An important collection of works by American modernist painter Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938) is the crown jewel of Stetson University’s Permanent Art Collection. The collection, a bequest from the artist’s daughter Vera Bluemner Kouba (1903-1997), includes over one thousand pieces in varied media as well as important archival materials. The first major exhibition of the collection at Stetson, Oscar Bluemner: A Daughter’s Legacy -- Selections from the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection (January 23 – March 28, 2004), was held in Stetson’s Duncan Gallery of Art. This exhibition played an important role in rehabilitating the artist’s reputation as “the best underknown American artist of the first half of the twentieth century” (Richard Kalina, in Art in America, January 2006). When the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City mounted the major retrospective Oscar Bluemner: A Passion for Color (October 7, 2005 – February 12, 2006) the artist’s critical role in the formation of American modernism was clearly established.
The Homer and Dolly Hand Art Center, dedicated in 2009, now provides permanent archival storage space, facilities for scholarly study of the collection, and a gallery for regular rotating exhibitions of the works of Oscar Bluemner. In addition to the major lead donation from Homer and Dolly Hand, support for the building was provided by a grant from Volusia County ECHO.
Born and trained as an architect in Germany, Oscar Bluemner came to the United States in 1892 and worked on the creation of the World's Colombian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. By 1911 he had largely abandoned architecture in favor of painting, and had embraced the modernist spirit which he found at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, known as "291". There Alfred Stieglitz preached the gospel of modern art to what Steven Watson described as "a small congregation united by a collective faith (that)...the creative process was emotional rather than rational, intuition was more important than technical mastery, profound subjectivity was akin to spirituality, art provided the means to regenerate society."
A trip to Europe in 1912 brought Bluemner into contact with the major currents of emerging modernism including Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, German Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism. In Germany he exhibited his paintings at the Gurlitt Gallery, which had just hosted the first Berlin exhibition of the German Expressionist movement Die Brücke. Back in the United States his works appeared in the most controversial and ground-breaking modernist exhibitions of the time: the Armory Show of 1913 and the Forum Exhibition of 1916. Stieglitz featured his work in solo exhibitions at "291" in 1915 and in the Intimate Gallery in 1928. He was included in the first Whitney Biennial in 1932. Other dealers, including Stephen Bourgeois, J.B. Neumann, and Marie Harriman gave him one-man shows from time to time, and avant-garde critics and fellow artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove responded enthusiastically to his work, but he was never commercially successful in his life-time. His unworldly devotion to his art probably mingled with anti-German sentiment during and after World War I to keep the artist struggling near poverty level, and in late middle age the Depression added to his plight. He kept barely afloat with the help of employment on the Public Works of Art Project sponsored by the WPA, but deteriorating health and intensifying problems with his eyesight led to increased despondency. In 1938 he took his own life.
Bluemner's profound personal sensitivity to color and his conviction that the primary purpose of art was the communication of feeling was reinforced by careful study of artistic and philosophical theories of color ranging from Signac to Goethe. He read and wrote avidly, supplementing his early training in architecture and German philosophical idealism with careful study of the latest scientific and psychological theories about color. Throughout his career Bluemner's art would be distinguished by a remarkable balance of methodical study and passionate emotional expression. Each painting would evolve through a precise series of stages beginning with sketches from nature and moving through carefully annotated black and white and color studies in which the original motive was distilled and transformed in order to produce a final picture of a mood rather than a place. Almost all of the pictures treat the same type of subject: a landscape with buildings, hardly ever inhabited. Like a medieval icon-painter, Bluemner sought to capture the spiritual essence of a subject endlessly recreated. Unlike the icon-painter, he found this essence in a profoundly personal emotion that eventually transmuted the landscape into an intense psychological event. "Since all turns on ego," the artist noted, "landscape...is semi-self portraiture."
Duncan Gallery of Art, Sampson Hall, Stetson University
421 N. Woodland Blvd., Unit 8252 DeLand, FL 32723
Hours: M - F 10 - 4; Weekends 1 – 4
A 96-page, fully illustrated (55 color, 43 b & w) catalog is available.
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