Wearing a crisp white shirt and a voluminous, floor-length black skirt, a woman kneels over a floral grey kimono in Alfred Maurer’s 1901 oil painting “An Arrangement.” She sits in a drably-decorated room, populated with two stout, pale blue vases and a beige and brown carpet. The small glimpse of her face that can be seen in her profile shows her solemn expression. One of Maurer’s most renowned works, “An Arrangement” is now on display in “Alfred Maurer: At the Vanguard of Modernism,” a new exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art.
Curated by Susan Faxon, Associate Director and Curator of Art before 1950 at the Addison, and Dr. Stacey Epstein, an independent scholar, “Alfred Maurer: At the Vanguard of Modernism” spans five galleries and includes only one work from the Addison’s permanent collection; all other works are on loan from other institutions.
The first gallery displays Maurer’s early works, and the following rooms highlight Maurer’s evolving artistic style, which included hints of abstraction and fauvism – a style of art characterized by bright colors and bold brushstrokes. Together, his paintings reflect the general shift in American art toward modernism in that time period.
“[Maurer] is a painter of tremendous skill. People have looked at his subject matter or the intensity of his color and seen him as a painter who changed. I like to say that he is a painter who evolved and connected what he had learnt earlier to what he had began to do later and that it was always about color and composition, about texture and painterliness,” said Faxon.
The focal point of the exhibit’s first gallery, a 1904 painting entitled “Jeanne,” depicts an eponymous blond-haired model. She is swathed in a white, long-sleeve gown, while a wide-brimmed hat with a dead bird attachment rests on her head and the glamorous, finishing touch of feather boa drapes around her neck. Jeanne wears pink blush and bright red lipstick, her lips curled open, ready for the cigarette her left hand holds inches from her mouth.
“‘Jeanne’ is just a tour de force. She is kind of sly and a little bit scary and a little bit crass and a little bit bold. She is smoking a cigarette and that is a daring thing for a woman in 1904 to be doing… [Jeanne] is so dramatic, so when you come into the gallery, we wanted people to be confronted by her,” said Faxon.
Epstein said, “Probably the most controversial piece is the portrait of Jeanne. Because she is such a risqué character and because she was so different to the typical female ideal that the society was used to at that time, she really broke that barrier. I think she also represents that type of figure the artist enjoyed painting, the off-beat characters, the girl with a squint in one eye, someone that had a distinguishing hallmark.”
Four smaller paintings that depict Parisian nightlife surround “Jeanne” in the first gallery. One of these works is “Le Bal Bullier,” which shows a large dance hall that is almost empty, save a few single women and a dancing couple. Lurking beyond the couple in the distance is a man wearing a top-hat with his arms crossed. Brown, white and black dominate the piece, with a hint of red appearing on the dancing woman’s floral hat.
“The four paintings that flank ‘Jeanne’ are night time scenes in Paris that capture the movement and energy. It is almost as if you could hear the music that is playing. For ‘Le Bal Bullier,’ I think that there is just something very mysterious about the panels and the very bizarre man who is standing there. I think the painting is filled with life. In terms of design and muted colors, [‘Le Bal Bullier’] appeals to me,” said Faxon.
Also featured in the exhibition is “Still Life with Pears,” a 1930-31 painting that shows a bowl containing several pears. The bowl rests on a white table, with other bears strewn about the surface. Maurer experimented with cubism in this piece, painting sharp lines and angles and giving the table a flat perspective. An array of colors including pink, grey and lime green fill the background in a mosaic-like pattern.
“[Maurer’s cubist still-lifes] are so inventive. I think he is twisting the way we look at things and the compositions are very sophisticated in the way he divides the paintings.
‘Still Life With Pears’ almost looks like it has a cross in the center and then these objects are floating in the middle. The table looks like it is almost vertical. He’s broken up the space; he’s broken up the perception of what this is,” said Faxon.
“Alfred Maurer: At the Vanguard of Modernism” is on display until July 31, 2015, and the show will travel to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas in the fall of 2015.