We are pleased to share the following excerpt from Piri Halasz’s review of Arthur Bowen Davies: Painter, Poet, Romancer & Mystic, posted on her blog, (An Appropriate Distance) From the Mayor’s Doorstep, on April 13, 2012.
RE-UNITING HUMPTY DUMPTY
Arthur B. Davies has long puzzled me. In grad school, I learned that he’d been one of “The Eight” painters whose “radical” 1908 group show at the Macbeth Gallery ushered in 20th century American art. I also learned that he’d played a major role in organizing the original (and more genuinely radical) Armory Show of 1913, but the paintings by him that I saw in the histories of American art, of pretty-pretty nudes in fantasy landscapes, sometimes accompanied by unicorns, made him look like a cross between the later & more academic Pre-Raphaelites and French Salon painters like Puvis de Chavannes. In other words, he seemed like Humpty Dumpty, who had somewhere along the line fallen off a wall and broken into two halves, one dedicated to modernist theory and the other to retardataire practice. Hence, my surprise and delight at the group of 16 small to very small paintings by Davies assembled in one of Spanierman’s similarly small but ornately furnished viewing rooms at the back of the gallery. The works on display are all moderately to very informal paintings, most more like studies for larger paintings or sketches sur le motif, but in all the oils, the brushwork reveals itself to be looser and more impressionistic than any of the reproductions I’ve seen indicate, more modern in other words (given that in the early years of the 20th century, impressionism was still a moderately recent style).
“The Horn Players” (ca. 1893), a vignette of orchestra musicians, is reminiscent of Manet or Degas its subject & rich, dark tonalities — and closer to the more Old Masterly realists among The Eight, John Sloan and Robert Henri. The decorative, pattern-like “Children Playing” (ca. 1896) reminds me of another and equally modern member of The Eight, Maurice Prendergast. Some of the watercolor Davies studies of the Italian Apennines from the 1920s are yet more faithful to their subjects, offering a breath of fresh mountain air to this otherwise somewhat claustrophobic little gallery, but what I found even more revealing was the “Figures in a Landscape” (ca. 1912). This modest oil, only 23¾ x 28¼ inches, somewhat crudely portrays an orgy-like group of three nude couples in a woodland setting; it reminded me vividly of the small studies of groups of bathers by Cézanne that were so much in vogue among avant-garde artists and collectors in the early years of the 20th century (and which accordingly figure prominently in the current show of “The Steins Collect” at the Met). Even more daring — in concept if not execution – is the “Life Study (Interior)” (ca. 1910), an oil which depicts a standing female nude with faint tints of green in the shadowed parts of her flesh. These suggest to me that Davies had been admiring Matisse, even if he didn’t dare emulate him to the fullest. True, this exhibition also includes paintings that don’t go much beyond 19th century Symbolism, but leaving those aside, its main thrust is to bring together Davies’ avant-garde theory with his actual painting practice, re-uniting the two halves of Humpty Dumpty after nearly a century apart.
Also see the view at www.pirihalasz.com.