Unreal Nature

August 24, 2017

The Moment Passed

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:32 am

… The moment passed, the gallery closed, he turned forty, and the roar of the twenties could be heard in the distance.

Continuing through Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries by Sarah Greenough (2000):

… While [Marsden] Hartley, [Georgia] O’Keeffe, and [Paul] Strand [whose work were featured in 291’s last shows] had made dazzlingly inventive works between 1915 and 1917, in the years immediately thereafter all struggled to find a style, subject matter, and a vision that matched the intensity and originality of their early accomplishments. Stieglitz, perhaps more so than these artists, realized they were just beginning. In June 1917, only two months after the United States declared war on Germany, he closed 291.

Stieglitz recognized the truth that Picabia and de Zayas had articulated: much servile imitation and little true understanding of modernism existed in America, and the country still did not possess a supporting structure to nurture artists like Hartley, Marin, O’Keeffe, or Strand, and allow them to mature. As he asked in 1916: “Is the American really interested in painting as a life expression? Is he really interested in any form of art?” That would be both his question and his challenge in the 1920s.

[ … ]

… Between 1906, when he returned with wife and baby to Paris, and 1914, when he fled before the advancing German troops, Edward Steichen (or “Eduard,” as he was then known) served as the right-hand man for Alfred Stieglitz in his “fight” for modern art at the 291 gallery. Whereas Stieglitz, fifteen years his senior, had risen to international celebrity within photographic circles during the 1890s, Steichen, only twenty-seven when he settled back on the boulevard du Montparnasse, had two things that Stieglitz lacked: he was trained as a painter (as well as a photographer) and he had spent 1900 to 1902 meeting key people in the Paris art world and improving his French.

[line break added] More comfortable in German-speaking countries and unfamiliar with studio jargon, Stieglitz played Dante to Steichen’s Virgil as his ambitions for 291 extended beyond photography to include already established “fine arts.” But the play of power between Stieglitz and Steichen ran in both directions, with Stieglitz holding the purse strings and making the final decisions on whether what Steichen proffered would be shown. He also found his own artists, and listened to rival voices offering alternative talents.

Steichen’s exuberant labor for 291 was not merely about promoting advanced art or supporting his starving friends in Paris. It was about making America a better place in which creative people could play a role and be free to express themselves. Like the British socialist H.G. Wells who in 1906 found himself doubting the wisdom and sustainability of unfettered material progress, Steichen turned to Europe to find a culture that valued the spiritual and the beautiful.

[line break added] In 1918, greeted as the saviors of France, Steichen and his countrymen could in contrast feel proud of Yankee courage and technology. The 291 gallery had provided a “cause” for rebel Steichen when he needed it. The moment passed, the gallery closed, he turned forty, and the roar of the twenties could be heard in the distance.

My most recent previous post from Greenough’s book is here.

-Julie

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