Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gabriel Von Max at the Frye Art Museum

If you act quickly, there is still time to see Gabriel von Max: Be-tailed Cousins and Phantasms of the Soul, which is up until the end of the month.   If you are an art history buff, you need to see this quirky painter from the late 19th and early 20th century.  If you are more of a modern art fan, or not an art person at all, you still should see this show.  I know you are thinking "dry landscapes and still lifes and weirdly dressed old people."  Think again.  Actually, there are plenty of olden-times people, but they are interesting.  I swear.  And there are cool paintings of monkeys.  Everybody likes monkeys.  Best of all, this is all free!  Yes, the Frye Art Museum is always free.  A block away, on Madison, there are a couple of dive bars for post-viewing discussions, so you can make an afternoon of it.

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If you are still reading, I really enjoyed this show.  From afar, this show looks like any other period painting exhibit, but if you look more closely, it gets interesting.  First a little background: the artist, Gabriel von Max, was born in 1940 in Prague.  He studied there and in Vienna and in Munich.  Max settled in Munich and later taught art there.  Max achieved his first critical success in 1867 with the painting "Martyr at the Cross,"which featured a woman on a cross.  That would probably raise eyebrows now, but it certainly did then.

 Gabriel von Max
Studie zur Ein Vaterunser (Study for The Lord’s Prayer), ca. 1887
Oil on canvas  
19 1/8 x 15 3/8 in. (48.5 x 39.0 cm)
The Daulton-Ho Collection

Speaking of women, that is mostly what he painted.  The one man alone in this exhibit was a self-portrait.  Many of his paintings resemble portraits, though the subject matter is more likely to be a saint or the Madonna, than a wealthy contemporary.   Max clearly focused on faces.  The women's faces are smooth and radiant, almost glowing at times.  As shown here, they were often looking heavenward.  Unlike the picture here, many of the faces had a deathly pallor.  Some even have a greenish tint to them.  So he is sending some mixed messages here, but he seems a bit modern.  Once you glance away from the faces, the style changes.  The clothes and the backgrounds border on impressionistic, and some of the women's hands were just poorly executed.  I am thrown back into art school struggling to make hands that did not look like bird talons.  Clearly it was not just me who had problems.

Gabriel von Max
Untitled, n.d.
Oil on canvas
14 3/16 x 11 1/8 in. (36.0 x 28.3 cm)
The Daulton-Ho Collection
It is easy to understand the eerie lighting, dark tones, and sometimes unusual subject matter when you learn that Gabriel von Max was into the occult.  He was interested in both of what he called the two sciences.  They were the natural and the spiritual worlds.  Max was a member of Munich's Psychological Society, which investigated the paranormal.

Gabriel von Max was also fascinated with anthropology. He studied native American cultures, even dressing his family in native garb and photographing them.  Some of these photographs are part of the exhibit in the back part of the museum.  There are lots of drawings, photographs, and personal artifacts back there.

The second gallery up front shows works from after 1900.  Max seemed to have lightened up a bit, or at least his art did.  The paintings are more colorful, and the figures look slightly more alive.  Finally, in the third gallery: monkeys!  Gabriel von Max studied and followed Darwinism, so he kept and painted monkeys.  These paintings are amazing character studies and allegories, commenting on human behavior, sometimes pointedly.  Though they were pets when alive, he dissected the monkeys after they died.

 Gabriel von Max
Der Vivisektor (The Vivisector), 1883
Oil on canvas
39 ¾ x 65 ¾ in. (101 x 167 cm)
Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, Munich, on permanent loan to the St├Ądtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau, Munich, inv. no. FH 551  
Throughout his life, Max was outspokenly opposed to the practice of vivisection (dissection of living animals), that was common at the time for scientific research.  A famous painting, The Vivisector comments on this (seen above).  He depicts a contemplative doctor with Lady Justice standing behind him.  Her scales contain a brain and a heart, with the heart weighing heavier.  Max died in 1915 in Munich.

I like the Frye Museum, and I thank Jamie for taking me here the first time.  It is an attractive building, most recently remodeled and expanded in 1994 by Rick Sundberg of Olson Sundbeg Kundig Allen Architects of Seattle.  The museum started from the collection of Charles and Emma Frye who made a fortune in Seattle business and were avid art patrons and collectors.  The Fryes tried to give their collection to the Seattle Art Museum, but their stipulation that the collection always be available without charge was a main reason the museum refused the donation.  So they left the collection to the people of Seattle.  The museum was started in 1952 and has accumulated other art work to supplement their collection.  Right now, a selection of these works is exhibited in the back room, salon style, stacked on top of each other filling all four walls.  It is a great way to compare art styles and subjects.  Though these works tend to be from the same period, late 19th and early 20th century, the museum has many temporary exhibits from different time periods.  Many of their shows are contemporary.  In 2012, the museum will have shows with the work of Isaac Layman-Paradise, Li Chen, and Susie J Lee.  I look forward to future exhibits at this remarkable museum in First Hill.

(artwork images courtesy of Frye Art Museum)

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