The predominance of landscape painting in the California art scene during the late 19th and early 20th centuries nearly eclipsed another major genre. This summer, the Santa Barbara Museum of Artís exhibition Focus on the Figure: Southern California Artists (1850-1950), on view August 11- November 11, gives well-deserved prominence to the achievements of figurative painters and their struggle for acceptance in the Southland.
Almost all the figurative artists who gathered in the artistic communities of southern California during that time had studied in Eastern and European academies which stressed the primacy of the figure. Arriving in California, they faced two challenges in the south, the dominance of landscape and the proscription of the nude. Conservative elements in southern California society opposed both studying the undraped figure from life and depicting the bare body in art. To counter the public censorship which inhibited figurationís advancement, Hanson Puthuff began a class in his studio for male artists only to draw from the nude. These sessions evolved into the Art Students League of Los Angeles.
Despite obstacles, the increasing importance of the Art Students League helped figurative artists to persevere in the 1910s. The arrival of Impressionists from the East Coast and from Europe who believed in painting the figure encouraged the growth of Impressionist figure painting in the south.
In 1915 American and European artists showed numerous figurative pictures, including nudes and portraits, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition (PCE) in San Diego. Most southern California painters submitted landscapes to the PPIE, except for Donna Schuster, John Rich, Helena Dunlap, and Clarence Hinkle entered figural works. Hinkle painted one of the finest figurative images that year, a scene with a figure dressed in a Chinese costume.
In contrast to the PPIE, half of the paintings at the PCE by southern Californians were portraits and figures, and included works by Mabel Alvarez, Rich, Boris Deutsch, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and Ejnar Hansen. In 1915 for the first time portraits equaled the number of landscapes accepted at the annual exposition of the California Art Club (CAC) at the Los Angeles Museum. Figuration went on to receive further acknowledgment between 1915 and 1919, when the Los Angeles Museum mounted individual shows for Guy Rose, Rich, Schuster, Dunlap, and Edouard Vysekal.
The advance of Modernism in the late 1910s was also a great catalyst to the California figure painters. Several women were at the forefront of the modernist figure painters including Dunlap and Henrietta Shore who co-founded the Modern Art Society. In 1920 Macdonald-Wright organized an exhibition of works influenced by Synchromism. For Macdonald-Wright, the figure became an instrument through which he examined the expressive qualities of color and explored eastern philosophy. In Yin Syncrhomy, No. 2 (1928), he tested his theory that yellow symbolized the passive, negative feminine principle (yin), whereas the blue-violet of the cat-like animal stood for the powerful, positive masculine force (yang) in the universe.
On a regional level, in the 1920s, the Santa Barbara School of the Arts (1920-1938) was one of several schools in the Southland to promote the figure. Under Archibald Dawson, its department of sculpture achieved national attention when he taught a class in bronze casting using the cirť perdu (lost wax) process. Two sculptures in Focus on the Figure, Donal Hordís Stand and Bowl (1926-1927) and Dying Warriors (1927), were created under his direction.
The advent of abstraction together with other aesthetic trends following World War II precipitated a retreat from both landscape and figuration. These events in turn led to a disregard for the formative period of representational California art. A renewed interest in representation occurred in the late 1970s, yet until now, curators and collectors alike have concentrated chiefly on California's landscape painting heritage.