelian view that art takes nature as its model, imitates nature, and completes its deficiencies was under serious review by the Group of Eight—all modernist artists, really. Is art merely about the imitation of nature, or is it about the expression of the self/soul/spirit/feeling world of the mind and heart—the search for one’s own truth?

In floral works like Mabel Alvarez’s Flowers (1928 @3:06) and L. Vysekal’s Floral Still Life (1925 @4:09), nature scenes like E. Vysekal’s A Figure in Shadows (1927 @3:45), Schuster’s Stream in Yosemite (1928 @3:57), and De Kruif’s The Organ at Red Rock Canyon (1926 @3:43), the works are as much about relating to nature as they are about longing for nature as they are about the artist’s ongoing evolution. It was this balance that separated the Group of Eight from other modernists less accepted by the Los Angeles art scene, such as (you guessed it) MacDonald-Wright, who was considered by many art critics to be an insane iconoclast.

Returning to Anderson’s review of the Group of Eight’s first show, it’s no surprise that he announces the legitimacy of their influence while half-apologizing for the more extreme experimentations:

“We may therefore expect many and diverse things from the Group of Eight, who seem to announce that they are in the very vanguard of progress, waving a wet red paint rag in our faces. Iconoclasts, some of them, but still sane enough for serious consideration.”

It’s interesting to note that in 1914, before most of the Group of Eight moved to Los Angeles, John Hubbard Rich wrote to Anderson in a letter announcing his return to the west coast, “I am a firm believer in the future of Southern California as an art center, and I expect to see many changes …”

Needless to say, Rich got what he envisioned, and then some.

Setting:

Shortly after the Group of Eight’s last show, the stock market crashes. Hinkle and his wife sojourn in Europe for over a year while the onslaught of the Great Depression infects everything. Food shortages. Record unemployment. Increased hostility towards immigrants. Old Chinatown is demolished to make room for Union Square. Eleven thousand people of Mexican descent are forced to deport from Los Angeles with no due process in an effort to save money, saving no money in the process. The Tenth Olympic Games at the Coliseum. Continued police-politician-mafia collusion. A Second World War. The Battle of Los Angeles? Japanese Internment camps. A series of massive floods. The Army Corps of Engineers channelizes the LA River, encasing the river’s bed and banks in concrete. As a city, Los Angeles continues to fragment further and further, never without a multitude of artistic responses to the Southern California experience.

That last one would probably be seen as a positive by the Group of Eight, for if they had their realized ideal, there would be no fewer paths of expression than there are artists seeking a path. In the meantime, life moved on as it always does, just as you move on from the Modern Spirit exhibition …

[Stay tuned for Part 2, being posted early next week.]

The exhibitions of Modern Spirit and the Group of Eight, Clarence Hinkle, and Peter Bo Rappmund run through October 7th, 2012 at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive. 949-494-8971; www. lagunaartmuseum.org. Click here for information on a walk through of the ex•pose exhibition with Peter Bo Rappmund on September 16th.

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