November 17, 2011
It’s enough to make you want to start doing the Charleston: A masterpiece of earthenware, a Jazz Bowl by Viktor Schreckengost, has been newly acquired and newly displayed at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. In my view, the Jazz Bowl —several dozen of which were produced—has emerged in the last decade as not only the single finest example of American Art Deco, but as an icon of a new mode of American cultural identity.
Viktor was just 25 years old when he made the first piece at the Cowan Pottery Studio in Rocky River, Ohio, in 1930. One day at the studio’s office when he didn’t have an assignment, as the story goes, he pulled a letter out of a hopper. A woman in New York wanted a punch bowl with a New York theme.
Viktor started by making a plaster mold of the shape—a bold parabolic form. The next challenge was to decorate it. A few months before, he had spent Christmas Eve in New York City, where he was impressed by the skyscrapers, went to Radio City where an organ rose up out of the floor, and took in the music of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club in Harlem. He sketched all these images in a jazzy style. One of the last things he put in was a drum head with the word “Jazz,” which ended up providing a name for the piece.
To achieve his desired effect he developed a novel technique. First he covered the bowl with black engobe—watery clay mixed with glaze. He then scratched out the design, in a pattern of black and white; fired it; then covered the whole bowl with a glaze of “Egyptian Blue”—a sort of radiant turquoise, similar to that of some beads found in Tutankhamen’s tomb. He then fired it again. The result was richly decorative, since the irregular scratching of the design created a kind of glow, almost like stained glass. And the Egyptian Blue evoked a feeling he was trying to capture—his recollection of the strange blue light of New York at night.
When it was done, Guy Cowan sent the piece to New York—and promptly heard back that the woman who had commissioned it wanted two more. Only then did Viktor learn that the woman was Eleanor Roosevelt.
After Viktor produced the Jazz Bowls for Roosevelt, Cowan Pottery put it into production. But the company folded in 1931, done in by the Depression. It’s not known exactly how many Jazz Bowls were made, but probably about 50 large ones similar to the original and perhaps as many as 25 of a different design that was less expensive to make, sometimes known as “The Poor Man’s Bowl.” Since the decoration was scratched out by hand the large bowls all differ a good deal in execution. It’s not known what happened to the bowls that were made for Eleanor, although her role in providing the commission is documented in newspaper articles from the 1930s, so I believe that the story is true.
The son of a potter, Viktor Schreckengost was born in Sebring, Ohio, and died in 2008 at the age of 101. (Two of his brothers, Don and Paul, were also major figures in ceramic design.) Viktor was one of the founding figures of modern industrial design in the United States. His credits include the first modern mass-produced American dinnerware, the first cab-over-engine truck, the first inexpensive children’s pedal cars and the first bicycle welded in a single step in an electric brazing chamber—an innovation that cut production cost by 50 percent and was used in some 50 million bicylces. He also designed costumes, stage sets, lighting fixtures and lawn furniture; produced watercolors and oil paintings, many of which won prizes in museum exhibitions, and monumental sculpture, for the Cleveland Zoo and the high school in Lakewood, Ohio; and founded the industrial design program of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught for over 50 years. Among Viktor’s students were the designer of the Ford Mustang. (A museum dedicated to Viktor’s work was scheduled to open in Cleveland this past June, but the debut has been delayed.)
Artworks derive meaning not only from the thought and feeling that the artist put into them, but from where they are placed. There’s poignancy to having a Jazz Bowl in Birmingham, which as everyone knows was the site of one of the most ghastly atrocities of the Civil Rights era, when the Klu Klux Klan placed a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four young African-American girls. But Birmingham is also a city that has gone to great lengths to atone. The art museum has built up an important collection of works by African-American artists, and it’s not far from the Birmingham Civil Rights District, where the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame are located.
In this context, Viktor’s Jazz Bowl has a special resonance. Viktor’s central goal in creating Jazz Bowl was to find a visual analogue to black jazz music. Indeed, he himself was something of a musician (he played the clarinet) and a personal friend of such jazz greats as Art Tatum. Let’s not pretend that this sort of cross-over can be achieved in an absolutely perfect way, based on perfect understanding, or entirely liberated from the cultural norms of a period. Nonetheless, Jazz Bowl marks a significant turning point in American culture, when a white artist could look to black jazz music as a paradigm of great artistic achievement—as something to ardently celebrate, a model for what he hoped to achieve in the visual arts.
In short, Jazz Bowl marks step toward a new kind of cultural conversation—one that needs to be continued further. What’s more, it’s stunningly beautiful. It’s something not to be missed.
October 14, 2011
The robber barons loved the portraits of the 17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals, and nowhere did these barons congregate so thickly as in New York. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has this country’s largest collection of paintings by Hals, donated by rapacious financiers who made rivals quake during the early industrial age, such as Collis P. Huntington, Henry Marquand, Benjamin Altman, H. O. Havemeyer and Jules Bache. Stroll across 5th Avenue and you can see more Frans Hals paintings in the Frick collection, amassed by the ruthless Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Clay Frick.
