Bluemner: The Language of Architecture

Bluemner, Stetson University
Oscar Bluemner, Stetson University
Oscar Bluemner, Stendal, 1892, pencil on paper, 12 3/8 x 11 3/4 in.

When Oscar Bluemner immigrated to the United States in 1892 from his native Germany, he carried a medal from Kaiser Wilhelm II for his architectural work as a student – and he carried dreams of becoming a big-time architect in New York.

But, at age 44, Bluemner abandoned architecture for painting. And so he embarked on an up-and-down path that eventually would lead to his recognition as a key American Modernist – and to more than 1,000 of his works being bequeathed by his daughter to Stetson University.

Oscar Bluemner: The Language of Architecture, a new exhibition featuring works from the university’s Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection, runs through Dec. 9 at the Hand Art Center. The exhibit, which includes paintings, charcoal drawings and archival materials, examines the continued significance of architecture in the artwork of Bluemner (1867-1938).

“He didn’t come ill-equipped to painting,” said Roberta Smith Favis, professor emerita of art history at Stetson and curator of the Vera Bluemner Kouba Collection. Bluemner had formal art training before earning his architectural degree from the Royal Technical Academy in Berlin, and the Kaiser’s medal.

Bluemner, Stetson University
Oscar Bluemner, Study for High Noon (Hillside, New Jersey), 1924, watercolor on paper, 4 7/8 x 6 ½ in.

When an unscrupulous partner cheated Bluemner out of both credit and payment for a major design project in New York in 1911, he became disillusioned by architecture and took up painting.

“Bluemner was incredibly talented,” Favis said. “He maybe had to learn some of the technical aspects of painting, but he had all the skills to bring to bear.”

Bluemner Language of Architecture, Stetson UniversityBut Bluemner didn’t abandon his love of architecture.

“Although he concentrated on landscape painting, he rarely chose vistas without buildings,” Favis said. “He didn’t go off and paint the wilderness or the skyscrapers. He anointed the places in between, the old canals, farmland, suburban and industrial places – things not thought of as glamorous but sort of the landscape of the common man.”

Bluemner’s stature had “gone up and down,” Favis said. He exhibited in the renowned Armory Show in 1913 and the first Whitney Biennial, “but he had little to no financial success.” He garnered little attention from his death in 1938 to the early 21st century.

His daughter Vera Bluemner Kouba retired with her husband to DeLand in the 1970s. She bequeathed her collection of more than 1,000 of her father’s works to Stetson following her death in 1997. A major exhibit in 2005 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, featuring works from the Stetson collection, helped revive Bluemner’s reputation.

“Bluemner is now widely acknowledged as a key player in the creation of American artistic Modernism alongside better-known colleagues such as Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin,” Favis said.

By Rick de Yampert

On Sept. 13, Favis will present on this exhibit at 7 p.m. at the Hand Art Center. Her lecture will elaborate on Bluemner’s architectural career, his mid-life decision to abandon architecture for painting, and his subsequent use of architectural motifs and methods in his paintings. This event is free and open to the public.