BALTIMORE, MD. — Arguably the most stylistically adventurous of the early American Modernists, Max Weber (1881–1961) was a watercolorist, printmaker, sculptor and poet, as well as a painter in oils. A Russian émigré of humble origins, he benefited from enviable artistic training and mounted a celebrated career.
A major figure in American art for much of his life, he is less known today, but is still admired in the art world for introducing the art of the turn-of-the-Twentieth Century European avant-garde to America and for his own restless experimentation with innovative paintings that influenced the development of Modernism in the United States.
His first encounters with Modern art, during a sojourn in Paris, 1905–1909, and his subsequent championing of the avant-garde, are the subject of a focused exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), on view through June 23. “Max Weber: Bringing Paris to New York,” guest curated by preeminent Weber authority Percy North, comprises nearly 40 paintings, drawings and prints by Weber, as well as Henri Matisse and other artists who influenced Weber to transform his painting style from classical figural representations to bold interpretations of Cubism and Fauvism.
Weber was born in Bialystok, Russia, the son of an Orthodox Jewish tailor, and emigrated with his family to Brooklyn when he was 10 years old. Studying at Pratt Institute, he learned theories and practices of design under the inspiring Arthur Wesley Dow, who taught students to see forms in terms of visual relationships rather than as objects. After teaching for a couple of years, Weber saved enough money to spend three years in Europe, most importantly in Paris, where he developed rapidly as a painter in the Modern idiom.
While drawing and painting independently, Weber, like so many others, came under the spell of Paul Cezanne. He viewed a number of the French master’s works and, says North, “appropriated Cezanne’s strategies, including directional brush strokes, tilted planes and ambiguous spaces.”
Attending painting classes taught by Henri Matisse, which he helped organize, Weber’s work reflected an increasing boldness of color and form, as reflected in “My Studio in Paris” of 1907. “The Apollo in Matisse’s Studio” reflects Weber’s eager embrace of and sophisticated application of his teacher’s revolutionary color theories in the predominant pinks and green in the vibrant suggestion of the human form.
Matisse’s Fauvist style — characterized by large flat areas of bright color — and interaction of complementary hues made a lasting impression on Weber.
Meanwhile, his artistic development responded to the experimental Modernism of the circle of the young Parisian avant-garde, including Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay and Pablo Picasso. He became a close friend of the elderly self-taught original, Henri Rousseau. Weber attended the celebrated salons at Leo and Gertrude Stein’s apartment, where he first met Matisse and Picasso, visited museums all over Europe and became familiar with African art. He was, says North, the “most art-historically sophisticated artist of his generation.”
Adds BMA director Doreen Bolger, “These encounters inspired Weber’s artistic explorations, from adopting Matisse’s brilliant arbitrary color harmonies to embracing the formal analysis of Picasso’s early Cubism or the spatial ambiguity of Cezanne’s painting.”
Developing a sophisticated amalgam of all these Modern strategies gave Weber insight and inspiration that lasted throughout 50 years of artistic exploration.
Returning to New York in 1909, Weber brought the first paintings by Picasso and Rousseau to come to America, along with the first reproductions of Cezanne’s paintings to be viewed there, along with the earliest African sculptures seen in the United States. These avant-garde works, along with his own interpretations of Parisian Modernism, revolutionized American art.
The exhibition brings together for the first time Matisse’s notorious “Blue Nude,” 1907, which Leo Stein loaned to the Armory Show and is now in the BMA’s Cone Collection, and Weber’s “Figure Study,” 1911, a direct response to Matisse — and Picasso. A provocatively posed form similar to “Blue Nude” figures prominently in Weber’s “The Bathers,” whose brazen nudes and rugged sensuality call to mind both Matisse’s and Cezanne’s paintings on the same subject. It is a “European-inspired mélange combining the primitivizing impulse of Rousseau and Picasso with the Fauvist coloring and joie-de-vivre sensuality of Matisse,” observes North.
Gallery shows of Weber’s new work drew derision from critics. One critic denounced Weber’s “grotesque profiles, enormous eyes, bodies like disjointed dolls, barbaric patterns in the place of landscapes … and their ugliness is appalling.” Another claimed “No one is going to believe … that nature alone ever made anybody so bad an artist as all this. Such grotesquerie could only be acquired by long and perverse practice.” Nevertheless, Weber persevered, convinced that his Modernist concepts reflected the spirit of the times.
Weber’s still lifes demonstrate the constant invention and reinvention that was his hallmark. An early “Still Life” on view, with bananas, apples and ceramics from a titled perspective, is very much like the Picasso still life he brought back from Paris, “but Weber’s painting is richer in color and heavier in texture, creating a more tactile visual experience,” writes North in the exhibition brochure.
By 1911–1912, Weber began to incorporate Cubist devices into a number of works, although others were essentially primitive or Expressionist. Alfred Stieglitz mounted a Weber show in 1911, and Weber’s solo exhibition at the Newark Museum in 1913 was the first accorded to a Modern artist in an American museum.