The Metropolitan recently gathered its impressive holdings of Hals paintings into a sort of mini-blockbuster exhibition. Organized by Walter Liedtke, the museum’s curator of Dutch art, the show contained 13 portraits, two from private collections. There are also a few works formerly attributed to Hals, and by his contemporaries, that set his achievement in context. The show is loosely divided between early exuberant works by Hals, such as the Merrymakers at Shrovetide (circa 1616) and Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart (1623), and the later, more sober portraits, which sometimes have an introspective, even brooding quality reminiscent of Rembrandt.
What’s So Great About Frans Hals?
As a painter, Hals made two great contributions. One was to combine an intense sense of realism with flamboyant brushwork—which gives his work a highly personal quality. When we stand at a distance the image seems “real”: but when we’re close all we see is gestural marks, made by the human hand. At a sort of middle distance there’s a moment when the two modes of seeing precariously coexist, or at which one mode of seeing shifts into the other. The “real” and the “abstract,” the “objective” and the “subjective,” interact with each other in endlessly fascinating ways.
Hal’s other contribution is to fill his paintings with evident psychological intensity, the quality known as “psychological insight.” His figures feel as if we could speak to them.
There are many tricks that Hals used to create this effect, including his dashing brushwork, which gives mobility to the muscles of the face, as if the figures were alive. Another fascinating trick was also used by Rembrandt. Hals recognized that the human face has two halves and the expression on one side differs subtly from the expression on the other. Particularly in his late work, Hals exploited this effect in a dramatic way: the two sides of the face are two slightly different people. The lighted side portrays the sitter’s “public self,” and the shadowed side the “private self”—generally somewhat sadder and more thoughtful, perhaps with an eye that wanders a bit and looks out of focus. Without even being conscious of this difference, we respond to it. Because a portrait by Hals reveals not a single but a divided self, the act of looking at a Hals painting is one of penetrating through the surface presentation of the figure to the inner person.
It’s surely no accident that Hals’s life (1580-1666) overlapped with that of Shakespeare (1564-1616), and the way he evoked a sense of character provides interesting parallels to the characters in Shakespeare’s plays who are generally two or more people in one body, engaged in internal dialogue. In that sense, Hals’s portraits document the emergence of the modern self: they display a new awareness that the “self” is not a single, uniform thing, but the product of conflicting forces and disparate impulses, ruled by a consciousness filled with self-doubt.
I suspect that the robber barons’ fondness for Hals has something to do with this psychological penetration. Success in business depends on an accurate assessment of the person across the bargaining table, and this assessment often depends not only on what is presented on the surface but on facial expressions and gestures that reveal deeper, hidden motives. Is this person telling the truth? Will he double-cross me? Can I trust him? One might add that the rich brown palette of a Hals’ portraits fits nicely in the dark cave-like interiors of the gilded age.
Where to See Frans Hals
After the Metropolitan Museum, the largest collection of Hals in this country is that of the National Gallery in Washington, with an impressive cluster of portraits, most of them assembled by the industrialist Andrew Mellon. But perhaps the best way to get into the Hals spirit is to see his work in the actual home of a robber baron.
Two of these settings come to mind. One is the Frick collection in New York, already mentioned, in a mansion designed by Carriere and Hastings for Henry Clay Frick. The other is at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati, the home of Charles P. Taft, the brother of Supreme Court Chief Justice and U. S. President William Henry Taft. (It has a remarkable group of works not only by Hals but by two other top figures in the art of portraiture, Rembrandt and John Singer Sargent, including the latter’s wonderfully nervous Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson, showing the author in a wicker chair, nursing a cigarette.) Of the Taft Museum’s portraits by Hals, surely the most remarkable are those of a married couple: A Seated Man Holding a Hat and A Seated Woman Holding a Fan. Each is a masterwork, and there’s a delightful interaction between the two.
There are other Frans Hals experiences worth seeking out in the United States.
I always feel a bit wistful when I look at Hal’s Portrait of a Woman at the St. Louis Art Museum, or the Portrait of a Man in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. They’re a couple, but somehow got divorced, and ended up at opposite ends of the state.
Finally, it’s well worth studying the two examples of Hals’s work at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The larger of the two, Tielman Roosterman (1634), is not only one of the artist’s best large-scale portraits but one of the very best preserved. Its condition is near perfect. The other, portraying an unknown woman, has a surface that’s been abraded and rubbed, like a garment that’s gone too many times to the drycleaners. If you study these two paintings you’ll see the distinction between a painting in good condition and one in poor condition, and you can apply this knowledge to every old master painting you encounter.