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Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2008

Legends of Local Art

Exhibiting a Range of Styles

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   Regionalism was all the rage among Midwest artists, especially in the years between the world wars. But in light of "Wisconsin Legendary Artists," a small but worthwhile exhibition focused primarily but not entirely on the first half of the last century, not all art from the Badger State could so easily be defined. The spread in style and content is wide among the paintings and works on paper in the exhibit.

  "Wisconsin Legendary Artists" includes local touchstones such as Robert von Neumann (1888-1976), who taught generations of artists at the old Layton School of Art, UW-Milwaukee and elsewhere. He is represented by The Last of theLot, an expertly hewn etching of lumberjacks whose fluid lines and nuanced shading bear the print of the European old masters' tradition. At least in his etchings, Neumann was Wisconsin's Rembrandt.

  Paul Hammersmith (1857-1937) gained respect for his etchings, including many masterly depictions of familiar Milwaukee settings. His contribution to the show is uncharacteristic: a painting, first of all, and one that at first suggests Holland, where he stayed for a time and drew pictures of the fabled canals. The painting is of a windmill, rendered in fiercely brushed but muted shades of gray, blue and green. Peeping through the tree line in the background, however, is a telltale red Midwest barn. The painting, it turns out, was made in Franksville, Wisconsin, not the countryside near Amsterdam or the Hague.

  German-born Heinrich Vianden (1814-1899) was best known as a landscape painter after settling in Milwaukee, but his previous European catalog included biblical and political scenes representing the Seven Deadly Sins and the failed German revolution of 1848. Mephisto, on display in the exhibit, harkens to that earlier period. Emerging from the dark background is the portrait of an intensely starring figure with a sharply chiseled nose, bristling mustache and angry furrowed brow. Draped around his open collar with its loosened cravat is a scarlet cape. The presentation is low key and untheatrical, a potent manifestation of evil on canvas. More whimsical yet no less artful is the 1964 self-portrait by Karl Priebe (1914-1976) depicting the artist's face surfacing from a swim, rising like a mirage among swirling reflections in a setting where no horizon separates air from water or sky from river.

  During the Great Depression many Wisconsin artists enrolled in Franklin D. Roosevelt's WPA program, which put unemployed painters and writers to work. The Conversation by the WPA's Pryce Evans (1902-1976) is a curious piece, an oil painting dominated by muscled and partly unclothed workmen in an industrial setting, breaking from their labor in an enigmatic pose of intimacy.

"Wisconsin Legendary Artists" also numbers work from many other locally familiar names, among them John Wilde, Owen J. Gromme and Francisco Spicuzza. It runs Sept. 12-Oct. 30 at Landmarks Gallery, 231 N. 76th St.

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