For the next few years the Cubist manner predominated, but Weber also assimilated aspects of Futurism into a colorful and dynamic style best remembered today for “Chinese Restaurant” and “Rush Hour, New York,” both 1915, abstract paintings that captured the kinetic energy and fast-moving life of Gotham. (The latter may have been created in response to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” the sensation of the 1913 Armory Show.) As art historian Matthew Baigell has observed, “In contrast with the static nudes and amiable landscapes of his Cezannesque-Cubist work, these paintings exulted in the dynamism of modern life” in New York City.
Another notable Cubist-Futurist work, “Interior of the Fourth Dimension,” an expressively fragmented urban abstraction, suggests both the towering skyline of Manhattan and the hustle, bustle and commotion of life in the big city. Weber described the fourth dimension as “The consciousness of a great and overwhelming sense of space-magnitude in all directions at one time… It arouses imagination and stirs emotion. It is the immensity of all things.”
Having visited Auguste Rodin’s studio in Paris, starting in 1910 Weber worked in sculpture, much of which shows the influence of the venerated Frenchman, as well as African and Central American primitive art. Eventually Weber became one of the first Americans to produce completely nonobjective pieces, relying on angularity and distortion to suggest motion. Most of his 30 sculptures date to 1915.
Although recognized as a pioneer Modernist, Weber refused to exhibit in the Armory Show of 1913, miffed because he was to be limited to only two works. His solo shows in museums and galleries that gave him wide exposure continued to stir harsh attacks from critics, who found his distortions of color and form bewildering and ugly. “Burlesque #2 (Vaudeville),” with its colorful, contorted dancers interlocked on stage under a scraggly American flag, epitomized the Cubist distortions of his radical new style and was ridiculed in the press.
In 1918, Weber began a series of boldly simplified woodcuts, growing out of his long admiration for primitive art. After moving from Manhattan to Long Island in 1921, his paintings became more representational, increasingly involving mood-filled figural compositions, scenes from Jewish life, still lifes and landscapes.
Around this time, Weber’s richly painted compositions of bulky nudes took on some of the stark monumentality of Cezanne’s and Picasso’s work, while his still lifes reflected Cezanne, and he also created dramatic landscapes. By the late 1920s, critics began to praise his work, positioning him as one of the strongest of the progressive artists.
Weber is considered the first American exponent of Jewish imagery, painting over the years numerous heads of rabbis and Judaic scholars and scenes of rituals, thus linking an avant-garde Cubist vocabulary with traditional Jewish themes. Representing a coalescence of his religious background with his Modernist artistic goals, Weber’s Judaic paintings reflect his passionate interest in the meaning of spirituality, communication and gesture.
In the 1930s, moved by social problems at home and abroad, he assumed leadership of the powerful left-wing American Artists’ Congress, and his paintings demonstrated empathy for unemployed laborers and working men on strike. As noted by Catherine Whitney, who curated a superb “Models and Muses: Max Weber and the Figure” exhibition at the Philbrook Museum of Art earlier this year, these works “stand in stark stylistic opposition to contemporary scenes of idealized American workers called for in the deeply nationalistic ‘Paint America’ campaigns of Roosevelt’s New Deal.”
Weber continued to paint a broad range of images in the 1940s and thereafter, characterized by graphic, inventive and even fantastic distortions of subject matter. Emotionally charged and suffused with nervous energy, the mood of his paintings ranged from vividly agitated to happy to melancholy, many on Jewish themes.
The rise of Nazism prompted paintings in which he memorialized European Jews and their culture that was being ruthlessly destroyed. While there were some undertones of Picasso, Weber’s personalized Expressionism, manifested in manipulation of darker colors and contorted forms, invoked the human tragedies that accompanied World War II. Describing his paintings of refugees, he said they were “an expression of my compassion for the unhappy people and particularly the women and children who have had to flee from the Nazi and Fascist hordes.”
Weber received a lot of attention late in his career; in 1945 Life magazine named him the “greatest living artist in America.” Three years later, in a Look magazine survey of museum directors and art critics nationwide to rank top living artists, Weber placed second overall after John Marin.
Like many of his innovative contemporaries, Weber slipped from public view with the onset of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. This intimate exhibition and its catalog go a long way toward reaffirming Max Weber’s standing as one of the most important and influential American artists of the Twentieth Century. As curator North concludes, “Weber’s innovations helped change the landscape of American art, setting the stage for the artistic leaps that are still evolving from those initial experimental works.”
The 34-page exhibition brochure is fully illustrated and features a perceptive essay by North that analyzes Weber’s stylistic explorations and his influence on the course of American art. Published by the BMA, it sells for $5.99, softcover.
The Baltimore Museum is at 10 Museum Drive at North Charles and 31st Streets. For information, www.artbma.org or 443-573-1701.