“Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis” at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia

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Peter Blume, Vegetable Dinner (1927), oil on canvas, 25-1/4 x 30-1/4″; courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

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There is no place better suited to pondering the attractions and limitations of eccentricity than Philadelphia—at least, during this past fall and into the new year. The city hosted three retrospectives of painters whose oeuvres generate interest less through a command of the medium than through a strident emphasis on (or indulgence in) idiosyncrasy. The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania mounted “Dear Nemesis; Nicole Eisenman, 1993–2013,” while the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts presented “David Lynch: The Unified Field” and “Peter Blume: Nature and Metamorphosis.” While each artist can claim a degree of material proficiency, the true litmus test for oddballs is visionary authenticity. Eisenman’s jaded symbolism rarely transcends hipster pastiche, while Lynch’s true métier is film: not one of his mixed-media grotesqueries has the queasy magnetism of Blue Velvet. Blume, however, is a different creature altogether. Even the blandest picture seen in “Nature and Metamorphosis” exposes Eisenman and Lynch as pikers. Blume (1906–92) was the real thing.

Those with a memory that extends beyond the day-glo verities of Pop Art may recall the name Peter Blume and, if so, perhaps dismissively. He’s typically lumped with the Magic Realists, a cadre of mid-twentieth-century painters who pursued Surrealist-inspired imagery with a sobriety that was distinctly American and employed technical finesse that was too fussy by half. They were steamrollered by Abstract Expressionism, of course. Compared to the cinema-scope heroics of the New York School, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Blume looked positively retrograde, what with their Renaissance-like rectitude, unembarrassed deployment of narrative, and dreamy portent. But that was before the advent of Post–Modernism. The subsequent loosening of hierarchies did much to cheapen culture, but it also plucked out of obscurity a host of artists—a handful of them deserving of acquaintance. Walking through the Blume retrospective, I couldn’t help but be relieved that I wasn’t suffering the umpteenth iteration of the received wisdom. At moments, relief was transformed into pleasure. “Nature and Metamorphosis” is, in many ways, an unforgettable exhibition.

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Peter Blume, The Eternal City (1937), oil on composition board, 34″ x 47-7/8″; courtesy The Museum of Modern Art

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Not least because Blume’s pictures can be spectacularly awful. Could even the forgiving embrace of the camp aesthetic welcome Man of Sorrows (1951)? Blume renders a signal moment from the New Testament as if it were a Warner Brothers cartoon, with the requisite exaggerations in form, rhythm, and color; that the image is delineated with finicky expertise makes it all the more brittle. Fobbing off as kitsch Man of Sorrows or, for that matter, Blume’s hallucinatory farmland panoramas from the 1960s doesn’t do justice to their over-the-top vulgarity. Still, if art can’t be redeemed by the artist’s convictions, it can derive power from them, and, whatever else one might say about Blume’s oeuvre, there isn’t a false moment in it. Over the course of fifty-six paintings, some of them real showpieces, and over a hundred drawings, “Nature and Metamorphosis” makes clear the pull of one artist’s preoccupations, and underlines the deliberation and skill with which they were realized. The exhibition is, in pacing and focus, a model of its kind. Credit Robert Cozzolino, the PAFA Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art, for making a strong case for a quizzical artist.

Born Piotr Sorek-Sabel, Blume immigrated to the United States from Belarus on the initiative of his father who sought to avoid imprisonment for participating in the anti-Czarist revolution of 1905–07. Growing up in the East New York section of Brooklyn, Blume evinced an early interest in art. He studied painting and drawing at the Educational Alliance and the Art Students League, where he struck up a friendship with his fellow student Alexander Calder. By 1924, Blume had rented a studio on 13th Street in Manhattan and became part-and-parcel of the New York scene, encountering an A-list of entrepreneurs, artists, and poets including Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth, Hart Crane, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Malcolm Cowley, and Constantin Brancusi. Blume met with success—Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Alfred H. Barr Jr. were early supporters—as well as controversy. The Eternal City (1937), Blume’s allegorical take on fascism in which Benito Mussolini is pictured as a jack-in-the-box, was castigated for reasons both pictorial and thematic. For every comment on its artistic shortcomings (“plastically dumb”) there was an accusation of political pandering. The Eternal City was eventually acquired by MOMA after having been rejected for display by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.

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Peter Blume, The Italian Straw Hat (1952), oil on canvas, 22-1/4 x 30-3/8″; courtesy The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

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At this date, The Eternal City comes off as so much obscurantist moralism. The same goes for The Rock (1945–48) and Tasso’s Oak (1957–60), rickety parables both. Like a lot of fabulists, Blume was better off keeping things simple. Early pieces like Hyacinth (1925), Pig’s Feet and Vinegar (1927), and Vegetable Dinner (1927) assume a dry pictorial clarity that underplays the uncanny to hypnotic effect. Surrealism comes to the fore in kaleidoscopic dreamscapes like Parade (1929–30) and South of Scranton (1930–31), and eventually succumbs to an increasingly fetishistic attention to detail. All the while, Blume’s drawings take in the Old Masters and Automatism, Brueghel and Bosch no less than Masson and Miró, to impressively contradictory effect. He never took his eye off the natural world—the diminutive Study for Summer (1964) could be mistaken for a Rembrandt sketch—even as the works in oil become increasingly unnatural. The finest of the later paintings is The Italian Straw Hat (1952), a tensely rendered depiction of a room in the artist’s house, which includes, among other things, the title object, a sewing basket, and a Calder mobile. Even the aforementioned paeans to country life are arresting, that is if you can stomach their overripe theatricality, slick facture, and lurid coloration. Scratching one’s head may not be the highest form of aesthetic response, but it’s exactly what “Nature and Metamorphosis” elicits and, in the end, that’s enough to make it a diverting and significant exhibition.

© 2015 Mario Naves

This article was originally published in the February 2015 edition of The New Criterion.

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